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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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A Russian soldier is taken prisoner by Caucasian mountaineers. They bring him to a village, where everything is strange. "And the dark one--he was brisk, lively, moving as if on springs--went straight up to Zhilin, squatted down, bared his teeth, patted him on the shoulder, started jabbering something very quickly in his own language, winked, clucked his tongue, and kept repeating: 'Kood uruss! Kood uruss!'" But slowly, the Russian starts to get through. He makes a friend of the dark one's daughter, a girl of 13, by fashioning a doll of clay. It has "a nose, arms, legs, and a Tartar shirt." She brings him food, talks, plays with him. Later, surveying the hills in search of escape, he sees a river far below, with women on the bank, "like little dolls."

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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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The story, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," is about perspective--about physical and cultural distances and the angles of vision they enforce. Tolstoy doubles the point by trapping us, too, on foreign ground. The story's notation is rudimentary, clipped ("The nights were short. He saw light through a chink"), the diction mined with alien words ("aoul," "saklya," "beshmet") we're forced to make out on the run. We stand with Zhilin; nothing is explained, because nothing is understood. But the story is also about art, its ability to bridge the crevasse of otherness. Zhilin makes dolls, and so, the simile of the women reminds us, does Tolstoy. His figures, too, have a nose, arms, legs and Tartar shirt, fashioned from the clay of words. Zhilin leaves his doll on the roof, hoping the girl will see it and understand, and so Tolstoy does with us, placing the wager of art.

"The Prisoner of the Caucasus" makes a fitting start to the present volume, though probably not for reasons its translators intended. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories represents the seventeenth volume of Russian classics produced since 1990 by the acclaimed and apparently indefatigable team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: eight of Dostoyevsky, four of Tolstoy, the rest of Gogol, Chekhov and Bulgakov. The new selection incorporates many of Tolstoy's most celebrated short works, including "The Kreutzer Sonata," "Master and Man," "After the Ball," "Alyosha the Pot" and "Hadji Murat." Other than "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," however, all date from the last thirty years of Tolstoy's long life (he died in 1910, at 82), and therein lies the kind of challenge faced by Zhilin himself.

As Pevear outlines in his introduction to the new collection, the last decades of Tolstoy's life were marked by a turn toward ideological radicalism and spiritual extremity. In a series of works composed in the wake of Anna Karenina (1878)--A Confession, the first and most powerful, described his own crisis and conversion; others bear titles like "What Men Live By" and The Kingdom of God Is Within You--he expounded the moral philosophy that became known around the world as "Tolstoyism": anarchist, pacifist, ascetic, egalitarian, vegetarian, anti-church. The Sermon on the Mount became the central text of Tolstoy's renovated Christianity; its highest ideal, borrowed from the Russian mendicant tradition as well as, via Schopenhauer, from Eastern religion, was renunciation: the surrender not only of material possessions but of all attachment to this world, this life. Tolstoy's own life ended when, old and sick, he fled his estate at the onset of winter to set out, apparently, on the renouncer's path himself, a step with which he had long wrestled.

The spiritual anguish such ideals inflicted may be inferred from "Father Sergius," a story Tolstoy labored at throughout the 1890s. The tale mirrors its author's predicament. A proud and brilliant young guards officer, repulsed by the world's corruption, gives up his career on the eve of a glittering marriage to live instead as a monk, later also as a hermit. Yet however fast he flees, he can't escape his own vanity and ambition. An act of moral heroism--sought out by a frivolous beauty, he amputates a finger to ward off temptation ("if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off")--brings him growing celebrity and a flood of supplicants. But the more famous he gets, the more he is eaten up by self-doubt, self-criticism, self-disgust. Has he really surrendered his pride, or only found a roundabout way of indulging it? Do people truly need him, or only take him further from God? Does God even exist? He feels empty, dirty, lost. He thinks of killing himself, as Tolstoy often did, then blessed by a prophetic dream, discovers at last the key to holiness, disappearing into a life of selfless anonymity.

A rehearsal, it seems, for Tolstoy's final flight, and a précis of the volume's commitments. Between the first tale and the last ("Hadji Murat," which revisits the army and the Caucasus) are nine stories that turn on the axis of moral struggle, most of them culminating, like "Father Sergius," in a flash of epiphany, a stroke of salvation. The mood is one, by and large, of intense emotional compression amounting to a kind of psychic strangulation--the soul, beset, can barely breathe--the governing idea of what Pevear calls in his introduction to Anna Karenina (it is the quality that Anna shares with Levin, and both of them with their creator) "metaphysical solitude." Other people may help or hinder, but our real business is with God. The art is supremely subtle--this is still Tolstoy--but the message could not be blunter: pick up your cross and follow me.

Not a body of work the contemporary reader is apt to find congenial. Leave aside the religiosity. We have learned to distrust the story with a message, any message. We disdain the writer who comes to us bearing ideas or ideologies. We don't like a moralizer, don't want to be preached at, don't believe in answers, in endings. We put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt. Life isn't that simple, we think. It doesn't happen that way. But that is exactly what Tolstoy believes. There is an answer, and while it certainly isn't easy, it is simple, and it does happen, it should happen. "Just then," one story here concludes, "it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it ought, but that it could still be rectified....'So that's it!' he suddenly said aloud. 'What joy!'" The later Tolstoy--zealot, extremist, true believer--is a kind of person whose very spirit is alien to us. In a way that's never true of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, the stories in this volume confront us, like Zhilin, with a radical otherness.

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