Introduction To Tolstoy's Writings by Ernest J Simmons

Much has been written about similarities and dissimilarities in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but no two great novelists differed so fundamentally in their conception and practice of realism in the art of fiction. Though both authors, ideologically speaking, had a vested interest in Christ's teachings, Dostoevsky was peculiarly spiritual and Tolstoy completely earthbound.

Like Gogol, whom he preferred as a storyteller, Tolstoy believed that a work, in order to be good, must come singing from the author's soul. But he criticized Gogol for a pitiless and unloving attitude to his characters, a charge from which he absolved Dickens, and he could quite justly have absolved himself. Though in 'What is art.?' he failed to admit any of Dostoevsky's writings to his category of "universal art," which conveys feelings of common life accessible to everyone, he did include the tales of Pushkin and Gogol.

Early in his artistic development Tolstoy had the greatest admiration for Pushkin, although he complained of the bareness of his prose and criticized 'The Captain's Daughter' because the interest in events predominates over interest in details of feeling. But the account is well known, although its veracity has been questioned, of how his enthusiasm for the opening of a Pushkin short story, which plunged directly into the action, inspired him to begin Anna Karenina in the same manner.

The derivation of Tolstoy's fiction from the classical school of Russian realism begun by Pushkin can hardly be doubted. However, this colossus of a genius, who took all knowledge for his province, read omnivorously in foreign literatures as well as in Russian, and one may trace in the rich unrolling tapestry of his art threads from the works of English eighteenth-century writers, especially Sterne, and, in the nineteenth century, Thackeray and Dickens, whom he regarded as the greatest novelist of the age, and also from the French realists, particularly Stendhal. If literature is the memory of culture, Tolstoy seems to have remembered it all, but so original was his artistic nature that anything he may have borrowed he completely assimilated and made his own. The realistic tradition he inherited he greatly expanded and enriched in practice so that the finished product became the despair of imitators.

No novelist was more acutely aware of the reality around him than Tolstoy or more exhaustively absorbed, through the intellect and senses, in all its manifestations. Unlike Dostoevsky, who creates a world of his own in the image of the real world, Tolstoy accepts the real world, and his picture of it is fresh and interesting because he sees so much more of it than his readers, but its commonplaces, observed through the prism of his imagination, take on new meaning. That is, he is able to perceive genuine poetry in the average which so often embodies the reality of man's dreams and hopes. Man needs hope as much or more than he needs knowledge, Tolstoy declared in answer to a speech of Zola who advised a group of French students to accept science as the road to a new faith rather than build their living faith on the debris of dead ones, for, he warned, reality becomes a school of perversion which must be killed or denied since it will lead to nothing but ugliness and crime. Tolstoy countered in his essay "Non-Acting":

"It is commonly said that reality is that which exists, or that only what exists is real. Just the contrary is the case: true reality, that which we really know, is what has never existed."

That reality is so often different from what men and women hope and dream, that life often disappoints them because they have confused the imagined with the real is a central problem with Tolstoy's more reflective characters. In 'The Cossacks' Olenin's conception of the romantic existence of these people of the Caucasus is shattered by the reality of it; in 'War and Peace' Prince Andrew's exaggerated notions of a career in the army and in politics are harshly corrected by experience; and in 'Anna Karenina' Levin's idealistic hopes about marriage are soon disillusioned. In such cases Tolstoy usually demonstrates that the reality of things is richer, more affirmative and life-giving than the reality imagined by such characters. But he does this through their active experiences, although reflection plays its part, for he never forgets that realistic literature should portray human beings in action. Disillusionment with reality is not resolved in metaphysical quests, as in Dostoevsky's fiction and in that of not a few novelists today. Tolstoy's alienated man does not ask himself the everlasting question: Who am I? but rather: Why am I here and where am I going? At least the matter of self-identification is already resolved. The different emphasis is fundamental and it is a quality of Tolstoy's realism.

