The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy
And in these stories, at least, stronger than God. No revelation here, only the negative epiphany of self-condemnation. No grace, only the demonic salvation of murder or suicide. "The Devil," unpublished during Tolstoy's life, gives us both possibilities in two alternative endings. "The Kreutzer Sonata," in effect, gives us each in succession. The protagonist (he's the one who thinks we should all live like the Shakers) has murdered his unfaithful wife. Freed by the courts, he rides the rails of Russia confessing his story, like the Ancient Mariner, to anyone who will listen--condemned, like one of Dante's sinners, to an endless round of remorse. Not suicide, exactly, but a kind of spiritual self-extinction, a living death.
The tale is virtually Gothic, at moments, in its gruesomeness, but that is nothing to the horror sounded by "The Forged Coupon," a compressed epic of sin and salvation and the clearest statement here of the aging Tolstoy's aesthetic mission. (It is the story that inspired Robert Bresson's film L'Argent.) The coupon is a bank voucher, altered by a couple of wealthy schoolboys to show a higher denomination. They pass it off on a merchant, who passes it off on a peasant, who's jailed for unwittingly trying to spend it and turns horse thief out of bitterness. The taint spreads. The merchant's porter, suborned to bear false witness, also begins to steal. Why shouldn't he, seeing how the masters act? A fair-minded landlord, his horses stolen, abuses his peasants and winds up getting killed. His driver, falsely accused of the theft, becomes a good-for-nothing. The horse thief, caught elsewhere, is also killed. And so on and so forth, evil begetting evil, fraud leading to theft leading to murder, until some two dozen characters have been swept into the vortex.
Finally, there is Stepan, the horse thief's killer. In prison, something snaps. "All the authorities, all the masters," he thinks, "all were robbers who sucked the people's blood." Once he gets out, he makes Raskolnikov look like a pacifist. He axes a couple, kills a whole family just because it enters his head, then puts the knife to another. Tolstoy's portrait of a psychopath is as ruthless as his picture, in "Ivan Ilyich," of a dying man. "Enough of your talk," Stepan says, as he cuts his final throat.
But he isn't quick enough, for the words of the victim, a virtuous old widow--"You destroy other people's souls, but your own most of all"--start to work their way into his brain. The curve of the story has reached its moral minimum, and now begins its slow bend back toward the light. The narrative architecture is remarkably deft. Stepan, in prison, repents. The merchant's porter, jailed alongside him, is moved to repent in turn. So is the landlord's driver, another prison mate, and the hangman who was to have finished off the landlord's killers. Hearing the story, the landlord's widow also converts, and so eventually even do the schoolboys, now grown up, who began it all. As sin begat sin, so repentance begets repentance, and with a speed, a narrative ease, that openly defies our disbelief.
Art, Tolstoy says in What Is Art?, another late work, is "that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others...the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them." While evil, in the first half of "The Forged Coupon," spreads through action, virtue, in the second, spreads precisely through a kind of emotional infection. And the vector, indeed, is story: Stepan's story, the hangman's, but one other story above all. When goodness enters the tale--the widow Stepan later kills converts a tailor, who converts a peasant, who ultimately completes Stepan's conversion in prison--it enters thus:
"Must be you got it from books, that there'll be a reward for it in the next world."
"Of that we know nothing," said Marya Semyonovna, "only it's better to live this way."
"And is that in the books?"
"It's in the books, too," she said, and she read him the Sermon on the Mount.
All goodness starts, for Tolstoy, with the Good Book. All narrative goodness, too. What Is Art? renounces the accumulation of detail that marks the novel, Tolstoy's novels above all. Its aesthetic ideal is the Bible, with its lapidary tales. "The Forged Coupon" begins with a fair bit of circumstantial elaboration, but as it goes on, and especially once the infection of virtue begins to spread in earnest, its episodes get briefer and briefer, approaching the biblical norm. The last three, dispatched in a page and a half, achieve it: the barest context, a bit of dialogue, a climax. The story, too, converts--and hopes in turn, like the text it emulates, to convert its readers. To received ways of making fiction, says the aged Tolstoy--this latter-day prophet, this man apart, this blazing soul--the kingdom of God is not of this form.