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Tolstoy Journal, May 10, 2017: “a reliable man.”

I have read up to page 250 of Volume IX of the Works of Tolstoy, or Chapter XI of Part Seventh of Anna Karenina. On the travel book side I have read up to page 45 of Talks With Tolstoy by Goldenweizer.

What struck me in these pages is how inexorable Tolstoy makes the progress of the novel seem. And how impressed with Anna when he finally meets her at her brother’s insistence. Since Levin is Tolstoy’s alter ego in this novel (though he is in all of them, of course) this is interesting. I will quote a passage to show how well he communicates her virtues, but this also brings up a point I’ve brought up before: which is, why would a woman of Anna’s caliber have married Karenin in the first place? At some point we did get some backstory on this, that it had to do with her aunt who did the matchmaking for money, and maybe Anna was too young to fight it, but there is a question here to me. Is it just that her development of character was made possible by leaving Karenin for Vronsky and then all the rejection by society and the dependence on books? But it is noted earlier in the book how vivacious and witty she is. Anyway, I still think this is a weak link in the book, her marriage with Karenin.

“What Levin now said [in conversation with Anna] was entirely free from the technical formality with which he had talked in the morning. Every word of the conversation with her seemed to be significant. And pleasant as it was to talk with her, it was still pleasanter to listen to her. Anna talked not only naturally and intelligently, but, though intelligently, still without pretense, not arrogating any great importance to her own thoughts but attributing great importance to what her friends said.”

“Levin was struck by still a new feature in this remarkable, fascinating woman. Besides wit, grace, beauty, she had sincerity. She did not wish to conceal the thorns of her situation. [She has mentioned how the book of stories she wrote for children was like the pottery prisoners do in prison.] As she said that she sighed, and her face suddenly assumed a stern expression, as if it were changed to stone. With this expression on her face, she was even more beautiful than before. But that expression was new; it was entirely alien to that which a few moments before had seemed to irradiate happiness, and which the artist had managed to reproduce in the portrait. Levn looked once more at the portrait and at the original of it, while Anna took her brother’s arm, and a feeling of tenderness and pity came over him, surprising even himself.”

Here are some passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

p. 8: “There is a single ever-present theme running through Tolstoy’s life like a bass-motif, his conviction that, important as art is, there is a human task which exceeds the task of art. It is that of moral self-perfecting, the task of becoming a man.”

This reminds me of something along these lines that E.B. White said.

Here is a passage from Scott Elledge’s biography of him:

“Years later White told an interviewer: ‘I don’t care about being known as a writer. I just want to be thought of as a reliable man.’ His readers thought of him as both, and he may have reminded some of them of Thoreau, who on the first page of Walden said:

“‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well . . . . I require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.'”

What I especially love was that “reliable man” part. Talk about refreshing. When I read about Philip Roth or John Updike and compare it with the above I just shake my head. I know who I want to be like.

Finch, quoting Tolstoy, p. 9: “‘The whole business of the writer is to perfect himself.'”

Again, but on p. 11: “‘Their [revolutionaries’] chief mistake is the superstition that one can arrange human life. . . . ‘ What is within our power is our own behavior and the attitude which we take toward events, and it is this which can be decisive, since it directly affects other people. This is why Tolstoy says: ‘The only sure way for a man to improve human life is by the way of moral perfection in his personal life.'”

Finch, p. 12: “In this understanding [Tolstoy’s rationalistic understanding] of religion there is no room for the mysterious, the fantastic, the super-real, which comprise the very essence of religion for Dostoevsky. The other-worldliness of Dostoevsky (dating from his early ‘vision at the Neva’ and running through all his work), the belief that what happens in this world is the manifestation of unseen forces in other worlds, has no reality for Tolstoy. The world of the senses, of innocence and delight, could not be a phantasmagoria for an imagination of such concreteness!”

Finch, p. 13: “The dominating impulse of his writing was always a moral one. . . .

“‘I am astonished that we should have lost the conception of the one aim of literature–morality–to such a degree that if you were to speak nowadays of the necessity for morality in literature, no one would understand you.'”

Finch, p. 14: “We do not get an accurate picture, however, if we say merely that Tolstoy subordinated art to morality or imposed moral requirements on art. The relationship between art and morality was for him far more intimate than this; there is even a sense in which his conception of morality was itself rooted in his conception of art. The two were inseparable because he always understood art as having to do with objective truth and not merely with private intention. It was the objective eye of the artist which rose above all purely personal passions to report the world as it was. Art, Tolstoy believed, should be impersonal and impartial, the artist using his whole being as an instrument of perception to mirror the world faithfully.”


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