And now, here in this wearisome fortress, I often ask myself, as my thoughts wander back to the past: why did I not wish to tread that way, thrown open by destiny, where soft joys and ease of soul were awaiting me? No, I could never have become habituated to such a fate! I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig: his soul has grown accustomed to storms and battles; but, once let him be case upon the shore, and he chafes, he pines away, however invitingly the shady groves allure, however brightly shines the peaceful sun. The live-long day he paces the sandy shore, hearkens to the monotonous murmur of the onrushing waves, and gazes into the misty distance: lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?
A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, cover illustration by Edward Gorey
cover image via fuckyeahrussianliterature
“Sometimes Pierre remembered stories he had heard about how soldiers at war, taking cover under enemy fire, when there is nothing to do, try to find some occupation for themselves so as to endure the danger more easily. And to Pierre all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life: some with ambition, some with cards, some with drafting laws, some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with affairs of state. ‘Nothing is either trivial or important, it’s all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!’ thought Pierre.”
[Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Vol. II, Part Five, Chapter I - translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, p. 538]
“Chekhov and the Americans”, by R. Littell in The New Republic, 22 June 1927, li. 124-5 [reprinted in Anton Chekhov: the Critical Heritage ed. by Victor Emeljanow, Routledge, 1981 pp. 320-321]
(This may be the year every single friend of mine who is not already reading Chekhov religiously receives a copy of his short stories and/or a theatre ticket from me.)
“You’re being all pantheistic again” - happy birthday Woody Allen!
I accept all blame and pick up the gauntlet of your challenge with a further, gentle push to tip you over the edge:
The carriage and horses had long been led out on the other side and hitched up, and the sun had already half disappeared, and the evening frost had covered the pools by the crossing with stars, but Pierre and Andrei, to the astonishment of the lackeys, coachmen, and ferrymen, were still standing on the ferry and talking.
“If there is God and if there is a future life, then there is truth, there is virtue; and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, we must believe,” said Pierre, “that we do not live only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and will live eternally there, in the all” (he pointed to the sky). Prince Andrei stood with his elbow resting on the rail of the ferry, and, listening to Pierre, did not take his eyes off the red gleam of the sun on the blue floodwaters. Pierre fell silent. It was completely still. The ferry had long been moored, and only the waves of the current lapped with a faint sound against the ferry’s bottom. It seemed to Prince Andrei that this splash of waves made a refrain to Pierre’s words, saying: “It’s true, I believe it.”
Prince Andrei sighed, and with a luminous, childlike, tender gaze looked into the flushed, rapturous face of Pierre, who still felt timid before his superior friend.
“Yes, if only it were so!” he said. “Anyhow, let’s go and get in,” Prince Andrei added, and, stepping off the ferry, he looked at the sky Pierre had pointed to, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, eternal sky he had seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened, joyful and young in his soul. This feeling disappeared as soon as Prince Andrei re-entered the habitual conditions of life, but he knew that this feeling, which he did not know how to develop, lived in him. The meeting with Pierre marked an epoch for Prince Andrei, from which began what, while outwardly the same, was in his inner world a new life.
(War & Peace, Volume Two, Part II, xii, p.389)
Thus Tolstoy invented the Joycean epiphany, and the post-classical modern bromance. (Let me know when you start reading…)
I first read War and Peace two weeks after my twenty-first birthday. It took me over two months but I was completely bowled over by it. I started studying Russian, got a dramaturge job on a script about Tolstoy, directed Anna Karenina.
Upon second reading it still feels like that: a book that offers you a glorious, rich, detailed second life in a different world. It’s all strangely familiar and yet new: new details are coming to the fore, I have different opinions on certain characters, and I am intensely drawn to the philosophy much more than the plot. The Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation is a joy.
100 years ago today (November 20), Leo Tolstoy, who gave us two major classics in the Russian tradition, Anna Karenina and War & Peace, died at Astapovo, a small, remote train station in the heart of Russia. Pneumonia was the official cause. His death came just weeks after Tolstoy, then 82 years old, made a rather dramatic decision. He left his wife, his comfortable estate and his wealth and traveled 26 hours to Sharmardino, where Tolstoy’s sister Marya lived, and where he planned to live the remainder of his life in a small, rented hut. (Elif Batuman has more on this.) But then he pushed on, boarding a train to the Caucasus. And it proved to be more than his already weak constitution could bear. Rather amazingly, the footage above brings you back to Tolstoy’s very last days, and right to his deathbed itself. This clip comes from a 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, and these days you can still find copies of Clark’s accompanying book kicking around online.
Great video, but the commentary - from 1969 - mentions that Tolstoy ran away, aged 82, from his “poor demented wife.” How patronising! I am a big fan of Tolstoy’s work, but he was a complicated and self-contradictory man with a strange Christ-complex, and so many biographers who become entranced by the depth of his philosophy and his literary skill completely fail to see his wife’s perspective.
Sofya Tolstoya was utterly devoted to her husband. She bore him seventeen children - out of which thirteen survived - while he preached abstinence and celibacy. She fed him, their children, and dozens of devoted fans and acolytes he invited to stay with them as he promoted his peculiar version of religious philosophy, which involved vegetarianism and fasting (but he ate meat on the sly). She was in charge of the estate’s finances, and responsible for the lives of workers living on it (and off its produce), as Count Tolstoy preached the abolition of serfdom but nonetheless kept servants. She struggled to preserve the copyright to his works so that their children could have a relatively safe economic future even in the case of a revolution, as Tolstoy’s creepy secretary Chertkoff persuaded him to give up all income derived from his publications to the people of Russia (good sentiment, but if in a patriarchal society the father doesn’t earn anything it makes a large family’s life quite tricky, doesn’t it). Besides, without her there would be no War and Peace, nor Anna Karenina: she stayed up nights to transcribe his illegible handwriting before his drafts could be sent to publishers.
For her sins, she was a naive but ambitious and spoiled rich girl when she married him, aged eighteen (he was thirty-five - the story of their courtship is mirrored in great detail in Levin and Kitty’s in Anna Karenina), and the shock of finding herself in the arms of this successful writer and penniless Count in the middle of a vast wild country, after a life spent as the daughter of the court doctor must have been enormous. She coped with it by learning to run the estate, and gaining a degree of intellectual independence and education unimaginable for a woman of the Russian high society at the time.
As he became more and more regarded as a sage and gradually lost touch with everyday life, she began to struggle and felt lost. She had devoted her entire life to him, and suddenly he seemed not to care about anything ordinary - anything that she had come to regard as her domain - anymore. Only the great topics of the world interested him. She suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide various times, some say, in order to get his attention. Perhaps, but read her diaries and you’ll find that she was burdened with misery of her own, which only worsened during middle age. They rowed like crazy, but then also made peace with intense and passionate words (through their diaries, which they kept daily, and exchanged every night in order to know exactly what the other was thinking or writing - something he insisted upon), often resolving their clashes through fierce lovemaking. It seems to me that they couldn’t live together without fighting, and yet they couldn’t be apart.
When Tolstoy finally ran away from home to pursue his fantasy of asceticism away from all human bonds he fell too ill to travel any further than the train station at Astapovo (now called Lev Tolstoy Station). Sofya Tolstoya travelled there as soon as she heard the news, and waited for three days outside in the freezing snow to see him. He was in agony and probably not conscious for most of the time, but his secretary did not allow her to see him until it was too late. It’s a sad story this story of genius, mania and love, but one that can’t be written without one character or the other.