Leo Tolstoy: His Life and Work/Chapter 12
The Second Journey Aborad — His Brother's Death
In February 1860, Fet wrote to Tolstoy to consult him as to an intention which he had of buying some land and devoting himself to agriculture. Tolstoy's answer was very sympathetic, he approved of Fet's plans, offered his help, mentioning certain lands for sale, and after this businesslike part of the letter, of no general interest, he expressed the following important thoughts about some works of Turgenev and Ostrovskiy:
I have read "On the Eve". This is my opinion. To write stories is in general a mistake, and especially so on the part of those who feel unhappy and do not exactly know what they desire from life. However, "On the Eve" is much better than "A Nest of Nobles", and there are in it excellent negative characters: the artist and the father. The other characters not only fail to be types, but their conception, their situation, is not typical, or else they are quite trivial. However, this is Turgenev's usual mistake. the young lady is wretchedly drawn: "Oh,how I love you...she had long eyelashes...." In general, it always astonishes me in Turgenev that with his intelligence and poetic sensitiveness he is not able to avoid insipidity, and that even in his methods. There is more of this insipidity in his negative methods, reminding one of Gogol. There isno humanity, no sympathy with the characters, but monsters are represented whom he abuses but does not pity. This painfully jars with the liberal tone and bearing of all the rest. This method may have been good in times gone by and in those of Gogol. Besides, one must add that if one does not pity one's most insignificant characters, then one should cut them up like mincemeat, or else laugh them down till one's sides ache; but not treat them as Turgenev does, filled with spleen and dyspepsia. In general, however, no one else now could write such a story, although it will not meet with success.
"The Tempest" by Ostrovskiy is to my mind a pitiful work, but it will succeed. Neither Ostrovskiy nor Turgenev is to blame, but the times....Another thing is now required. It is not for us to learn but to teach Tommy and Mary at least a little of what we know. Goodby dear friend.
Tolstoy had arrived at the conclusion that a man endowed with brains and enriched with knowledge must, before deriving pleasure from them for himself, give a share in the benefit of them to those who are deprived of both. Accordingly, he had devoted to the school the time he had free from his work on the estate. In these occupations he passed the winter of 1859-60. At the same time, while doing reading, serious reading, he had come to the following conclusions:
1st February  -- I have read La degenerescence de l'esprit humain, and about there being physically a higher degree of intellectual development. In this state I mechanically thought of prayer. Prayer to whom? What! is God conceived so clearly that one can beseech and communicate with Him? If I do conceive such a one He loses all magesty for me. A God whom one can beseech and serve is the expression of the weakness of one's mind. God is God precisely because I cannot imagine the whole of His being. Besides, He is not a being but a Law and a Power.
Let these lines remain as an indication of my conviction of the power of the mind.
Then he reads Auerbah's storie, "Reynard the Fox" by Goethe, and finally about the same time he jots down the following thought:
A strange religion is mine and that of our time, the religion of progress. Who said that progress was good? It is merely the absence of faith and the striving after lines of activity -- represented as faith. Man requires an impulse - Schwung -- Yes, that is it.
These thoughts were fully developed in his educational works, as we shall see later on, and also in the self-analysis contained in his confession quoted above.
Tolstoy's friends were watching his literary career with intense interest, treating condescendingly and half-jokingly "the foolishness and eccentricity", as they called them, of those manifestations of the deep inner growth in Tolstoy, which most of them wholly failed to understand.
Thus, Botkin casually wrote to Fet on March 6, 1860:
I learned with joy from Turgenev's letter that Tolstoy has again set to work at his Caucasian novel. He may play the fool as long as he likes, still I maintain he is a man with great gifts. Any portion of his foolishness is of more value to me than the wisest acts of others. 
Turgenev's attitude was the same: here is part of his letter to Fet of the same year:
But Lev Tolstoy still goes on in his queer way. Such is evidently his destiny. When will he make his last somersault and stand on his feet? 
In the spring of 1860, Fet and his wife paid their usual visit at Yasnaya Polyana on their way from town to the country Fet made a short not of his stay there on this occasion.
Of course, we could not refuse ourselves the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Yasnaya Polyana, where to add to our joy, we found dear N. N. Tolstoy, who for his original Oriental wisdom has earned the nickname of Firdusi. How many delightful plans of staying in the gable in Yasnaya Polyana were discussed in great detail by us during those two days! It did not occur to any one of us how unsound all those plans were.
