Life of Tolstoy/Chapter IV

Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter IV. Early Work: Tales of the Caucasus



The Story of my Childhood[1] was commenced in the autumn of 1851, at Tiflis it was finished at Piatigorsk in the Caucasus, on the 2nd of July, 1852. It is curious to note that while in the midst of that nature by which he was so intoxicated, while leading a life absolutely novel, in the midst of the stirring risks of warfare, occupied in the discovery of a world of unfamiliar characters and passions, Tolstoy should have returned, in this his first work, to the memories of his past life. But Childhood was written during a period of illness, when his military activity was suddenly arrested. During the long leisure of a convalescence, while alone and suffering, his state of mind inclined to the sentimental;[2] the past unrolled itself before his eyes at a time when he felt for it a certain tenderness. After the exhausting tension of the last few unprofitable years, it was comforting to live again in thought the "marvellous, innocent, joyous, poetic period" of early childhood; to reconstruct for himself "the heart of a child, good, sensitive, and capable of love." With the ardour of youth and its illimitable projects, with the cyclic character of his poetic imagination, which rarely conceived an isolated subject, and whose great romances are only the links in a long historic chain, the fragments of enormous conceptions which he was never able to execute,[3] Tolstoy at this moment regarded his narrative of Childhood as merely the opening chapters of a History of Four Periods, which was to include his life in the Caucasus, and was in all probability to have terminated in the revelation of God by Nature.

In later years Tolstoy spoke with great severity of his Childhood, to which he owed some part of his popularity.

"It is so bad," he remarked to M. Birukov: "it is written with so little literary conscience! . . . There is nothing to be got from it."

He was alone in this opinion. The manuscript was sent, without the author's name, to the great Russian review, the Sovremennik (Contemporary); it was published immediately (September 6, 1852), and achieved a general success; a success confirmed by the public of every country in Europe. Yet in spite of its poetic charm, its delicacy of touch and emotion, we can understand that it may have displeased the Tolstoy of later years.

It displeased him for the very reasons by which it pleased others. We must admit it frankly: except in the recording of certain provincial types, and in a restricted number of passages which are remarkable for their religious feeling or for the realistic treatment of emotion,[4] the personality of Tolstoy is barely in evidence.

A tender, gentle sentimentality prevails from cover to cover; a quality which was always afterwards antipathetic to Tolstoy, and one which he sedulously excluded from his other romances. We recognise it; these tears, this sentimentality came from Dickens, who was one of Tolstoy's favourite authors between his fourteenth and his twenty-first year. Tolstoy notes in his Journal: "Dickens: David Copperfield. Influence considerable." He read the book again in the Caucasus.

Two other influences, to which he himself confesses, were Sterne and Töppfer. "I was the," he says, "under their inspiration."[5]

Who would have thought that the Nouvelles Genevoises would be the first model of the author of War and Peace? Yet knowing this to be a fact, we discern in Tolstoy's Childhood the same bantering, affected geniality, transplanted to the soil of a more aristocratic nature. So we see that the readers of his earliest efforts found the writer's countenance familiar. It was not long, however, before his own personality found self-expression. His Boyhood (Adolescence), though less pure and less perfect than Childhood, exhibits a more orginal power of psychology, a keen feeling for nature, and a mind full of distress and conflict, which Dickens or Töppfer would have been at a loss to express. In the Russian Proprietor (October, 1852[6]) Tolstoy's character appeared sharply defined, marked by his fearless sincerity and his faith in love. Among the remarkable portraits of peasants which he has painted in this novel, we find an early sketch of one of the finest conceptions of his Popular Tales: the old man with the beehives;[7] the little old man under the birch-tree, his hands outstretched, his eyes raised, his bald head shining in the sun, and all around him the bees, touched with gold, never stinging him, forming a halo. . . . But the truly typical works of this period are those which directly register his present emotions: namely, the novels of the Caucasus. The first, The Invasion (finished in December, 1852), impresses the reader deeply by the magnificence of its landscapes: a sunrise amidst the mountains, on the bank of a river; a wonderful night-piece, with sounds and shadows noted with a striking intensity; and the return in the evening, while the distant snowy peaks disappear in the violet haze, and the clear voices of the regimental singers rise and fall in the transparent air. Many of the types of War and Peace are here drawn to the life: Captain Khlopoff, the true hero, who by no means fights because he likes fighting, but because it is his duty; a man with "one of those truly Russian faces, placid and simple, and eyes into which it is easy and agreeable to gaze."

