The two books above are the ones Tolstoy had with him when he was dying in the train station at Astapovo. I realized they have to be on my travel booklist also. I have read The Brothers Karamazov twice, but never read more than a smattering of Montaigne. You can reformulate, yet again, Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox view of Tolstoy, by saying he was a Montaigne who wanted to be, or thought he should want to be, a Dostoevsky.
Here is what George Steiner said about these two books and Tolstoy in the last paragraph of his book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism:
“In the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo, Tolstoy reportedly had two books by his bedside: The Brothers Karamazov and the Essais of Montaigne. It would appear that he had chosen to die in the presence of his great antagonist and of a kindred spirit. In the latter instance, he chose aptly, Montaigne being a poet of life and of the wholeness of it rather in the sense in which Tolstoy himself had understood that mystery. Had he turned to the celebrated twelfth chapter of Book II of the Essais while composing his fierce genius to tranquillity, Tolstoy would have found a judgment equally appropriate to himself and to Dostoevsky:
“C’est un grand ouvrier de miracles que l’esprit humain . . . .”
Google translates that as It is a great miracle worker of the human mind, but that doesn’t sound quite right. My French is none too good, but assume something such as, He is a great worker of miracles with the human spirit, is better. But I readily stand corrected.
I am up to page 101 of Volume XII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XX of The Cossacks. And have read up to page 290 of Volume 1 of Simmons’ biography of Tolstoy.
What struck me as I read last night is how absorbed I became in Tolstoy’s work. I always forget where I am and am there where he is writing about. I was lying in bed wondering how and why that was because when I closed the book I was a bit startled to find myself in bed with the light on. I had thought I was hunting pheasants and stags with Olyenin and Uncle Yeroshka. And the two words that floated into my mind were passion and sincerity.
Here is where I was last night:
“‘He [the stag] has been here this morning,’ said the old man, with a sigh. ‘See, the lair is still sweaty, it’s fresh.’
“Suddenly a terrific crashing was heard in the forest, not ten paces away. Both were startled, and grasped their muskets, but nothing was to be seen; only there was a sound like the breaking of twigs. The regular swift beat of a gallop was heard for an instant, then the crashing changed into a dull rumble, ever farther and farther away, echoing through the still forest. Something seemed to give way in Olyenin’s heart. With a dazed expression he gazed at the green depths of the wood, and at last turned and looked at the old man. Uncle Yeroshka, with his gun still at his shoulder, was standing motionless; his hat was on the back of his head, his eyes gleamed with an unusual light, and his opened mouth, showing the stumps of his yellow teeth, had an angry expression; he seemed petrified in that position.
“‘A big horn!’ he cried. And, throwing his gun down on the ground in his despair, he began to tear his white bear.–‘Here he was standing. In a moment we should have been on him. Fool! fool!’–and he wrathfully clutched his bear. ‘Fool! Hog!’ he repeated, still twitching his beard.
“Something seemed to be flying through the forest in the mist; farther and farther away, more and more dimly, echoed the hoofs of the escaping stag.”
And I was there again as I typed that passage in. Here are a few passages from Talks With Tolstoy:
This is one of my favorites, p. 156: “Tolstoi spoke on August 28th with exasperation about writing as a profession. I have rarely seen him so agitated:
“‘One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink-pot each time one dips one’s pen.'”
p. 158: “When later in the evening I played Chopin’s prelude, Tolstoi said:
“‘Those are the kind of short stories one ought to write!'”
pp. 158-159: “‘I feel a woman’s influence on him [Gorbunov, who had criticized Chekhov’s short story, The Darling]. The confused modern idea is that a woman’s capacity to give herself up with all her being to love is obsolete and done with; and yet this is the most precious and the best thing in her and her true vocation; and not political meetings, scientific courses, revolutions, etc.'”
p. 160: “‘I always write in the morning. I was pleased to hear lately that Rousseau too, after he got up in the morning, went for a short walk and sat down to work. In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking, while still in bed or during the walk. Many writers work at night. Dostoevsky always wrote at night. In a writer there must always be two people–the writer and the critic. And, if one works at night, with a cigarette in one’s mouth, although the work of creation goes on briskly, the critic is for the most part in abeyance, and this is very dangerous.'”
p. 163: “‘The whole business of the writer is to perfect himself. I have always tried and try now to make a question which interests me clear to the highest degree that I am capable of making it. The writer’s work consists in that.'”
p. 164: “Tolstoi compared marriage to a little boat in which two people sail over a stormy ocean.
“‘Each must sit tight and not make sharp movement or the boat will upset.'”