Life of Tolstoy/Chapter I



Our instinct was conscious then of that which reason must prove to-day. The task is possible now, for the long life has attained its term; revealing itself, unveiled, to the eyes of all, with unequalled candour, unexampled sincerity. To-day we are at once arrested by the degree in which that life has always remained the same, from the beginning to the end, in spite of all the barriers which critics have sought to erect here and there along its course; in spite of Tolstoy himself, who, like every impassioned mind, was inclined to the belief, when he loved, or conceived a faith, that he loved or believed for the first time; that the commencement of his true life dated from that moment. Commencement—recommencement! How often his mind was the theatre of the same struggles, the same crises! We cannot speak of the unity of his ideas, for no such unity existed; we can only speak of the persistence among them of the same diverse elements; sometimes allied, sometimes inimical; more often enemies than allies. Unity is to be found neither in the spirit nor the mind of a Tolstoy; it exists only in the internal conflict of his passions, in the tragedy of his art and his life.

In him life and art are one. Never was work more intimately mingled with the artist's life; it has, almost constantly, the value of autobiography; it enables us to follow the writer, step by step, from the time when he was twenty-five years of age, throughout all the contradictory experiences of his adventurous career. His Journal, which he commenced before the completion of his twentieth year, and continued until his death,[1] together with the notes furnished by M. Birukov,[2] completes this knowledge, and enable us not only to read almost day by day in the history of Tolstoy's conscience, but also to reconstitute the world in which his genius struck root, and the minds from which his own drew sustenance.

His was a rich inheritance. The Tolstoys and the Volkonskys were very ancient families, of the greater nobility, claiming descent from Rurik; numbering among their ancestors companions of Peter the Great, generals of the Seven Years' War, heroes of the Napoleonic struggle, Decembrists, and political exiles. This inheritance included family traditions; old memories to which Tolstoy was indebted for some of the most original types in his War and Peace; there was the old Prince Bolkonsky, his maternal grandfather, Voltairian, despotic, a belated representative of the aristocracy of the days of Catherine II.; Prince Nikolas Grigorovitch Volkonsky, a cousin of his mother, who was wounded at Austerlitz, and, like Prince Andrei, was carried off the field of battle under the eyes of Napoleon; his father, who had some of the characteristics of Nicolas Rostoff;[3] and his mother, the Princess Marie, the ugly, charming woman with the beautiful eyes, whose goodness illumines the pages of War and Peace.

He scarcely knew his parents. Those delightful narratives, Childhood and Youth, have, therefore, but little authenticity; for the writer's mother died when he was not yet two years of age. He, therefore, was unable to recall the beloved face which the little Nikolas Irtenieff evoked beyond a veil of tears: a face with a luminous smile, which radiated gladness...

"Ah! if in difficult moments I could only see that smile, I should not know what sorrow is."[4]

Yet she doubtless endowed him with her own absolute candour, her indifference to opinion, and her wonderful gift of relating tales of her own invention.

His father he did in some degree remember. His was a genial yet ironical spirit; a sad-eyed man who dwelt upon his estates, leading an independent, unambitious life. Tolstoy was nine years old when he lost him. His death caused him "for the first time to understand the bitter truth, and filled his soul with despair."[5] Here was the child's earliest encounter with the spectre of terror; and henceforth a portion of his life was to be devoted to fighting the phantom, and a portion to its celebration, its transfiguration. The traces of this agony are marked by a few unforgettable touches in the final chapters of his Childhood, where his memories are transposed in the narrative of the death and burial of his mother.

Five children were left orphans in the old house at Yasnaya Polyana.[6] There Leo Nikolayevitch was born, on the 28th of August, 1828, and there, eighty-two years later, he was to die. The youngest of the five was a girl: that Marie who in later years became a religious; it was with her that Tolstoy took refuge in dying, when he fled from home and family. Of the four sons, Sergius was charming and selfish, "sincere to a degree that I have never known equalled"; Dmitri was passionate, self-centred, introspective, and in later years, as a student, abandoned himself eagerly to the practices of religion; caring nothing for public opinion; fasting, seeking out the poor, sheltering the infirm; suddenly, with the same quality of violence, plunging into debauchery; then, tormented by remorse, ransoming a girl whom he had known in a public brothel, and receiving her into his home; finally dying of phthisis at the age of twenty-nine.[7] Nikolas, the eldest, the favourite brother, had inherited his mother's gift of imagination, her power of telling stories;[8] ironical, nervous, and refined; in later years an officer in the Caucasus, where he formed the habit of a drunkard; a man, like his brother, full of Christian kindness, living in hovels, and sharing with the poor all that he possessed. Tourgenev said of him "that he put into practice that humble attitude towards life which his brother Leo was content to develop in theory."

