396658Life of Tolstoy — Chapter VIII. MarriageBernard MiallRomain Rolland



At first he rejoiced in the new life, with the passion which he brought to everything.[1] The personal influence of Countess Tolstoy was a godsend to his art. Greatly gifted[2] in a literary sense, she was, as she says, “a true author’s wife,” so keenly did she take her husband’s work to heart. She worked with him—worked to his dictation; re-copied his rough drafts.[3] She sought to protect him from his religious daemon, that formidable genie which was already, at moments, whispering words that meant the death of art. She tried to shut the door upon all social Utopias.[4] She requickened her husband’s creative genius. She did more: she brought as an offering to that genius the wealth of a fresh feminine temperament. With the exception of the charming silhouettes in Childhood and Boyhood, there are few women in the earlier works of Tolstoy, or they remain of secondary importance. Woman appears in Family Happiness, written under the influence of his love for Sophie Bers. In the works which follow there are numerous types of young girls and women, full of intensest life, and even superior to the male types. One likes to think not only that Countess Tolstoy served her husband as the model for Natasha in War and Peace[5] and for Kitty in Anna Karenin,[6] but that she was enabled, by means of her confidences and her own vision, to become his discreet and valuable collaborator. Certain pages of Anna Karenin in particular seem to me to reveal a woman’s touch.

Thanks to the advantages of this union, Tolstoy enjoyed for a space of twelve or fourteen years a peace and security which had been long unknown to him.[7] He was able, sheltered by love, to dream and to realise at leisure the masterpieces of his brain, the colossal monuments which dominate the fiction of the nineteenth century—War and Peace (1864-69) and Anna Karenin (1873-77).

War and Peace is the vastest epic of our times—a modern Iliad. A world of faces and of passions moves within it. Over this human ocean of innumerable waves broods a sovereign mind, which serenely raises or stills the tempest.

More than once in the past, while contemplating this work, I was reminded of Homer and of Goethe, in spite of the vastly different spirit and period of the work. Since then I have discovered that at the period of writing these books Tolstoy was as a matter of fact nourishing his mind upon Homer and Goethe.[8] Moreover, in the notes, dated 1865, in which he classifies the various departments of letters, he mentions, as belonging to the same family, “Odyssey, Iliad, 1805.”[9] The natural development of his mind led him from the romance of individual destinies to the romance of armies and peoples, those vast human hordes in which the wills of millions of beings are dissolved. His tragic experiences at the siege of Sebastopol helped him to comprehend the soul of the Russian nation and its daily life. According to his first intentions, the gigantic War and Peace was to be merely the central panel of a series of epic frescoes, in which the poem of Russia should be developed from Peter the Great to the Decembrist.[10]

To be truly sensible of the power of this work, we must take into account its hidden unity. Too many readers, unable to see it in perspective, perceive in it nothing but thousands of details, whose profusion amazes and distracts them. They are lost in this forest of life. The reader must stand aloof, upon a height; he must attain the view of the unobstructed horizon, the vast circle of forest and meadow; then he will catch the Homeric spirit of the work, the calm of eternal laws, the awful rhythm of the breathing of Destiny, the sense of the whole of which every detail makes a part; and the genius of the artist, supreme over the whole, like the God of Genesis who broods upon the face of the waters.

In the beginning, the calm of the ocean. Peace, and the life of Russia before the war. The first hundred pages reflect, with an impassive precision, a detached irony, the yawning emptiness of worldly minds. Only towards the hundredth page do we hear the cry of one of these living dead—the worst among them, Prince Basil:

“We commit sins; we deceive one another; and why do we do it all? My friend, I am more than sixty years old… All ends in death… Death—what horror!”

Among these idle, insipid, untruthful souls, capable of every aberration, of every crime, certain saner natures are prominent: genuine natures by their clumsy candour, like Pierre Besoukhov; by their deeply rooted independence, their Old Russian peculiarities, like Marie Dmitrievna; by the freshness of their youth, like the little Rostoffs: natures full of goodness and resignation, like the Princess Marie; and those who, like Prince Andrei, are not good, but proud, and are tormented by an unhealthy existence.