Heavy, awkward, a trifle ridiculous, indifferent to his surroundings, he alone is unchanged in battle, where all the rest are changed; "he is exactly as we have seen him always: with the same quiet movements, the same level voice, the same expression of simplicity on his heavy, simple face." Next comes the lieutenant who imitates the heroes of Lermontov; a most kindly, affectionate boy, who professes the utmost ferocity. Then comes the poor little subaltern, delighted at the idea of his first action, brimming over with affection, ready to fall on his comrade's neck; a laughable, adorable boy, who, like Petia Rostoff, contrives to get stupidly killed. In the centre of the picture is the figure of Tolstoy, the observer, who is mentally aloof from his comrades, and already utters his cry of protest against warfare:

"Is it impossible, then, for men to live in peace, in this world so full of beauty, under this immeasurable starry sky? How is it they are able, here, to retain their feelings of hostility and vengeance, and the lust of destroying their fellows? All there is of evil in the human heart ought to disappear at the touch of nature, that most immediate expression of the beautiful and the good.[8]

Other tales of the Caucasus were to follow which were observed at this time, though not written until a later period. In 1854-55. The Woodcutters was written; a book notable for its exact and rather frigid realism; full of curious records of Russian soldier-psychology—notes to be made use of in the future. In 1856 appeared A Brush with the Enemy, in which there is a man of the world, a degraded non-commissioned officer, a wreck, a coward, a drunkard and a liar, who cannot support the idea of being slaughtered like one of the common soldiers he despises, the least of whom is worth a hundred of himself.

Above all these works, as the summit, so to speak, of this first mountain range, rises one of the most beautiful lyric romances that ever fell from Tolstoy's pen: the song of his youth, the poem of the Caucasus, The Cossacks.[9] The splendour of the snowy mountains displaying their noble lines against the luminous sky fills the whole work with its music. The book is unique, for it belongs to the flowering-time of genius, "the omnipotent god of youth," as Tolstoy says, "that rapture which never returns." What a spring-tide torrent! What an overflow of love!

"'I love—I love so much! . . . How brave! How good!' he repeated: and he felt as though he must weep. Why? Who was brave, and whom did he love? That he did not precisely know."[10]

This intoxication of the heart flows on, unchecked. Olenin, the hero, who has come to the Caucasus, as Tolstoy came, to steep himself in nature, in the life of adventure, becomes enamoured of a young Cossack girl, and abandons himself to the medley of his contradictory aspirations. At one moment he believes that "happiness is to live for others, to sacrifice oneself," at another, that "self-sacrifice is only stupidity"; finally he is inclined to believe, with Erochta, the old Cossack, that "everything is precious. God has made everything for the delight of man. Nothing is a sin. To amuse oneself with a handsome girl is not a sin: it is only health." But what need to think at all? It is enough to live. Life is all good, all happiness; life is all-powerful and universal; life is God. An ardent naturalism uplifts and consumes his soul. Lost in the forest, amidst "the wildness of the woods, the multitude of birds and animals, the clouds of midges in the dusky green, in the warm, fragrant air, amidst the little runlets of water which trickle everywhere beneath the boughs"; a few paces from the ambushes of the enemy, Olenin is "seized suddenly by such a sense of causeless happiness that in obedience to childish habit he crossed himself and began to give thanks to somebody." Like a Hindu fakir, he rejoices to tell himself that he is alone and lost in this maelstrom of aspiring life: that myriads of invisible beings, hidden on every hand, are that moment hunting him to death; that these thousands of little insects humming around him are calling:

"'Here, brothers, here! Here is some one to bite!'"

And it became obvious to him that he was no longer a Russian gentleman, in Moscow society, but simply a creature like the midge, the pheasant, the stag: like those which were living and prowling about him at that moment.

"Like them, I shall live, I shall die. And the grass will grow above me. . . ."

And his heart is full of happiness.

Tolstoy lives through this hour of youth in a delirium of vitality and the love of life. He embraces Nature, and sinks himself in her being. To her he pours forth and exalts his griefs, his joys, and his loves; in her he lulls them to sleep. Yet this romantic intoxication never veils the lucidity of his perceptions. Nowhere has he painted landscape with a greater power than in this fervent poem; nowhere has he depicted the type with greater truth. The contrast of nature with the world of men, which forms the basis of the book; and which through all Tolstoy's life is to prove one of his favourite themes, and an article of his Credo, has already inspired him, the better to castigate the world, with something of the bitterness to be heard in the Kreutzer Sonata[11] But for those who love him he is no less truly himself; and the creatures of nature, the beautiful Cossack girl and her friends, are seen under a searching light, with their egoism, their cupidity, their venality, and all their vices.

An exceptional occasion was about to offer itself for the exercise of this heroic veracity.

  1. Published in English as part of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.
  2. His letters of this period to his Aunt Tatiana are full of tears and of sentimentality. He was, as he says, Liova-riova, "Leo the Sniveller" (January 6, 1852).
  3. The Russian Proprietor (A Landlord's Morning) is the fragment of a projected Romance of a Russian Landowner. The Cossacks forms the first portion of a great romance of the Caucasus. In the author's eyes the huge War and Peace was only a sort of preface to a contemporary epic, of which The Decembrists was to have been the nucleus.
  4. See the passage relating to the pilgrim Gricha, or to the death of his mother.
  5. Letter to Birukov.
  6. Completed only in 1855-56.
  7. The Two Old Men (1885).
  8. The Invasion.
  9. Although completed much later—in 1860—and appearing only in 1863—the bulk of this volume was of this period.
  10. The Cossacks.
  11. For example, see Oleniln's letter to his friends in Russia.