Life of Tolstoy/Chapter V



In November, 1853, war was declared upon Turkey. Tolstoy obtained an appointment to the army of Roumania; he was transferred to the army of the Crimea, and on November 7, 1854, he arrived in Sebastopol. He was burning with enthusiasm and patriotic faith. He went about his duties courageously, and was often in danger, in especial throughout the April and May of 1855, when he served on every alternate day in the battery of of the 4th bastion.

Living for months in a perpetual tremor and exaltation, face to face with death, his religious mysticism revived. He became familiar with God. In April, 1855, he noted in his diary a prayer to God, thanking Him for His protection in danger and beseeching Him to continue it, "so that I may achieve the glorious and eternal end of life, of which I am still ignorant, although I feel a presentiment of it." Already this object of his life was not art, but religion. On March 5, 1855, he wrote:

"I have been led to conceive a great idea, to whose realisation I feel capable of devoting my whole life. This idea is the foundation of a new religion; the religion of the Christ, but purified of dogmas and mysteries. . . . To act with a clear conscience, in order to unite men by means of religion."[1]

This was to be the programme of his old age.

However, to distract himself from the spectacles which surrounded him, he began once more to write. How could he, amidst that hail of lead, find the necessary freedom of mind for the writing of the third part of his memories: Youth? The book is chaotic; and we may attribute to the conditions of its production a quality of disorder, and at times a certain dryness of abstract analysis, which is increased by divisions and subdivisions after the manner of Stendhal.[2] Yet we admire his calm penetration of the mist of dreams and inchoate ideas which crowd a young brain. His work is extraordinarily true to itself, and at moments what poetic freshness!—as in the vivid picture of springtime in the city, or the tale of the confession, and the journey to the convent, on account of the forgotten sin! An impassioned pantheism lends to certain pages a lyric beauty, whose accents recall the tales of the Caucasus. For example, this description of an evening in the spring:

"The calm splendour of the shining crescent; the gleaming fish-pond; the ancient birch-trees, whose long-tressed boughs were on one side silvered by the moonlight, while on the other they covered the path and the bushes with their black shadows; the cry of a quail beyond the pond; the barely perceptible sound of two ancient trees which grazed one another; the humming of the mosquitoes; the fall of an apple on the dry leaves; and the frogs leaping up to the steps of the terrace, their backs gleaming greenish under a ray of moonlight. . . . The moon is mounting; suspended in the limpid sky, she fills all space with her light; the splendour of the moonlit water grows yet more brilliant, the shadows grow blacker, the light more transparent. . . . And to me, an obscure and earthy creature, already soiled with every human passion, but endowed with all the stupendous power of love, it seemed at that moment that all nature, the moon, and I myself were one and the same."[3]

But the present reality, potent and imperious, spoke more loudly than the dreams of the past. Youth remained unfinished; and Captain Count Tolstoy, behind the plating of his bastion, amid the rumbling of the bombardment, or in the midst of his company, observed the dying and the living, and recorded their miseries and his own, in his unforgettable narratives of Sebastopol.

These three narratives—Sebastopol in December, 1854, Sebastopol in May, 1855, Sebastopol in August, 1855—are generally confounded with one another; but in reality they present many points of difference. The second in particular, in point both of feeling and of art, is greatly superior to the others. The others are dominated by patriotism; the second is charged with implacable truth.

It is said that ater reading the first narrative[4] the Tsarina wept, and the Tsar, moved by admiration, commanded that the story should be translated into French, and the author sent out of danger. We can readily believe it. Nothing in these pages but exalts warfare and the fatherland. Tolstoy had just arrived; his enthusiasm was intact; he was afloat on a tide of heroism. As yet he could see in the defenders of Sebastopol neither ambition nor vanity, nor any unworthy feeling. For him the war was a sublime epic; its heroes were "worthy of Greece." On the other hand, these notes exhibit no effort of the imagination, no attempt at objective representation. The writer strolls through the city; he sees with the utmost lucidity, but relates what he sees in a form which is wanting in freedom: "You see . . . you enter . . . you notice. . . ." This is first-class reporting; rich in admirable impressions.

Very different is the second scene: Sebastopol in May, 1855. In the opening lines we read:

"Here the self-love, the vanity of thousands of human beings is in conflict, or appeased in death. . . ."

And further on:

"And as there were many men, so also were there many forms of vanity. . . . Vanity, vanity, everywhere vanity, even at the door of the tomb! It is the peculiar malady of our century. . . . Why do the Homers and Shakespeares speak of love, of glory, and of suffering, and why is the literature of our century nothing but the interminable history of snobs and egotists?"

The narrative, which is no longer a simple narrative on the part of the author, but one which sets before us men and their passions, reveals that which is concealed by the mask of heroism. Tolstoy's clear, disillusioned gaze plumbs to the depths the hearts of his companions in arms; in them, as in himself, he reads pride, fear, and the comedy of those who continue to play at life though rubbing shoulders with death. Fear especially is avowed, stripped of its veils, and shown in all its nakedness. These nervous crises,[5] this obsession of death, are analysed with a terrible sincerity that knows neither shame nor pity. It was at Sebastopol that Tolstoy learned to eschew sentimentalism, "that vague, feminine, whimpering passion," as he came disdainfully to term it; and his genius for analysis, the instinct for which awoke, as we saw, in the later years of his boyhood, and which was at times to assume a quality almost morbid,[6] never attained to a more hypnotic and poignant intensity than in the narrative of the death of Praskhoukhin. Two whole pages are devoted to the description of all that passed in the mind of the unhappy man during the second following upon the fall of the shell, while the fuse was hissing towards explosion; and one page deals with all that passed before him after it exploded, when "he was killed on the spot by a fragment which struck him full in the chest."