Now comes the first muttering of the waves. The Russian army is in Austria. Fatality is supreme: nowhere more visibly imperious than in the loosing of elementary forces—in the war. The true leaders are those who do not seek to lead or direct, but, like Kutuzov or Bagration, to “allow it to be believed that their personal intentions are in perfect agreement with what is really the simple result of the force of circumstances, the will of subordinates, and the caprices of chance.” The advantage of surrendering to the hand of Destiny! The happiness of simple action, a sane and normal state… The troubled spirits regain their poise. Prince Andrei breathes, begins to live… And while in the far distance, remote from the life-giving breath of the holy tempest, Pierre and the Princess Marie are threatened by the contagion of their world and the deception of love, Andrei, wounded at Austerlitz, has suddenly, amid the intoxication of action brutally interrupted, the revelation of the serene immensity of the universe. Lying on his back, “he sees nothing now, except, very far above him, a sky infinitely deep, wherein light, greyish clouds go softly wandering.”

“What peacefulness! How calm!” he was saying to himself; “it was not like this when I was running by and shouting… How was it I did not notice it before, this illimitable depth? How happy I am to have found it at last! Yes, all is emptiness, all is deception, except this. And God be praised for this calm!…”

But life resumes him, and again the wave falls. Left once more to themselves, in the demoralising atmosphere of cities, the restless, discouraged souls wander blindly in the darkness. Sometimes through the poisoned atmosphere of the world sweep the intoxicating, maddening odours of nature, love, and springtime; the blind forces, which draw together Prince Andrei and the charming Natasha, to throw her, a moment later, into the arms of the first seducer to hand. So much poetry, so much tenderness, so much purity of heart, tarnished by the world! And always “the wide sky which broods above the outrage and abjectness of the earth.” But man does not see it. Even Andrei has forgotten the light of Austerlitz. For him the sky is now only “a dark, heavy vault” which covers the face of emptiness.

It is time for the hurricane of war to burst once more upon these vitiated minds. The fatherland, Russia, is invaded. Then comes the day of Borodino, with its solemn majesty. Enmities are effaced. Dologhov embraces his enemy Pierre. Andrei, wounded, weeps for pity and compassion over the misery of the man whom he most hated, Anatol Kuraguin, his neighbour in the ambulance. The unity of hearts is accomplished; unity in passionate sacrifice to the country and submission to the divine laws.

“To accept the frightful necessity of war, seriously and austerely… To human liberty, war is the most painful act of submission to the divine laws. Simplicity of heart consists in submission to the will of God.”

The soul of the Russian people and its submission to Destiny are incarnated in the person of the commander-in-chief, Kutuzov. “This old man, who has no passions left, but only experience, the result of the passions, and in whom intelligence, which is intended to group together facts and to draw from them conclusions, is replaced by a philosophical contemplation of events, devises nothing and undertakes nothing; but he listens to and remembers everything; he knows how to profit by it at the right moment; he will hinder nothing that is of use, he will permit nothing harmful. He sees on the faces of his troops that inexpressible force which is known as the will to conquer; it is latent victory. He admits something more powerful than his own will: the inevitable march of the facts which pass before his eyes; he sees them, he follows them, and he is able mentally to stand aloof.”

In short, he has the heart of a Russian. This fatalism of the Russian people, calmly heroic, is personified also in the poor moujik, Platon Karatayev, simple, pious, and resigned, with his kindly patient smile in suffering and in death. Through suffering and experience, above the ruins of their country, after the horrors of its agony, Pierre and Andrei, the two heroes of the book, attain, through love and faith, to the moral deliverance and the mystic joy by which they behold God living.

Tolstoy does not stop here. The epilogue, of which the action passes in 1820, deals with the transition from one age to another: from one Napoleonic era to the era of the Decembrists. It produces an impression of continuity, and of the resumption of life. Instead of commencing and ending in the midst of a crisis, Tolstoy finishes, as he began, at the moment when a great wave has spent itself, while that following it is gathering itself together. Already we obtain a glimpse of the heroes to be, of the conflicts which will ensue between them, and of the dead who are born again in the living.[11]

I have tried to indicate the broad lines of the romance; for few readers take the trouble to look for them. But what words are adequate to describe the extraordinary vitality of these hundreds of heroes, all distinct individuals, all drawn with unforgettable mastery: soldiers, peasants, great nobles, Russians, Austrians, Frenchmen! Not a line savours of improvisation. For this gallery of portraits, unexampled in European literature, Tolstoy made sketches without number: “combined,” as he says, “millions of projects”; buried himself in libraries; laid under contribution his family archives,[12] his previous notes, his personal memories. This meticulous preparation ensured the solidity of the work, but did not damp his spontaneity. Tolstoy worked with enthusiasm, with an eagerness and a delight which communicate themselves to the reader. Above all, the great charm of War and Peace resides in its spirit of youth. No other work of Tolstoy’s presents in such abundance the soul of childhood and of youth; and each youthful spirit is a strain of music, pure as a spring, full of a touching and penetrating grace, like a melody of Mozart’s. Of such are the young Nikolas Rostoff, Sonia, and poor little Petia.