To those who knew him intimately, Tolstoy always gave the impression of a normal human being who enjoyed to the full the ordinary activities of society, but he combined with this normality what might be described as an abnormal intensity of sensibility and temperament. Even as a child his endless high spirits set him apart from others, and if he were petted tears of joy would come to his eyes. His sister remarked that as a boy he was like a ray of light and would dash into the room with a happy smile as if he wished to tell everyone of a new discovery he had just made. These unusual characteristics remained with him as a grown man and, along with his extraordinary faculty for intellectual analysis, enabled him to enter sympathetically into the feelings of every kind of person. In short, if he participated in the same pleasures and interests of the mass of mankind, he realized them more imaginatively and passionately. That is, Tolstoy's intense sensibility and temperament added a unique dimension to his creative process which enhances the men and women of his novels, as well as their experiences, with amazing life-affirming qualities. Though his novels excite the imagination and seem laden with significance, they achieve this without any sacrifice of probability. It is hard to think of any other great writer whose fiction was so closely bound up with fact. On the other hand, if his intellect and imagination were stimulated entirely by objective observation, Tolstoy's moral nature compelled him to be profoundly concerned with the state of the soul.

The great poet Pushkin, and not Tolstoy, stands as the brightest and foremost symbol of Russian literature in that country, very much as Shakespeare does in English literature. However, if Tolstoy is regarded not only as a literary artist but also as a religious philosopher and modern reformer, then he was possibly the greatest single moral force in the world in the second half of the nineteenth century. Certainly no Russian writer is better known outside his country than Tolstoy. Yet it is probably true that his various religious, moral, and philosophical works would never have received the wide hearing they did if Tolstoy had not already been the author of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'.

During his lifetime the tremendous popular impact of these novels and other purely literary works placed him at the head of all Russian writers. Even his two chief rivals acknowledged his supreme position. Dostoevsky, with his feeling of inferiority about Russian culture, joyfully hailed 'Anna Karenina' as superior to any Western European novel in the nineteenth century. Turgenev, who could never get along with Tolstoy as a man and on one occasion narrowly avoided fighting a duel with him, profoundly admired his genius and on his deathbed pleaded with him, in the famous phrase, "great author of the Russian land," to return to writing belles-lettres.

By the last two decades of the nineteenth century what might be called the "saturation realism" of Tolstoy encountered a mixed reception in Western Europe. The current French naturalist dicta in criticism and perhaps also some of Tolstoy's extreme religious and moral views, which had begun to filter into the West, hindered an unprejudiced appreciation of his fiction. Upon reading a French translation of 'War and Peace' in 1880, Flaubert wrote Turgenev:

"It is of the first rank! What painting and what psychology! . . . It seemed to me at times that there were things worthy of Shakespeare! I uttered cries of admiration during the reading! "

In general, however, French critics compared Tolstoy's works, especially 'Anna Karenina', unfavourably with Madame Bovary with its impeccable form, tailored style, and naturalistic detail. Their tendency was to express bewilderment over the vast mass of reality reflected in Tolstoy's major novels and to regard them as peculiarly formless and artless - the chaotic outpourings of some super-reporter of experience. Nor did Matthew Arnold in England clarify the situation much by basing his preference of 'Anna Karenina' over 'Madame Bovary' partly on the conviction that Tolstoy's novel was not really a work of art at all but a piece of life, and that what it lost in art it gained in reality. And Henry James' near-sighted discovery of "large loose baggy monsters" in Tolstoy's fiction, his lament over the absence of "a deep-breathing economy of an organic form," and later E. M. Forster's comment on 'War and Peace' as an "untidy book" have contributed to this notion of formlessness and artlessness which has clung to so much Western criticism of Tolstoy. In its application to serious fiction, Arnold's dichotomy of life and art is a spurious conception. Not "a piece of life" but life in all its manifestations crowds the huge canvas of Tolstoy's masterpieces. Their patterns of human relationships are always carefully planned, and plot is a poetic form reflecting reality rather than a contrived frame on which to stretch events. If the transformation of reality into art has been effected with equal skill in, let us say, Stendhal's 'The Red and the Black' or Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary', in no novel has so much reality been transformed into art as in 'War and Peace'.

In the Soviet Union, Tolstoy is venerated and his works have been published in millions of copies. The ninety-volume Jubilee Edition of all his writings is in completeness, textual accuracy, and scholarly annotation one of the most magnificent tributes ever paid to a great author. Soviet scholarship on Tolstoy is extremely copious and much of it of high quality, but where interpretation is required, it is more often than not dominated by Lenin's Marxian formulations, especially by his article, "Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution." Lenin, more modest than Stalin as a literary critic, made the sharpest distinction between Tolstoy the artist, whom he praised in the highest terms, and Tolstoy the thinker, whose doctrines of moral perfectibility and non-resistance to evil he contemptuously dismissed. Lenin did laud Tolstoy's stubborn opposition to tsarist oppression and viewed such activities as an important factor in the developing revolutionary movement. Tolstoy, of course, abhorred the violence of revolution, and he once declared in his diary that

"Socialists will never destroy poverty and the inequality of capacities. The strongest and most intelligent will always make use of the weaker and more stupid.... Even if that takes place which Marx predicted, then the only thing that will happen is that despotism will be passed on."

