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Tolstoy Journal, June 12, 2017: “Their chief mistake is the superstition that one can arrange human life.”

I have reached p. 220 of Volume XI of The Novels and Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, that is, in the midst of “Sevastopol in December.” What I noticed in these pages besides the usual mastery of physical and psychical detail is how much it reminded me of Hemingway’s early writing. It is written in a predominantly second person point of view and I thought of how Hemingway sometimes slips into that. And I know Hemingway often read Tolstoy. I think he imitated Tolstoy in his war writing. First a few quotes from “Sevastopol in December,” then I will turn to Ernest Hemingway on Writing, one of my favorite writing books, and look up all the Tolstoy quotes.

“As you proceed along the street, and descend a small declivity, you observe that there are no longer any houses about you, but only some strange heaps of ruined stones, boards, clay, and beams; ahead of you , upon a steep hill, you perceive a black, muddy expanse, intersected by canals, and this that is in front is the fourth bastion. Here you meet still fewer people, no woman are visible, the soldiers walk briskly, you come across drops of blood on the road, and you will certainly encounter there four soldiers with a stretcher and upon the stretcher a pale yellowish face and a blood-stained overcoat. If you inquire, ‘Where is he wounded?’ the bearers will say angrily, without turning toward you, ‘In the leg,’ or ‘the arm,’ if he is slightly wounded; or they will preserve a gloomy silence if no head is visible on the stretcher and he is already dead or badly hurt.”

The narrator thinks he has reached the legendary “fourth bastion,” keeps thinking he has, as above, but keeps being told, no, this is not yet the fourth bastion. Finally, he does reach it and finds a certain exhilaration follows the terror of cannon and mortar fire.

“But again the sentry has shouted in his loud, thick voice, “Mortar!” again there is a shriek, and a bomb bursts, but with this noise the groan of a man startles you. You approach the wounded man at the same moment with the bearers; he has a strange, inhuman aspect, covered as he is with blood and mud. A part of the sailor’s breast has been torn away. During the first moment, there is visible on his mud-stained face only fear and a certain simulated, premature expression of suffering, peculiar to men in that condition; but, at the moment when the stretcher is brought to him and he places himself upon it on his sound side,  you observe that this expression is replaced by an expression of a sort of exaltation and loft, inexpressible thought, His eyes shine more brilliantly, his teeth are clenched, his head is held higher with a effort, and, as they lift him up, he stops the bearers and says to his comrades with difficulty and in a trembling voice, ‘Comrades, forgive!’ He tries to say something more, and it is plain that he wants to say something touching, but he repeats once more, ‘Comrades, forgive!’

“At that moment, one of his fellow-sailors steps up to him, puts the cap on the head which the wounded man holds toward him, and, waving his hand indifferently, returns calmly to his gun. ‘That’s the way with seven or eight men every day,’ says the naval officer to you, in reply to the expression of horror which has appeared upon your countenance, as he yawns, and rolls a cigarette of yellow paper.”

I’ve been looking for those Tolstoy quotes but few were worth repeating. Here’s one from Green Hills of Africa:

” . . . I thought about Tolstoi and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.”

I can’t find the other quotes I thought I remembered but I did buy a new travel book, Rousseau’s Political Writings, a Norton Critical Edition which includes the following:



“Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist, idolized Rousseau, especially for views on the state of nature expressed in the Discourse on Inequality. In 1905 Tolstoy was one of the first people asked to join the new Societe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his response was one of four letters published in the first volume of its Annales.

“‘Yanaia Poliana, Toula, 7/20 March 1905


“‘It is with the greatest pleasure that I enroll myself as a member of your Society.

“‘I send you my best wishes for the success of your work.

“‘Rousseau has been my master since the age of fifteen.

“‘Rousseau and the Gospel have been the two great positive influences on my life.

“‘Rousseau never grows old. Recently, I happened to reread some of his works, and I felt the same sentiment of spiritual elevation and admiration that I felt when I read him in my early youth.

“‘I thank you, Sir, for the honor you do me by enrolling me as a member of your Society, and I sent you my very best regards.

“‘Leo Tolstoy.'”

Here are a few quotes from Talks With Tolstoy:

p 184: “To-day, speaking of the revolutionaries, Tolstoi said:

“‘Their chief mistake is the superstition that one can arrange human life.'”

pp. 184-185: “‘When people are discussing art, they either say, like the modern decadents, that everything is allowed, everything is possible, that there is complete freedom in art. Or they talk about the slavish imitation of Nature. Both views are false. Just as every man is perfectly individual and never occurs twice over, so also his thoughts,  his feelings are always new; they are his thoughts and feelings alone. At the basis of a true work of art there must lie some perfectly original idea or feeling, but it must be expressed with slavish adherence to the smallest details of life.'”



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