The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

The axis of moral struggle, a stroke of salvation–these are the spiritual dimensions of Tolstoy’s late fiction.


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."

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.

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.

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.

Yet neither acuity of observation nor transparency of style is enough to explain Tolstoy’s secret. Reginald Farrer, in an essay on Jane Austen, said this: "The essence of conviction, in the game of make-believe, is to convince yourself first of all, finally and absolutely." More even than Austen, more than anyone, this Tolstoy did. In a way impossible to trace but immediately and everywhere felt, he communicates to us his utter belief in the world he presents. It is as real to him, we sense, as reality itself (one reason he could mingle historical and fictional characters, in War and Peace and elsewhere, without compunction). But that conviction evidently rested on another. Reality was simply much more real to Tolstoy than it is to the rest of us. He believed, as few people finally do, in the world. And this belief–though the secular mind, which sets the natural and supernatural at odds, may find the notion counterintuitive–was of a piece with his religious faith. He had his moments of doubt, like Father Sergius, but they were not the skepticism of a rationalist. Tolstoy believed in God even when he didn’t: believed in the spiritual imperatives that God represents. The world was present to him as a material reality because it was present to him as a moral one, and it was this double conviction, carried over into his work, that gives his fiction its unsurpassed solidity.

Nothing demonstrates this better than "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." The story gives us an almost unbearable description of the process of dying, elaborated with all of Tolstoy’s narrative powers and agonizingly prolonged for some thirty pages, from the moment the title character notices "a strange taste in his mouth" until he meets his end in three days of incessant screaming. But Ivan Ilyich’s greatest torments are spiritual. Can this really be all there is?, he asks himself. Death–and nothing more? Pain–and nothing more? "Can it be that life is so meaningless and vile?" This is a story about a man who avoids thinking about life–a man for whom the moral world is no more real than it is for most of us–until he is forced to think about death.

Like "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," though in a very different way, it is a story about perspective–the reversal of perspective inflicted by the prospect of extinction. It opens with its title character already gone, Pyotr Ivanovich and his colleague Schwartz, the dead man’s fellow functionaries in the courts of law, going through their pantomime around the coffin. This is the outside view, death as a social fact, a temporary awkwardness in the lives of people who are no more inclined to take it seriously–"we’ll do better, you and I"–than Ivan Ilyich was. But then the story doubles back, to narrate its protagonist’s life from his own point of view, reversing the perspective in two senses. As for Pyotr Ivanovich and friends, though we expect to meet them again at story’s end, we never do. In one of his boldest strokes here, Tolstoy doesn’t even bother to close the frame. The story has created a retroactive dramatic irony that’s already told us everything we need to know about these men, a single file of Ivan Ilyiches marching blindly toward the grave.

Ivan Ilyich’s existence, before he fell ill, had been one of unswerving adherence to form. To live well, he believed, was to do precisely what was expected of him, what everyone did in his class:

It was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other: damasks, ebony, flowers, carpets, and bronzes, dark and gleaming–all that all people of a certain kind acquire in order to resemble all people of a certain kind.

His watchwords–we hear them again and again–are "pleasantness" and "decency," joined, as he starts to prosper in earnest, by "ease." Everything else, including the emptiness of his own marriage, including the human suffering he sees before him as a magistrate, he pushes out of consciousness. But of course, pleasantness, decency and ease are precisely what dying overturns. Here is yet another reversal, and the key word is "decency." Death is indecent in the physical sense–a servant must clean up his waste–but also in the social one. It just isn’t the sort of thing polite people talk about:


His wife listened, but in the middle of his account his daughter came in with her hat on: she and her mother were going somewhere. She forced herself to sit down and listen to this boredom, but could not stand it for long, and the mother did not hear him out.

This is the greatest torment of all: the social lies that deprive Ivan Ilyich of the comfort, the simple companionship, that is what he really needs. He hears his wife entertaining in the next room, meets his daughter’s fiancé as if it were business as usual. No one wants to see what’s really going on. In the midst of life we are in death, the story says, but in the midst of death we are in denial.

And then, the final reversal. Dying seems, to Ivan Ilyich, like being pushed into "some narrow and deep black sack," and the worst of it is that he can’t get all the way into it. "What kept him from getting into it was the claim that his had been a good life." He is stuck, as he has always been stuck. But finally, in his last hour, he falls through–which means, simply, that he surrenders the lie. "Yes," he thinks, "it was all not right." But even now, he sees, it is not too late to make it right–he only needs to do what’s best for those around him. ("A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.") He is the one who discovers, on the edge of death, that his life can still be rectified, and says aloud, "What joy!" Death dies: "Instead of death there was light." Revelation, repentance, salvation, bliss–but for all the Christian overtones, no priest, no creed, no promise of heaven, no explicit mention even of God. The truth sets Ivan Ilyich free, but it is not a mystical truth, it is the plain truth of his own life.

