Life of Tolstoy/Chapter IX

Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter IX. “Anna Karenin”



Anna Karenin, with War and Peace,[1] marks the climax of this period of maturity. Anna Karenin is the more perfect work; the work of a mind more certain of its artistic creation, richer too in experience; a mind for which the world of the heart holds no more secrets. But it lacks the fire of youth, the freshness of enthusiasm, the mighty pinions of War and Peace. Already Tolstoy has lost something of the joy of creation. The temporary peace of the first months of marriage has flown. Into the enchanted circle of love and art which Countess Tolstoy had drawn about him moral scruples begin to intrude.

Even in the early chapters of War and Peace, written one year after marriage, the confidences of Prince Andrei to Pierre upon the subject of marriage denote the disenchantment of the man who sees in the beloved woman the stranger, the innocent enemy, the involuntary obstacle to his moral development. Some letters of 1865 announce the coming return of religious troubles. As yet they are only passing threats, blotting out the joy of life. But during the months of 1869, when Tolstoy was finishing War and Peace, there fell a more serious blow.

He had left his home for a few days to visit a distant estate. One night he was lying in bed; it had just struck two:

"I was dreadfully tired; I was sleepy, and felt comfortable enough. All of a sudden I was seized by such anguish, such terror as I had never felt in all my life. I will tell you about it in detail; it was truly frightful. I leapt from the bed and told them to get the horses ready. While they were putting them in I fell asleep, and when I woke again I was completely recovered. Yesterday the same thing happened, but in a much less degree."

The palace of illusion, so laboriously raised by the love of the wife, was tottering. In the spiritual blank which followed the achievement of War and Peace the artist was recaptured by his philosophical[2] and educational preoccupations; he wished to write a spelling-book for the people; he worked at it feverishly for four years; he was prouder of it than of War and Peace, and when it was finished (1872) he wrote a second (1875). Then he conceived a passion for Greek; he studied Latin from morning to night; he abandoned all other work; he discovered "the delightful Xenophon," and Homer, the real Homer; not the Homer of the translators, "all these Joukhovskys and Vosses who sing with any sort of voice they can manage to produce, guttural, peevish, mawkish," but "this other devil, who sings at the top of his voice, without it ever entering his head that any one may be listening."[3]

"Without a knowledge of Greek, no education! I am convinced that until now I knew nothing of all that is truly beautiful and of a simple beauty in human speech."

This is folly, and he admits as much. He goes to school again with such passionate enthusiasm that he falls ill. In 1871 he was forced to go to Samara to undergo the koumiss cure, staying with the Bachkirs. Nothing pleased him but his Greek. At the end of a lawsuit, in 1872, he spoke seriously of selling all that he possessed in Russia and of settling in England. Countess Tolstoy was in despair:

"If you are always absorbed in your Greeks you will never get well. It is they who have caused this suffering and this indifference concerning your present life. It is not in vain that we call Greek a dead language; it produces a condition of death in the spirit."[4]

Finally, to the great joy of the Countess, after many plans abandoned before they were fairly commenced, on March 19, 1873, he began to write Anna Karenin.[5] While he worked at it his life was saddened by domestic sorrow;[6] his wife was ill. "Happiness does not reign in the house,"[7] he writes to Fet in 1876.

