The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 7



During the first period of his married life Tolstoy's days were filled with domestic happiness. In a letter to his friend, Fet, he says: "I am married and happy; I am a new—quite a new—man." But his rapturous delight did not interfere with his literary work. He completed the first part of "The Cossacks"—the second part of which, unhappily, he never finished—and, at the same period, prepared and published a sketch called Polikushka, Tolstoy himself, in a letter to Fet, gives the following opinion of these works:

"I live in a world so far away from literature and critics that on receiving a letter like yours my first sentiment is astonishment. Who wrote 'The Cossacks' and Polikushka? And what may be said on their account? Paper is patient, and the publisher pays for and prints everything. But that is only the first impression. When I begin to look into the meaning of the words and to search my mind, somewhere, in a corner amongst old, forgotten rubbish, I find a vague feeling which may be called artistic. Comparing this with what you say, I admit that you are right, and even I find pleasure in rummaging among such old rubbish and memories instinct with the fragrance of the past, once so dear to me. Even the desire to write is awakened. Certainly you are right. But readers like you are few. Polikushka is gossip about the first subject to hand by a man who knows how to handle a pen; 'The Cossacks' has more vitality, though also rather poor work. I am now writing the story of a horse, which I hope to publish in the autumn."

His creative energy soon reasserted itself, and he conceived the idea of a gigantic work. His attention was drawn to the remarkable epoch of the Decembrists,[1] and he desired to represent it in an artistic form. The results of the preliminary work were fragments published in the complete edition of his works. Studying that historic period, he did not neglect to examine the causes of the events he wished to describe, and the whole period of the Napoleonic wars unfolded itself before him. Impassioned by his subject, he gave himself up to it with the whole strength of his

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Countess Tolstoy.

genius. The great work, "War and Peace," gradually evolved. There were many difficulties and obstacles, but he overcame them by the power of his genius, now aroused to full activity. From letters to his friends we see the various stages through which the work passed to its completion:

"I am in a very anxious state of mind. I am writing nothing, though working hard. You cannot imagine how difficult for me is the preliminary work of ploughing deeply the field where I must sow. I must think, and think again, over what may happen to all the personages of my future large work, and to consider millions of possible combinations, and choose from them the millionth part. It is extremely difficult. That is what I am occupied with."

In a later letter to Fet he writes:

"This autumn I made enough progress with my novel. Ars longa, vita brevis. I am thinking every day. If one could do the one hundredth part of what one intends! But, in reality, only one millionth part is accomplished. Nevertheless, the conviction that he can write brings happiness to the author. You know this feeling. This year I feel it stronger than ever."

At the very height of this period of hard work, Tolstoy, whilst hunting, was thrown by his horse and broke his right arm. Rendered unconscious by the pain, he found, on regaining his senses, that his horse had run away. Though suffering greatly, he crept to the high road, where he lay down until some passers-by conveyed him home on a cart. It is difficult to imagine such a tragic picture: the future creator of "War and Peace" lying helpless, with a broken arm, on the high road, waiting to be picked up by a chance passer-by.

Deprived for a while of the use of his right hand, Tolstoy continued his work by dictating to his sister-in-law. He was also obliged to separate himself temporarily from his family, as the treatment for his arm obliged him to go to Moscow. Already, after a month, he writes jokingly to Fet:

"I must tell you something surprising about myself. When the horse threw me and broke my arm, upon regaining consciousness, I said to myself, 'I am a literary man.' Yes, I am a literary man, but in seclusion and hiding. In a few days the first instalment of the first volume of '1815' will appear. Please write me your opinion in detail. Yours, and that of a man whom I love more and more with advancing years (Turgenef) are dear to me. He will understand. What I wrote previously I consider only as a trial of my pen. Although I like what I am publishing now better than former writings, nevertheless this also seems uninteresting, as the beginning of a book sometimes is. But that which will follow——!"

From this letter it is clear how, through the modesty of genius, his indomitable creative power asserted itself and his plans developed.

"1815" was the original title of "War and Peace." Studying that epoch, he worked among the historical and military archives, interviewed survivors of that period, visited the battlefield of Borodino, and was so transported with joy by the picture flashing before his imagination that he wrote to his wife:

"If God grants health and peace, I shall give such a picture of the battle of Borodino as has never yet been done."

The work absorbed him entirely, and when he was especially satisfied with his writing he used to say to his family:

"To-day I left a bit of my life in my ink-pot."

This great work occupied six whole years—from 1863 to 1869. The critics did not at once appreciate its value. They were staggered. Liberal critics, not understanding its meaning and artistic beauties, accused Tolstoy of reactionary views—of preaching the philosophy of stagnation, etc. On the other hand, the conservative critics saw in the description of battles only patriotic tendencies; and even so refined an author as Turgenef, and a literary connoisseur and friend like Botkin, were not immediately captured by "War and Peace." But if the victory gained by this work was slow it was all the more complete, its influence increasing by degrees as successive instalments appeared.