As in the intervals of a drama we hear the occasional music of the orchestra, so these scenes of battle are interrupted by wide glimpses of nature; deep perspectives of light; the symphony of the day dawning upon the splendid landscape, in the midst of which thousands are agonising. Tolstoy the Christian, forgetting the patriotism of his first narrative, curses this impious war:

"And these men, Christians, who profess the same great law of love and of sacrifice, do not, when they perceive what they have done, fall upon their knees repentant, before Him who in giving them life set within the heart of each, together with the fear of death, the love of the good and the beautiful. They do not embrace as brothers, with tears of joy and happiness!"

As he was completing this novel—a work that has a quality of bitterness which, hitherto, none of his work had betrayed—Tolstoy was seized with doubt. Had he done wrong to speak?

"A painful doubt assails me. Perhaps these things should not have been said. Perhaps what I am telling is one of those mischievous truths which, unconsciously hidden in the mind of each one of us, should not be expressed lest they become harmful, like the lees that we must not stir lest we spoil the wine. If so, when is the expression of evil to be avoided? When is the expression of goodness to be imitated? Who is the malefactor and who is the hero? All are good and all are evil. . . ."

But he proudly regains his poise: "The protagonist of my novel, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I try to present in all her beauty, who always was, is, and shall be beautiful, is Truth"

After reading these pages[7] Nekrasov, the editor of the review Sovremennik, wrote to Tolstoy:

"That is precisely what Russian society needs to-day: the truth, the truth, of which, since the death of Gogol, so little has remained in Russian letters. . . . This truth which you bring to our art is something quite novel with us. I have only one fear: lest the times, and the cowardice of life, the deafness and dumbness of all that surrounds us, may make of you what it has made of most of us—lest it may kill the energy in you."[8]

Nothing of the kind was to be feared. The times, which waste the energies of ordinary men, only tempered those of Tolstoy. Yet for a moment the trials of his country and the capture of Sebastopol aroused a feeling of regret for his perhaps too unfeeling frankness, together with a feeling of sorrowful affection.

In his third narrative—Sebastopol in August, 1855—while describing a group of officers playing cards and quarrelling, he interrupts himself to say:

"But let us drop the curtain quickly over this picture. To-morrow—perhaps to-day—each of these men will go cheerfully to meet his death. In the depths of the soul of each there smoulders the spark of nobility which will make him a hero."

Although this shame detracts in no wise from the forcefulness and realism of the narrative, the choice of characters shows plainly enough where lie the sympathies of the writer. The epic of Malakoff and its heroic fall is told as affecting two rare and touching figures: two brothers, of whom the elder, Kozeltoff, has some of the characteristics of Tolstoy. Who can forget the younger, the ensign Volodya, timid and enthusiastic, with his feverish monologues, his dreams, his tears?—tears that rise to his eyes for a mere nothing; tears of tenderness, tears of humiliation—his fear during the first hours passed in the bastion (the poor boy is still afraid of the dark, and covers his head with his cloak when he goes to bed); the oppression caused by the feeling of his own solitude and the indifference of others; then, when the hour arrives, his joy in danger. He belongs to the group of poetic figures of youth (of whom are Petia in War and Peace, and the sub-lieutenant in The Invasion), who, their hearts full of affection, make war with laughter on their lips, and are broken suddenly, uncomprehending, on the wheel of death. The two brothers fall wounded, both on the same day—the last day of the defence. The novel ends with these lines, in which we hear the muttering of a patriotic anger:

"The army was leaving the town; and each soldier, as he looked upon deserted Sebastopol, sighed, with an inexpressible bitterness in his heart, and shook his fist in the direction of the enemy."[9]

  1. Journal.
  2. We notice this manner also in The Woodcutters, which was completed at the same period. For example: "There are three kinds of love: 1. æsthetic love; 2. devoted love; 3. active love," &c. (Youth). "There are three kinds of soldiers: 1. the docile and subordinate; 2. the authoritative; 3. the boasters—who themselves are subdivided into: (a) The docile who are cool and lethargic; (b) those who are earnestly docile; (c') docile soldiers who drink," &c. (The Woodcutters).
  3. Youth, xxxii.
  4. Sent to the review Sovremennik and immediately published.
  5. Tolstoy refers to them again at a much later date, in his Conversations with his friend Teneromo. He tells him of a crisis of terror which assailed him one night when he was lying down in the "lodgement" dug out of the body of the rampart, under the protective plating. This Episode of the Siege of Sebastopol will be found in the volume entitled The Revolutionaries.
  6. Droujinine, a little later, wrote him a friendly letter in which he sought to put him on his guard against this danger: "You have a tendency to an excessive minuteness of analysis; it may become a serious fault. Sometimes you seem on the point of saying that so-and-so's calf indicated a desire to travel in the Indies. . . . You must restrain this tendency: but do not for the world suppress it." (Letter dated 1856 cited by P. Birukov.)
  7. Mutilated by the censor.
  8. September 2, 1855.
  9. In 1889, when writing a preface to Memories of Sebastopol, by an Officer of Artillery (A. J. Erchoff), Tolstoy returned in fancy to these scenes. Every heroic memory had disappeared. He could no longer remember anything but the fear which lasted for seven months—the double fear: the fear of death and the fear of shame—and the horrible moral torture. All the exploits of the siege reduced themselves, for him, to this: he had been "flesh for cannon."