To some extent the work bears traces of these depressing experiences, and of passions disillusioned.[8] Save in the charming passages dealing with the betrothal of Levine, love is no longer presented with the spirit of youth and poetry which places certain pages of War and Peace on a level with the most beautiful lyric poetry of all times. It has assumed a different character: bitter, sensual, imperious. The fatality which broods over the romance is no longer, as in War and Peace, a kind of Krishna, murderous and serene, the Destiny of empires, but the madness of love, "Venus herself." She it is, in the wonderful ball scene, when passion seizes upon Anna and Vronsky unawares, who endows the innocent beauty of Anna, crowned with forget-me-not and clothed in black velvet, with "an almost infernal seductiveness." She it is who, when Vronsky has just declared his love, throws a light upon Anna's face; but a light "not of joy; it was the terrible glare of an incendiary fire upon a gloomy night." She it is who, in the veins of this loyal and reasonable woman, this young, affectionate mother, pours a voluptuous stream as of irresistible ichor, and installs herself in her heart, never to leave it until she has destroyed it. No one can approach Anna without feeling the attraction and the terror of this hidden daemon. Kitty is the first to discover it, with a shock of bewilderment. A mysterious fear mingles with the delight of Vronsky when he goes to see Anna. Levine, in her presence, loses all his will. Anna herself is perfectly well aware that she is no longer her own mistress. As the story develops the implacable passion consumes, little by little, the whole moral structure of this proud woman. All that is best in her, her sincere, courageous mind, crumbles and falls; she has no longer the strength to sacrifice her worldly vanity; her life has no other object than to please her lover; she refuses, with shame and terror, to bear children; jealousy tortures her; the sensual passion which enslaves her obliges her to lie with her gestures, her voice, her eyes; she falls to the level of those women who no longer seek anything but the power of making every man turn to look after them; she uses morphia to dull her sufferings, until the intolerable torments which consume her overcome her with the bitter sense of her moral downfall, and cast her beneath the wheels of the railway-carriage. "And the little moujik with the untidy beard"—the sinister vision which has haunted her dreams and Vronsky's—"leaned over the track from the platform of the carriage"; and, as the prophetic dream foretold, "he was bent double over a sack, in which he was hiding the remains of something which had known life, with its torments, its betrayals, and its sorrow."

"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."[9]

Around this tragedy of a soul consumed by love and crushed by the law of God—a painting in a single shade, and of terrible gloom—Tolstoy has woven, as in War and Peace, the romances of other lives. Unfortunately these parallel stories alternate in a somewhat stiff and artificial manner, without achieving the organic unity of the symphony of War and Peace. It may also be said that the perfect realism of certain of the pictures—the aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg and their idle discourse—is now and again superfluous and unnecessary. Finally, and more openly than in War and Peace, Tolstoy has presented his own moral character and his philosophic ideas side by side with the spectacle of life. None the less, the work is of a marvellous richness. There is the same profusion of types as in War and Peace, and all are of a striking justness. The portraits of the men seem to me even superior. Tolstoy has depicted with evident delight the amiable egoist, Stepan Arcadievitch, whom no one can look at without responding to his affectionate smile, and Karenin, the perfect type of the high official, the distinguished and commonplace statesman, with his mania for concealing his real opinions and feelings under a mask of perpetual irony: a mixture of dignity and cowardice, of Phariseeism and Christian feeling: a strange product of an artificial world, from which he can never completely free himself in spite of his intelligence and his true generosity; a man afraid to listen to his own heart, and rightly so afraid, since when he does surrender to it, he ends by falling into a state of nonsensical mysticism.

But the principal interest of the romance, besides the tragedy of Anna and the varied pictures of Russian society towards 1860—of salons, officers' clubs, balls, theatres, races—lies in its autobiographical character. More than any other personage of Tolstoy's books, Constantine Levine is the incarnation of the writer himself. Not only has Tolstoy attributed to him his own ideas—at one and the same time conservative and democratic—and the anti-Liberalism of the provincial aristocrat who despises "intellectuals";[10] but he has made him the gift of part of his own life. The love of Levine and Kitty and their first years of marriage are a transposition of his own domestic memories, just as the death of Levine's brother is a melancholy evocation of the death of Tolstoy's brother, Dmitri. The latter portion, useless to the romance, gives us an insight into the troubles which were then oppressing the author. While the epilogue of War and Peace was an artistic transition to another projected work, the epilogue to Anna Karenin is an autobiographical transition to the moral revolution which, two years later, was to find expression in the Confessions. Already, in the course of Anna Karenin, he returns again and again to a violent or ironical criticism of contemporary society, which he never ceased to attack in his subsequent works. War is declared upon deceit: war upon lies; upon virtuous as well as vicious lies; upon liberal chatter, fashionable charity, drawing-room religion, and philanthropy. War against the world, which distorts all truthful feelings, and inevitably crushes the generous enthusiasm of the mind! Death throws an unexpected light upon the social conventions. Before Anna dying, the stilted Karenin is softened. Into this lifeless soul, in which everything is artificial, shines a ray of love and of Christian forgiveness. All three—the husband, the wife, and the lover—are momentarily transformed. All three become simple and loyal. But as Anna recovers, all three are sensible, "facing the almost holy moral strength which was guiding them from within, the existence of another force, brutal but all-powerful, which was directing their lives despite themselves, and which would not leave them in peace." And they knew from the beginning that they would be powerless in the coming struggle, in which "they would be obliged to do the evil that the world would consider necessary."[11]

