Well, I got way behind on my reading but have caught up this Saturday morning, up to page 144 of Volume XII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. That is, I have finished reading “The Wood-Cutting Expedition,” “An Old Acquaintance,” and “Lost on the Steppe; or, The Snowstorm.” Next comes “Polikushka” and then “Kholstomer,” aka Strider, about a horse.
The featured image today is of my latest Tolstoy “travel book,” A Calendar of Wisdom, today’s highlighted quote (by Tolstoy) being, “A wise person thinks more about life than about death,” said by Benedictus Spinoza. I also have a “travel book,” Understanding Tolstoy by Andrew D. Kaufman, on order, and another coming in the mail, Tolstoy: The Discovery of Peace by R. V. Sampson, who inspired A. N. Wilson to write his biography of Tolstoy.
“The Wood-Cutting Expedition” struck me or reminded me of the stories Turgenev published in A Sportsman’s Sketches. It has the same plotless-seeming quality: soldiers go out to cut wood, are attacked by Tartars, one of them is killed, the soldiers talk amongst themselves of why they stay and/or came to the Caucasus. But it all hangs together because of the way things are described and the intensity with which Tolstoy tells it.
“An Old Acquaintance” is a wonderful character study of a snobbish cowardly man, Guskof, who is nevertheless worth knowing. The narrator, a yunker, meets someone he knew back in Russia, a sort of dandy who had a way with the ladies and a great position in the civil service, etc. He always looked down on the narrator but the narrator, a humble bloke [obviously not Tolstoy except in his way of telling a story!], always figures that people who look down on him are superior, never worried about it. Now this same fop, through some scandal never described, had fallen in disgrace and poverty and been sent to redeem himself in the Caucasus. Supported only by small sums from his sister–his father refuses to have anything more to do with him–he has become a figure of fun amongst the other men. No one likes him; he is a terrible snob and talks in French all the time and despises everyone else for not being true gentlemen. He is delighted to find the narrator, who has trouble recognizing him but finally does. They eat supper together, Guskof tells him all that has befallen him, doesn’t understand how the narrator came here voluntarily, and devours the narrator’s food and wine.
Somewhere during the story, the narrator mentions that he has never thought of the kind of impression he makes on others, he’s just himself. There is another passage like this in “The Wood-Cutting Expedition.” I can find neither passage but when I do I want to include them: that not-caring about how you look to others, not knowing how to play a role but just being yourself, was something, a quality, that greatly appealed to Tolstoy but which I think he had trouble doing. When younger he especially played different roles but even when older he dressed as a peasant, a simple man. But was he? No, but that’s what made him a great writer, that chameleon-like quality which he had. Here again, I think, is the Hedgehog/Fox conundrum. Tolstoy was a man who was many men, but he wanted to be one solid always-the-same-man.
Another thing that strikes me about “The Old Acquaintance” is that it is another example of Tolstoy showing how things change for people. He is a master at describing how people long for permanence but how change is always happening to them and how they can’t accept it. William Trevor was very good at this too.
“Lost in the Steppe; of the Snowstorm” reads like a preparation for “Master and Man.” I love the story, the way the narrator weaves in and out of dream sequences and how they corresponds with the snow blowing all around, the static quality of the steppe in snow, but it is a pure survival story with no deeper level; at least I didn’t find one on this reading.
Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 308: “Precisely during the years of Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis, Dostoyevsky was reaching the climax and culmination of his religious thinking. It cannot be that the two facts are unconnected. [Yes, it can, except that all things are interconnected eventually.] Ever since Crime and Punishment and War and Peace appeared month by month as alternate episodes in the same periodical, the two giants had been placed before the reading public in a vast metaphysical coexistence. It was something much bigger than feelings of pure literary rivalry, though that came into it. Rather, it is almost as though the Godhead had chosen to become incarnate in two beings, the fullness of His truth being too mysterious, and too immense for embodiment in a single human life. The boldness and profanity or the comparison is one at which even Dostoyevsky would have blushed. But what emerged from it all was not merely two quite different sorts of novel. It was two different Christs.”
But you can find both in the Christ of the Gospels. Dostoyevsky leaves out the radical overturning-the-moneychangers’-tables Christ; Tolstoy the traditionalist I-change-not-one-jot-nor-tittle-of-the-law Christ.
p. 312: “Once one is alerted to the danger signals, A Confession, precisely because of its artless sincerity, is revealed as a transparent piece of self-deception: transparent, that is, to everyone except the author.”
PP. 312-313: “The most extraordinary claim of all is that in the early years of his marriage he regarded authorship as being of no possible importance and that he only wrote ‘insignificant work’ for the sake of monetary reward. Does this describe the fervent energy with which he wrote and wrote and recorrected Sofya’s copies of War and Peace?. . . Having decided implicitly that he was in fact the greatest literary genius in the world, it was not like him to rest on his laurels. Having got some laurels, he proceeded to tear them leaf from leaf. There is nobility, there is grandeur here. But there is also titanic arrogance, and a peculiar destructiveness which is all Tolstoy’s own. Tolstoy’s question [‘you will be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere, or than all the writers in the world–and what of it?’] suggests that so long as there were these geniuses, his own was to be rebuked; and this attitude was to harden over the coming years as he developed his theories of art.”