Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, April 2, 2017: “All that matters if feeding the lake.”

I have read  a bit more than half of this first volume of Tolstoy’s Collected Shorter Fiction translated by the Maudes. I think most of these stories are included in the Works, except, as I have mentioned, Hadji Murad and Father Sergius, which were written after these 24 volumes were published.

I had a moment of weakness today when I didn’t want to read my stint of twenty -two or so pages. I wanted instead to read The Silence of Animals by John Gray, which I had bought at Elements, a nearby bookstore, coffee, beer pub place in Biddeford. I’m not sure why I wanted to read John Gray; I had been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a favorite, but saw the Gray and remembered how much I loved his The Immortalization Commission. And I think there is within me a pendulum which is akin to something in Tolstoy, that whenever I really get into something–say Zen Buddhism or Catholicism–then I know at some point I am going to feel a strong desire to read George Orwell or someone such as John Gray. As if to balance out the metaphysical balance in my brain. If I’ve been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis then I will suddenly want to read Henry Miller. Tolstoy was the same way but on a hugely greater scale, which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about writing from Jean Rhys:

“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

I don’t know why that came out so big, but let’s keep it that way. So, on to my mere trickle.

I read up to page 43 of Volume VII of Tolstoy’s Works, or Chapter X of Anna Karenina. I don’t think that yesterday I mentioned that I disagree with Tolstoy’s famous first sentence in Anna Karenina, that happy families are all happy in the same way but unhappy families are unique in their unhappiness. I think it’s the other way around, just as Lewis says in Mere Christianity that all the tyrants and despots have been appallingly the same bores whereas the saints are the ones who have been different (and then remembering Orwell’s all saints should be presumed guilty until proven innocent!).

The pages I have read so far have described how Stepan Arkadyevitch (Anna’s brother) has made his family unhappy by cheating on his wife with his children’s French former governess (consoling himself because he didn’t cheat with her while she lived in the house). We see him try to apologize to his wife, her refusal–this scene is raw and believable–then go on to work. An old friend, Levin, who is in love with Stepan’s wife’s sister, Kitty, comes to visit and Stepan tells him that Kitty is skating from four till five, so then we move on with Levin to go skating with Kitty.

The changes in viewpoint seem effortless and there is the same simple and yet powerful hold on details in the writing. Tolstoy also starts with one of his favorite devices or themes, of a man awaking from a dream; the book begins with Stepan awaking from an entertaining dream and then suddenly realizing his domestic problems. Tolstoy is a master at describing that shift from dream to life and back again.

The other amazing thing is that Anna, the main personage of this book, has still not made an appearance. Her brother has, and his adultery foreshadows hers, but it still amazes me. But then Tolstoy can seemingly do whatever he wants.

Here are some more passages from The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin, who was, I learned tonight, one of John Gray’s teachers.

“Beside Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky, whose abnormality is so often contrasted with Tolstoy’s ‘sanity’, are well-integrated personalities, with a coherent outlook and a single vision. Yet out of this violent conflict grew War and Peace: its marvelous solidity should not blind us to the deep cleavage which yawns open whenever Tolstoy remembers, or rather reminds himself–fails to forget–what he is doing, and why.”

Berlin argues that one of the writers Tolstoy most resembles is Joseph de Maistre, “the Voltaire of reaction.”

“Despite their deep dissimilarity and indeed violent opposition to one another, Tolstoy’s sceptical realism and Maistre’s dogmatic authoritarianism are blood brothers. For both spring from an agonised belief in a single, serene vision, in which all problems are resolved, all doubts stilled, peace and understanding finally achieved. Deprived of this vision, they devoted all their formidable resources, from their very different, and indeed often incompatible, positions, to the elimination of all possible adversaries and critics of it. The faiths for whose mere abstract possibility they fought were not, indeed, identical. It is the predicament in which they found themselves and that caused them to dedicate their strength to the lifelong task of destruction, it is their common enemies and the strong likeness between their temperaments that made them odd but unmistakable allies in a war which they were both conscious of fighting until their dying day.”

And here is the last paragraph of this great essay:

“Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s