If Levine, like Tolstoy, whose incarnation he is, also became purified in the epilogue to the book, it was because he too was touched by mortality. Previously, "incapable of believing, he was equally incapable of absolute doubt."[12] After he beheld his brother die the terror of his ignorance possessed him. For a time this misery was stifled by his marriage; but it re-awakened at the birth of his firstborn. He passed alternately through crises of prayer and negation. He read the philosophers in vain. He began, in his distracted state, to fear the temptation of suicide. Physical work was a solace; it presented no doubts; all was clear. Levine conversed with the peasants; one of them spoke of the men "who live not for self, but for God." This was to him an illumination. He saw the antagonism between the reason and the heart. Reason preached the ferocious struggle for life; there is nothing reasonable in loving one's neighbour:

"Reason has taught me nothing; all that I know has been given to me, revealed to me by the heart."[13]

From this time peace returned. The word of the humble peasant, whose heart was his only guide, had led him back to God. . . . To what God? He did not seek to know. His attitude toward the Church at this moment, as was Tolstoy's for a long period, was humble, and in no wise defiant of her dogmas.

"There is a truth even in the illusion of the celestial vault and in the apparent movement of the stars."[14]

  1. It is regrettable that the beauty of the poetical conception of the work is often tarnished by the philosophical chatter with which Tolstoy has loaded his work, especially in the later portions. He is determined to make an exposition of his theory of the fatality of history. The pity is that he returns to the point incessantly, and obstinately repeats himself. Flaubert, who "gave vent to cries of admiration" while reading the first two volumes, which he declared "sublime" and "full of Shakespearean things," threw the third volume aside in boredom: "He goes off horribly. He repeats himself, and he philosophises. We see the aristocrat, the author, and the Russian, while hitherto we have seen nothing but Nature and Humanity." (Letter to Tourgenev, January, 1880.)
  2. While he was finishing War and Peace, in the summer of 1869, he discovered Schopenhauer, and was filled with enthusiasm. "I am convinced that Schopenhauer is the most genial of men. Here is the whole universe reflected with an extraordinary clearness and beauty." (Letter to Fet, August 30, 1869.)
  3. Between Homer and his translators," he says again, "there is the difference between boiled and distilled water and the spring-water broken on the rocks, which may carry the sand along with it as it flows, but becomes more pure and fresh on that account."
  4. Papers of Countess Tolstoy (Vie et Œuvre).
  5. It was completed in 1877. It appeared—minus the epilogue—in the Rousski Viestniki.
  6. The death of three children (November 18, 1873, February, 1875, November, 1875); of his Aunt Tatiana, his adopted mother (June, 1874), and of his Aunt Pelagia (December, 1875).
  7. Letter to Fet, March, 1876.
  8. "Woman is the stumbling-block of a man's career. It is difficult to love a woman and to do nothing of any profit; and the only way of not being reduced to inaction by love is to marry." (Anna Karenin.)
  9. The motto at the commencement of the book.
  10. Notice also, in the epilogue, the hostility towards warfare, nationalism, and Pan-Slavism.
  11. "Evil is that which is reasonable to the world. Sacrifice and love are insanity." (Anna Karenin, vol. ii.)
  12. Anna Karenin, vol. ii.
  13. Anna Karenin. vol. ii.
  14. Ibid.