The orphans were cared for by two great-hearted women, one was their Aunt Tatiana,[9] of whom Tolstoy said that "she had two virtues: serenity and love.” Her whole life was love; a devotion that never failed. “She made me understand the moral pleasure of loving.”

The other was their Aunt Alexandra, who was for ever serving others, herself avoiding service, dispensing with the help of servants. Her favourite occupation was reading the lives of the Saints, or conversing with pilgrims or the feeble-minded. Of these "innocents" there were several, men and women, who lived in the house. One, an old woman, a pilgrim, was the godmother of Tolstoy's sister. Another, the idiot Gricha, knew only how to weep and pray. . . .

“Gricha, notable Christian! So mighty was your faith that you felt the approach of God; so ardent was your love that words rushed from your lips, words that your reason could not control. And how you used to celebrate His splendour, when speech failed you, when, all tears, you lay prostrated on the ground!”[10]

Who can fail to understand the influence, in the shaping of Tolstoy, of all these humble souls? In some of them we seem to see an outline, a prophecy, of the Tolstoy of later years. Their prayers and their affection must have sown the seeds of faith in the child's mind; seeds of which the aged man was to reap the harvest.

With the exception of the idiot Gricha, Tolstoy does not speak, in his narrative of Childhood, of these humble helpers who assisted in the work of building up his mind. But then how clearly we see it through the medium of the book—this soul of a little child; "this pure, loving heart, a ray of clear light, which always discovered in others the best of their qualities"—this more than common tenderness! Being happy, he ponders on the only creature he knows to be unhappy; he cries at the thought, and longs to devote himself to his good. He hugs and kisses an ancient horse, begging his pardon, because he has hurt him. He is happy in loving, even if he is not loved. Already we can see the germs of his future genius; his imagination, so vivid that he cries over his own stories; his brain, always busy, always trying to discover of what other people think; his precocious powers of memory[11] and observation; the attentive eyes, which even in the midst of his sorrow scrutinise the faces about him, and the authenticity of their sorrow. He tells us that at five years of age he felt for the first time "that life is not a time of amusement, but a very heavy task."[12]

Happily he forgot the discovery. In those days he used to soothe his mind with popular tales; those mythical and legendary dreams known in Russia as bylines; stories from the Bible; above all the sublime History of Joseph, which he cited in his old age as a model of narrative art: and, finally, the Arabian Nights, which at his grandmother's house were recited every evening, from the vantage of the window-seat, by a blind story-teller.

  1. With the exception of a few interruptions: one especially of considerable length, between 1865 and 1878.
  2. For his remarkable biography of Léon Tolstoï, Vie et Œuvre, Mémoires, Souvenirs, Lettres, Extraits du Journal intime, Notes et Documents biographiques, réunis, coordonnés et annotés par P. Birukov, revised by Leo Tolstoy, translated into French from the MS. by J. W. Bienstock.
  3. He also fought in the Napoleonic campaigns, and was a prisoner in France during the years 1814-15.
  4. Childhood, chap. ii.
  5. Childhood, chap. xxvii.
  6. Yasnaya Polyana, the name of which signifies "the open glade" (literally, the "light glade"), is a little village to the south of Moscow, at a distance of some leagues from Toula, in one of the most thoroughly Russian of the provinces. "Here the two great regions of Russia," says M. Leroy-Beaulieu, "the region of the forests and the agricultural region, meet and melt into each other. In the surrounding country we meet with no Finns, Tatars, Poles, Jews, or Little Russians. The district of Toula lies at the very heart of Russia."
  7. Tolstoy has depicted him in Anna Karenin, as the brother of Levine.
  8. He wrote the Diary of a Hunter.
  9. In reality she was a distant relative. She had loved Tolstoy's father, and was loved by him; but effaced herself, like Sonia in War and Peace.
  10. Childhood, chap. xii.
  11. He professes, in his autobiographical notes (dated 1878), to be able to recall the sensations of being swaddled as a baby, and of being bathed in a tub. See First Memories.
  12. First Memories.