After a long weekend vacation in Rochester, New York, we are back and I am still behind in my reading but I did make some progress. I’m on page 270 of Volume XIII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or in Chapter V of “Family Happiness.” I also bought the above, Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger by Richard F. Gustafson at a great used bookstore in Rochester called Small World Books. I also bought The Critique of Pure Reason and The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau because Tolstoy loved both books.
So I read “Two Hussars,” and have gotten into “Family Happiness.” Both are, as usual, well-told, stories in Tolstoy’s “seer of the flesh” mode; not that they don’t include the occasional didactic comment but both have it much less than usual. They focus instead on characters and their inner lives and how they interact with the whole world, including dreams and daydreams and thoughts, memories. There is less preaching, more ambiguity.
What is surprising me in “Family Happiness” is that it is told from a woman’s point of view and I think in a very nuanced accurate way. Again, it is amazing to me that Tolstoy had such insight into a woman’s character but could say some of the misogynistic things he did. Here is a passage that struck me, not by this womanly theme but by being such a fine description of one of those very rare magical nights that happen perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime. The main character, a young woman, is walking with an older man with whom she thinks she is in love and an aunt who walks behind them on a moonlit night at a country estate.
“When I looked along the alley through which we were walking, it seemed to me that we should in a moment be brought to a stop, that yonder the world of the possible would end, that all this spectacle must continue forever changeless in its beauty.
“But still we moved on, and the magic shadow-wall of beauty gave way before us, and let us pass beyond, where also, so it seemed, were our well-known park, the trees, the paths, the dry leaves. And we were actually walking along the paths, treading on the circlets of light and shadow, and it was actually the dry leaves rustling under our feet, and the cool breeze which fanned my face! And this was really he, who, as he walked quietly beside me, with slow steps, discreetly allowed my hand to rest on his arm; and this was actually Katya, who, shuffling along, followed just behind us. And that could be nothing else than the moon itself in the sky, shining down on us through the motionless branches! . . . .
“But at each step the magic shadow wall seemed to close behind us and before us, and I ceased to believe that we might go farther, ceased to believe in the reality of all that surrounded us.”
The Gustafson book is very good so far; I’ve read twenty pages of it.
Here are some more quotes from A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy.
p. 326: “Dostoyevsky on an imaginative level recaptured the Holy Redeemer, the Christ who against all logic and all deserving, redeems the sins of the world. Tolstoy, with no less imaginative panache, restored to the world Christ’s starkest and most revolutionary moral demands.”
p. 327: “When Tolstoy heard the news of his [Dostoyevsky’s] death from Strakhov, he wrote at once,
“‘I never saw the man, and never had any direct relations with him, and suddenly when he died I realised that he was the very closest, dearest and most necessary man for me. I was a writer, and all writers are vain and envious–I at least was that sort of writer. But it never occurred to me to measure myself against him, never. . . .’
“This is the best commentary on relations between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. There was probably no literary rivalry in the vulgar sense between the two giants. But there was an acute consciousness in each of the other, an acutely strong desire, on both their parts not to be like each other. It would almost be a plausible exaggeration to claim that in his art–though not in his views–Tolstoy was henceforth to feel free to trespass, as it were, on Dostoyevsky’s territory, to write the books which, Dostoyevsky’s lifetime, he would not have been able to write for fear of being Dostoyevskian.”
p. 333: “Although the move [to Moscow during the winters] was what family life and common sense required, it was precisely out of tune with the movements of Tolstoy’s imagination at that time. With no fiction to write, he was busy making a fictitious character out of himself. While he was with the Molokans in the absolute remoteness of Samara, his fantasy knew no check. He could be a humble servant of Christ, drinking kumys and wearing malodorous clothes and thinking peaceable thoughts. In a town house, where servants bowed every time you passed, all this became impossible.”
pp. 334-335: “Indeed, the more he wrote about religion, the more quarrelsome he became.”
p. 337: “Even to begin to unpick the many ways in which Tolstoy contradicts (or as a modern critic would say, misreads) the New Testament is to miss the point. The point is, as he says, that ‘I alone understand the doctrine of Jesus.’ and again, ‘That is why, after eighteen hundred years, it so singularly happened that I discovered the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus as some new thing.’ You cannot argue with a man who writes like that.”
pp. 350-351: “To Chertkov, as to the diary, Tolstoy was able to reveal a little of the yawning dichotomy in his soul, a split which had always existed between flesh and spirit but which had begun to be wholly polarised in his mind. The wider the split became, the less ‘in control’ he was. The more he strove to be like Jesus or the Buddha, the more he grew like Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov.”