Such a statement, and others like it, have not discouraged Marxian investigations of Tolstoy's fiction. An outstanding one, illustrative of most in interpretation but differing from those of Soviet critics in the author's deep knowledge of Western European literature as well as Russian, was contributed by George Lukacs, the brilliant Hungarian Marxist literary critic who spent a number of years in the Soviet Union. Despite his wide and illuminating frame of reference, Lukacs, like Lenin, narrowly argues that Tolstoy created his literary masterpieces on the basis of an essentially false philosophy, but that as a political reactionary he unconsciously dramatized the revolutionary forces of his time. It is hard to imagine Tolstoy ever doing anything unconsciously, particularly in his writings. He would have agreed fully with Chekhov that nothing happens by chance in art.

In order to overcome the unpoetic nature of a society permeated by capitalism - Lukacs maintains in his 'Studies in European Realism' - Tolstoy makes the exploited peasant, either consciously or unconsciously, the central problem of his fiction. "The poetic starting-point in the presentation of each character by Tolstoy," Lukacs writes, "was the question: in what way was their life based on the receipt of ground-rents and on the exploitation of the peasants and what problems did this social basis produce in their lives."

In these terms Anna Karenina's fatal passion for Vronsky becomes for Lukacs another tragedy growing out of "the contradictions latently present . . . in every bourgeois love and marriage." Even the famous mowing scene in this novel, when viewed in terms of Levin's unMarxian attitude toward the peasants, is set down as "a sentimental attitude to physical labour." In a review of 'Anna Karenina', Dostoevsky, unlike Lukacs, censures Tolstoy for making the central problem of all his writing not the exploited peasantry, but the landed gentry. The ineptness of this kind of criticism is unwittingly limned by D. H. Lawrence in his poem: "Now It's Happened":

But Tolstoy was a traitor
to the Russia that needed him most,
the clumsy, bewildered Russia
so worried by the Holy Ghost.
He shifted his job on to the peasants
and landed them all on toast.

The vital point missed by Lukacs is that Tolstoy, whenever he dwells upon man's inhumanity to man in his fiction, is never directly attacking a political system, but rather man in general for placing his own egotism ahead of the common needs of humanity. Even toward the end of his life, when he excoriated the Tsar's government for its abuses, he was in effect denouncing all governments, whose disappearance he devoutly hoped for in terms of his doctrine of Christian anarchism. The radical democrats of the 1860's, such as Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, and the revolutionists who followed were all profoundly distasteful to Tolstoy.

In appraising Tolstoy's attitude toward the peasant, one must make a sharp distinction between the first fifty years of his life, when most of his great fiction, including 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', was written, and the remaining years after his spiritual upheaval. In the latter period it is true that he came to believe that just as a child is more perfect and closer to ideal harmony than the grown man, so is the simple peasant closer to it than self-destructive parasites of the elite. And in the end, shortly before his death, Tolstoy left his home to realize a dream of breaking with his privileges and settling with the toiling peasants whom he had come to regard as "the finest and most moral class of people in Russia."

But when he was writing the famous fiction on which Lukacs bases his theorizing, Count Leo Tolstoy's instincts were entirely those of the aristocratic heritage that was his birth-right. In fact, there is much reason to suppose that he never abandoned the confidence, refinement, and sense of authority of the landed gentry however much his later humanitarian convictions led him to advocate the cause of underprivileged workers and peasants.

Actually, peasants play a relatively small part in the total corpus of his fiction, and he rarely stresses their feelings of class opposition to the gentry. Anticipating the objections of readers of 'War and Peace' to his concentration on members of his own class, he wrote in the draft of an unused foreword:

"The lives of officials, merchants, seminarists, and peasants do not interest me and are only partly understandable to me; the lives of the aristocrats of that time, thanks to the documents of the period and other reasons, are understandable, interesting, and dear to me."

He is more forthright on his prejudices in a note to himself in one of the draft versions of 'War and Peace' where he flatly states that the lives of all people not in his own class, including peasants, seem boring and monotonous and that all their actions stem from the same motives: envy of their superiors, self-interest, and material passions. And he concludes:

"I am an aristocrat because I cannot believe in the lofty intellect, the fine taste, or the complete honesty of a man who picks his nose and whose soul communicates with God."