The writer considers "War and Peace" to be the highest development of Tolstoy's artistic creative power, and therefore purposes to dwell a little longer on this work, which nearly approaches perfection. The descriptions of nature, of the movement of crowds, the fine moral analysis—all these are intermingled in exquisite harmony and proportion. The terrible collision of army corps, the streets of noisy towns, the country houses of the nobility, with their surrounding villages, the drawing-rooms of high society, the nursery of a happy mother, the romantic intrigues of loving young people, the execution of a military prisoner, the psychology of the crowd, and the smallest detail of the suffering soul of the hero, the snow-covered plains of Russia, and the silent field of Austerlitz, covered with corpses and abandoned wounded, with the all-forgiving, starry sky overhead—all these are described with a simplicity and truth never till then attained by any master of literature nor ever likely to be surpassed.

The two heroes, Prince Andrew and Pierre Bezukhoff, deserve special attention. They are the incarnation of the two sides of Tolstoy's nature, so inclined to analysis and scepticism. When he wrote "War and Peace" he had not achieved that great synthesis of reason and love which later inspired all his works. Prince Andrew and Pierre represent the two forces always at strife in Tolstoy's own soul: cold reason and invincible idealism. The truth was lying on the distant crossing point of those two lines, where reason became the highest reason and idealism was transformed into love.

In the artistic portion of the novel, Tolstoy has interwoven his own idea with the philosophy of history, which he expounded more fully in a special article:

"A few words on 'War and Peace.' The point of greatest interest for me is the insignificant role played in the development of historical events by the so-called great men. Studying the highly tragic period of the Napoleonic wars, so crowded with great events, so recent, on which such varied traditions are preserved, I come to the definite conclusion that the causes of historical events are concealed from our reason.

"Such an event as that when millions of people fought each other, half a million of whom were actually killed, could not have been caused by the will of one man. Just as it is impossible for one man to undermine a mountain, so is it impossible for one man to force five hundred thousand persons to lay down their lives."

The laws of human life are compared by Tolstoy with a stencil plate, and human desires, strivings, and acts to the colours which are carelessly painted over the plate. Thanks to the stencil plate, in spite of a carelessly handled brush, we procure a correct design, because the paint does not show wherever we happen to apply it, but only at those parts reached through the pattern cut in the plate. So, from the thousands of our inco-ordinate desires, only those are realised which correspond with the open spaces in some great stencil plate of life.

The most active period of Tolstoy's life was the 'sixties. Despite his great literary work, he did not neglect his social duties. He occupied himself with the estate, spent part of his time with his family, hunted, and so forth. In 1866 he appeared as the defender of the soldier, Shibunin, who, for striking his officer, was condemned to death by the military tribunal. Tolstoy's defence was not successful: he could not save Shibunin, who was shot. But this event, according to his own words, did not pass without its due effect upon Tolstoy:

"I vaguely felt, even then," he recently wrote in a letter, "that capital punishment, this premeditated murder, is in direct contradiction to that Christian law which we, so to speak, confess, and destroys every possibility of a rational life as well as any morality, because it is evident that if one person or a committee of men can decide that it is necessary to kill one or more persons, there is no reason why one or more such persons should not find equal necessity for killing other people."

Further analysing the vindication by science or by the Church of capital punishment, he concludes:

"Yes, this case had a great and beneficial influence on me. On that occasion, for the first time, I felt two things: that violence pre-supposes murder or threats of it for its accomplishment, and that therefore all violence is inevitably connected with murder; secondly, that a State organisation is inconceivable without murder, and consequently cannot accord with Christianity."

At the same period of life, some of Tolstoy's later social ideas were conceived. In his note book of 1865 we find the following interesting observations:

"The historical mission of Russia consists in bringing before the world the idea of the socialisation of land.

"'La propriété c'est le vol' will remain a greater truth for humanity than that of the English constitution. It is an absolute truth, but there are relative truths as the outcome of its application. The first of these relative truths is the conception of property by the Russian people. The Russian people decry private ownership in land, which is the most fundamental form of property, least of all an outcome of work, and, more than any, barring the acquisition of property by other people. This is not a dream; it is a fact realised by the Russian peasants' communes and those of the Cossacks. This truth is equally well understood by the educated Russian and the peasant who says, 'Let the Government inscribe us as Cossacks, and the land will be free for us all.' This idea has a future, and on it only a Russian revolution may be based. Such a revolution will not be directed against the Tsar and despotism, but against private ownership in land, and the people will say 'Take from each what you like, but leave us the land.' Absolutism does not interfere with, but rather favours, this order of things."

These are the germs of ideas developed by Tolstoy so powerfully in his later works. Already we see here the beginning of his sympathy with Henry George's idea of land nationalisation by the Single Tax system, which Tolstoy defended till his death.

  1. The constitutional attempt of 14th December, 1825, in which the best families of the nobility were involved.—Translator.