Most exquisite of all is Natasha. Dear little girl!—fantastic, full of laughter, her heart full of affection, we see her grow up before us, we follow her through life, with the tenderness one would feel for a sister—who that has read of her does not feel that he has known her?… That wonderful night of spring, when Natasha, at her window, flooded with the moonlight, dreams and speaks wildly, above the window of the listening Andrei… the emotions of the first ball, the expectation of love, the burgeoning of riotous dreams and desires, the sleigh-ride, the night in the snow-bound forest, full of fantastic lights; Nature, and the embrace of her vague tenderness: the evening at the Opera, the unfamiliar world of art, in which reason grows confused; the folly of the heart, and the folly of the body yearning for love; the misery that floods the soul; the divine pity which watches over the dying lover… One cannot evoke these pitiful memories without emotion; such emotion as one would feel in speaking of a dear and beloved woman. How such a creation shows the weakness of the female types in almost the whole of contemporary drama and fiction! Life itself has been captured; life so fluid, so supple, that we seem to see it throbbing and changing from one line to another.

Princess Marie, the ugly woman, whose goodness makes her beautiful, is no less perfect a portrait; but how the timid, awkward girl would have blushed, how those who resemble her must blush, at finding unveiled all the secrets of a heart which hides itself so fearfully from every glance!

In general the portraits of women are, as I have said, very much finer than the male characters; in especial than those of the two heroes to whom Tolstoy has given his own ideas: the weak, pliable nature of Pierre Besoukhov, and the hard, eager nature of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. These are characters which lack a centre of gravity; they oscillate perpetually, rather than evolve; they run from one extreme to the other, yet never advance. One may, of course, reply that in this they are thoroughly Russian. I find, however, that Russians have criticised them in similar terms. Tourgenev doubtless had them in mind when he complained that Tolstoy’s psychology was a stationary matter. “No real development. Eternal hesitations: oscillations of feeling.”[13] Tolstoy himself admitted that he had at times rather sacrificed the individual character to the historical design.[14]

It is true, in fact, that the glory of War and Peace resides in the resurrection of a complete historical period, with its national migrations, its warfare of peoples. Its true heroes are these peoples; and behind them, as behind the heroes of Homer, the gods who lead them; the forces, invisible, “infinitely small, which direct the masses” the breath of the Infinite. These gigantic conflicts, in which a hidden destiny hurls the blind nations together, have a mythical grandeur. Our thoughts go beyond the Iliad: we are reminded of the Hindu epics.

  1. “Domestic happiness completely absorbs me” (January 5, 1863). “I am so happy! so happy! I love her so!” (February 8, 1863). See Vie et Œuvre.
  2. She had written several novels.
  3. It is said that she copied War and Peace seven times.
  4. Directly after his marriage Tolstoy suspended his work of teaching, his review, and his school.
  5. Her sister Tatiana, intelligent and artistic, whose wit and musical talent were greatly admired by Tolstoy, also served him as a model. Tolstoy used to say, “I took Tania [Tatiana]; I beat her up with Sonia [Sophie Bers, Countess Tolstoy], and out came Natasha” (cited by P. Birukov).
  6. The installation of Dolly in the tumble-down country house; Dolly and the children; a number of details of dress and toilet; without speaking of certain secrets of the feminine mind, which even the intuition of a man of genius might perhaps have failed to penetrate, if a woman had not betrayed them to him.
  7. Here is a characteristic instance of Tolstoy’s enslavement by his creative genius: his Journal is interrupted for thirteen years, from November 1, 1865, when the composition of War and Peace was in full swing. The egoism of the artist has silenced the monologue of the conscience. This period of creation was also a period of robust physical life. Tolstoy was “mad on hunting.” “Hunting, I forget everything…” (Letter of 1864.) In September, 1864, during a hunt on horse back, he broke his arm, and it was during his convalescence that the first portions of War and Peace were dictated.—“On recovering consciousness after fainting, I said to myself: ‘I am an artist.’ And I am, but a lonely artist” (Letter to Fet, January 29, 1865.) All the letters written at this time to Fet are full of an exulting joy of creation. “I regard all that I have hitherto published,” he says, “as merely a trial of my pen” (Ibid.)
  8. Before this date Tolstoy had noted, among the books which influenced him between the ages of twenty and thirty-five:

    “Goethe: Hermann and Dorothea—Very great influence.”