And yet, with what agonies won. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" was completed in 1886. Thirteen years later, another Slav composed a deathbed scene, perhaps with this in mind, that culminated not with "What joy!" but with a very different phrase: "The horror! The horror!" Yet finally, the two are not so very far apart. Ivan Ilyich escapes Kurtz’s abyss, but by scarcely a page. The truth, for Tolstoy, may be simple, but it is not, it is never, easy.

There is an emblematic moment in "Father Sergius." The title character, impelled by his prophetic dream, seeks out an old woman he had known as a girl. "It can’t be!" she exclaims: "Styopa! Sergius! Father Sergius!" The names summarize his ascent, from boy to man to famous ascetic. "Yes, himself," he replies, "only not Sergius, not Father Sergius, but the great sinner Stepan Kasatsky." Salvation happens in Tolstoy’s great novels, too, but it happens very differently. Both Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace come eventually to understand the truth of conduct and the meaning of life, and understand them in Christian terms, but their journeys are still novelistic, still patterned on the idea of Bildung, personal development, that governed the nineteenth-century novel. The individual enters into adult experience, tries his hand at this and that–"he had long sought in various directions for that peace, that harmony with himself," we read of Pierre, "sought it in philanthropy, in Masonry, in the distractions of social life, in wine, in a heroic deed of self-sacrifice, in romantic love for Natasha"–and at last discovers his place in the world. Inner aligns with outer, soul with society, and the young man, as we say, makes a name for himself. (Or young woman: Elizabeth Bennet turns into Mrs. Darcy.)

But in the later Tolstoy, the confrontation runs between, not inner and outer, but inner and, as it were, innermost. "Father Sergius," the climax of the old woman’s sequence, the name that does indeed manifest the man for all the world to see–his talent and courage, his pride and ambition–is precisely the problem. "Not Father Sergius, but the great sinner Stepan Kasatsky." That’s really who he is–until finally, surrendering even that designation to a wanderer’s anonymity, he becomes just no one at all. For the later Tolstoy, the layers a novelistic character accumulates–vocation, family, identity–are things to be discarded. Not, here, a thickening into wisdom but a lightening into humility. Not education, but revelation. Not development, but renunciation: the self stripped to its core.

The self stripped, finally, of itself. Renunciation, passed to the limit, becomes death–or at least indifference to life. "Master and Man," with the archetypal directness its title implies, gives us both alternatives. Two men are caught in a blizzard. The master, a smug and greedy merchant and thus a kind of spiritual relative, at a different level of class, to Ivan Ilyich, achieves salvation, at the very end, by giving his life for his servant. But the servant, the "man"–he is Nikita, the one who leads the horse–has known salvation all along, because he holds his life cheap. "What," the master says in the midst of the storm, "should I perish like this, for nothing?" But Nikita says to himself, "Well, no help for it, you’ll have to get used to the new." He waits for God; he takes what comes.

Yet the story, a brilliantly subtle double portrait, still psychologizes Nikita’s serenity. He trusts in the afterlife, and in any case, his existence here "was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude." But in "Alyosha the Pot," Tolstoy creates a character whose peace passes our understanding. Alyosha is purity itself, a holy fool, a lifelong child–though his life is cut off at 21. He works, he obeys, he accepts. And at the end he says, "Why not? Can we just keep on living?" His story, five pages long, is a soap bubble, a folk tale, the last perfection of Tolstoy’s late art, struck off, in his late 70s, in the space of a single day–as brief, as innocent, as complete in its simplicity as its subject.

Alyosha does have one adventure: he falls in love with the cook. But the master forbids it, so he gives it up. Tolstoy–and here we can scarcely believe him, let alone comply–would have us do likewise. No marriage, no sex–like the Shakers:

"All the same," I said, "…the human race would come to an end."…
 "Why should it go on, this human race?" he said.
 "Why? If it didn’t we wouldn’t exist."
 "And why should we exist?"

The exchange is from "The Kreutzer Sonata," a tale of adultery and murder and one of several stories here that revile sexuality–and as the title suggests, the music that provokes it–with a kind of helpless despair. (Its condemnation of marriage and frank treatment of sex made it the most notorious of Tolstoy’s many controversial works. The czarist government effectively banned it; Theodore Roosevelt was moved to call its author, with brilliant if unintentional ambiguity, a "sexual moral pervert.") Another is "The Devil," drawn from Tolstoy’s affair with one of his peasants and so akin in setting and characters that it seems like an outtake from the Levin–that is, the autobiographical–half of Anna Karenina. The title casts a net of reference from which nothing, finally, escapes. The devil is woman, the devil is man, the devil is desire itself.

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.

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