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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy | The Nation

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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy's renunciations extended even to art itself--or at least the kind of art represented by his earlier masterpieces. Style, form, the profusion of realistic detail for which his great novels are so celebrated, even the act of invention itself: all these he came to regard, at least in certain moods, as frivolous and therefore evil. Goodness mattered, not beauty. After finishing "Master and Man," not only an exquisitely realized piece of work but an exemplarily Christian one, he told his diary, "I am ashamed to have wasted my time on such stuff." He wrote, as it were, behind his own back.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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With its lack of art and absence of thought, the blockbuster Norwegian novel disappoints.

The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

But still he wrote. His late style is leaner, his forms more spare, but this is also the economy of achieved mastery. He does more with less, and the Tolstoyan sounds, instantly recognizable, are still there. First, the way with dialogue. "But how live with a person if there's no love?" says a lady, disputing the question of divorce.

"That wasn't gone into before," the old man said in an impressive tone. "It's only started now. There's something, and she up and says: 'I'm leaving you.' Even among muzhiks this fashion's caught on: 'Here,' she says, 'take all your shirts and trousers, and I'll go with Vanka, his hair's curlier than yours.' Well, go and talk after that. The first thing in a woman should be fear."

That's voicing and voicing squared, the old man's sound plus his version of the peasant's.

(To see why Pevear and Volokhonsky are so cherished, compare this with another translation:

"People didn't make such a fuss about all that in the old days," said the merchant in a serious voice. "That's all just come in lately. First thing you hear her say nowadays is 'I'm leaving you.' It's a fashion that's caught on even among the muzhiks. 'Here you are,' she says; 'here's your shirts and trousers, I'm off with Vanka, his hair's curlier than yours.' And it's no good arguing with her. Whereas what ought to come first for a woman is fear."

The new version is more flexible, individuated, immediate and in a lot fewer words.)

Then, the power of "concrete evocation," as Tolstoy's greatest gift has been called:

Carefully picking his way through the dung-heaped stable, Mukhorty frisked and bucked, pretending that he wanted to give a kick with his hind leg at Nikita, who was jogging beside him to the well.
 "Go on, go on, you rascal!" muttered Nikita, who knew the care with which Mukhorty had thrown up his hind leg, just enough to touch his greasy sheepskin jacket but not to hit him, and who especially liked that trick.
 After drinking the icy water, the horse sighed, moving his wet, firm lips, from the whiskers of which transparent drops dripped into the trough, and stood still as if in thought; then he suddenly gave a loud snort.

"If the world could write by itself," Isaac Babel said, "it would write like Tolstoy."

And then, the psychological clairvoyance:

Today Butler was going into action for the second time, and it was a joy to him to think that they were about to be fired at, and that he not only would not duck his head as a cannonball flew over or pay attention to the whistle of bullets, but would carry his head high, as he had done already, and look about at his comrades and soldiers with a smile in his eyes, and start talking in the most indifferent voice about something irrelevant.

And then again, the comedy of manners, always disturbed, in Tolstoy, by an undertow of seriousness. Two men meet at a wake:

Pyotr Ivanovich's colleague, Schwartz, was about to come downstairs and, from the topmost step, seeing him enter, stopped and winked at him, as if to say: "Ivan Ilyich made a botch of it; we'll do better, you and I."

A high school teacher once asked me to write some satire for the literary magazine. How do you do that?, I wanted to know. "Oh," she said, "just write down what happens"--as fine a definition of satire as I've come across, and a pretty good characterization of Tolstoy. But of course, seeing what happens is half the game, and getting it down is the other half, and few have done either as well as he.

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