    “Homer: Iliad and Odyssey (in Russian) Very great influence.” And in June, 1863, he notes in his diary:

    “I am reading Goethe, and many ideas are coming to life within me.”

    In the spring of 1863 Tolstoy was re-reading Goethe, and wrote of Faust as “the poetry of the world of thought; the poetry which expresses that which can be expressed by no other art.”

    Later he sacrificed Goethe, as he did Shakespeare, to his God. But he remained faithful in his admiration of Homer. In August, 1857, he was reading, with equal zest, the Iliad and the Bible. In one of his latest works, the pamphlet attacking Shakespeare (1903), it is Homer that he opposes to Shakespeare as an example of sincerity, balance, and true art.

  9. The two first parts of War and Peace appeared in 1865-66 under the title The Year 1805.
  10. Tolstoy commenced this work in 1863 by The Decembrists, of which he wrote three fragments. But he saw that the foundations of his plan were not sufficiently assured, and going further back, to the period of the Napoleonic Wars, he wrote War and Peace. Publication was commenced in the Rousski Viestnik of January, 1865; the sixth volume was completed in the autumn of 1869. Then Tolstoy ascended the stream of history; and he conceived the plan of an epic romance dealing with Peter the Great; then of another, Mirovitch, dealing with the rule of the Empresses of the eighteenth century and their favourites. He worked at it from 1870 to 1873, surrounded with documents, and writing the first drafts of various portions; but his realistic scruples made him renounce the project: he was conscious that he could never succeed in resuscitating the spirit of those distant periods in a sufficiently truthful fashion. Later, in January, 1876, he conceived the idea of another romance of the period of Nikolas I.; then he eagerly returned to the Decembrists, collecting the evidence of survivors and visiting the scenes of the action. In 1878 he wrote to his aunt, Countess A. A. Tolstoy: “This work is so important to me! You cannot imagine how much it means to me; it is as much to me as your faith is to you. I would say even more” (Correspondence.) But in proportion as he plumbed the subject he grew away from it; his heart was in it no longer. As early as April, 1879, he wrote to Fet: “The Decembrists? If I were thinking of it, if I were to write it, I should flatter myself with the hope that the very atmosphere of my mind would be insupportable to those who fire upon men for the good of humanity.” (Ibid.) At this period of his life the religious crisis had set in; he was about to burn his ancient idols.
  11. Pierre Besoukhov, who has married Natasha, will become a Decembrist. He has founded a secret society to watch over the general good, a sort of Tugelbund. Natasha associates herself with his plans with the utmost enthusiasm. Denissov cannot conceive of a pacific revolution; but is quite ready for an armed revolt. Nikolas Rostoff has retained his blind soldier’s loyalty. He who said before Austerlitz, “We have only one thing to do: to fight and never to think,” is angry with Pierre, and exclaims: “My oath before all! If I were ordered to march against you with my squadron I should march and I should strike home.” His wife, Princess Marie, agrees with him. Prince Andrei’s son, little Nikolas Bolkonsky, fifteen years old, delicate, sickly, yet charming, with wide eyes and golden hair, listens feverishly to the discussion; all his love is Pierre’s and Natasha’s; he does not care greatly for Nikolas and Marie; he worships his father, whom he has never seen; he dreams of growing like him, of being grown up, of doing something wonderful, he knows not what. “Whatever they tell me, I will do it… Yes, I shall do it. He would have been pleased with me.”—And the book ends with the dream of a child, who sees himself in the guise of one of Plutarch’s heroes, with his uncle Pierre by his side, preceded by Glory, and followed by an army.—If the Decembrists had been written then little Bolkonsky would doubtless have been one of its heroes.
  12. I have remarked that the two families Rostoff and Bolkonsky, in War and Peace, recall the families of Tolstoy’s father and mother by many characteristics. Again, in the novels of the Caucasus and Sebastopol there are many of the types of soldiers, officers and men, which appear in War and Peace.
  13. Letter of February 2, 1868, cited by Birukov.
  14. Notably, he said, that of Prince Andrei in the first part.