Further on, Fet tells of the coming of Nikolay Tolstoy to their place:
Once Nikolay Tolstoy arrived here in the middle of May and told us that his sister Marie Tolstaya and his brothers had persuaded him to go abroad on account of his unbearable fits of coughing. He was very thin at this time, apart from his usual slimness. From time to time in his good-natured laughter could be heard that note of irritability which is habitual with consumptive people. I remember how he once got angry and pulled his hand from the coachman, who had tried to kiss it. True, he said nothing in the presence of the serf, but when the latter went out to see to the horses, he began to complain with annoyance in his voice to me and Borisov: "What made the idiot kiss my hand? It never happened before." 
Since we have to speak of Tolstoy's relations to his brother during his life and at his death, it may be well to quote Fet's character sketch of this remarkable man:
Count N. N. Tolstoy, who called on us almost every evening, used to bring with him a moral interest and vivacity, which it is difficult to describe in a few words. At that time he was still wearing his uniform as an artillery officer, and it was sufficient to give a glance at his thin hands, his great thoughtful eyes and hollow cheeks to be convinced that cruel consumption had laid its merciless hold on this good natured and kindly humorous man. Unfortunately, this remarkable man, of whom to say that he was loved by those who knew him is not enough, for they simply worshipped him, this man, while in the Caucasus, had acquired that habit of indulgence in alcoholic liquors which at that time was common among officers. Though I afterwart knew N. Tolstoy intimately and spent with him much time in far off hunting fields, where it would have been easier to drink than at evening parties, yet during our three years' friendship I never noticed the slightest symptom of his being overcome by wine or spirits. He would sit in an armchair close to the table and sip his tea with some cognac added to it. Being of a very modest disposition, he needed a great deal of questioning to make him talk. But once launched on any subject, he would reveal all the acutness and mirth of his kind- hearted sense of humor. He evidently adored his youngest borther Lev. But one had to hear how ironically he described his society adventures. He could so definitely separate what is the real substance of life from its gauzy outer seeming, that he treated with equal irony the higher and lower strata of Caucasian life. The celebrated hunter of the sect of old believers, Uncle Epishka (in Tolstoy's "Cossacks" Yeroshka), was evidently discovered and defined with the mastery of an artist by N. Tolstoy. 
N. N. Tolstoy wrote very little. We only know of his "Memoirs of a Sportsman."
E. Garshin in his "Reminiscences of Turgenev" quotes the following opinion of his concerning N. Tolstoy:
The humility of life [said Turgenev] which was theoretically worked out by Lev Tolstoy, was really practised by his brother. He always lived somewhere in the outskirts of Moscow, in poor lodgings were were more like a hut, and gladly shared what he had with the poorest man. He was a delightful character and a good story-teller, but writing was almost physically impossible for him. The very process of writing was a difficulty with him, just as it is with a laborer whose hands are so roughened by work that he can scarcely hold the pen between his fingers. 
To the general joy of his friends, N. Tolstoy's journey abroad was actually settled. This joy, however, was of short duration.
He left Russia via St. Petersburg with his brother Sergey.
Turgenev, who had a strong regard for him, felt very anxious and wrote to Fet fromSodene on June 1, 1860:
What you tell me of Nikolay Tolstoy's illness grieves me deeply. Is it possible that this dear, good fellow must perish? How could any one neglect such an illness? Is it possible that he did not try to overcome his indolence and go abroad for his health? He used to travel to the Caucasus in most infernally uncomfortable vehicles. Why not make him come to Sodene? One meets here dozens of sufferers from chest complaints: the Sodene waters are almost the best, if not the best for such cases. I say all this to you at a distance of two thousand versts, as if my words were of some help....If Tolstoy has not yet started, he will not go....This is how fate plays with us all. 
He repeats the same in the postscript of the same letter:
If N. Tolstoy has not yet gone, throw yourself at his feet and implore him, then drive him by force abroad. The air here, for instance, is so mild, nothing of the kind exists in Russia. [Ibid]
Of course Tolstoy was very much alarmed by his brother's illness. Here is a letter written about that time by him to Fet, in which, besides his anxiety about his brother, he expressed certain views on agricultural work:
...That besides your literary work you wish to find a place on the earth and burrow about in it like an ant - - such an idea was not only bound to suggest itself to you, but you are sure to realize it better than myself, being, as you are, a good man with a healthy outlook on life. However, it is not for me at the present moment to patronizingly approve or disapprove of you, for I am burdened with a sense of great inconsistency. Farming in the big way I am doing, oppresses me; personal labor on the land I can only as yet contemplate at a distance. On the other hand, I am oppressed by family worries, the illness of Nikolenka, of whom there is yet no news from abroad, and the departure of my sister in three days' time depress me. In general, I feel undone. Owing to my sister's helplessness and the desire to see Nikolas, I will tomorrow procure a passport for abroad and will perhaps accompany them, especially if I do not get any news or get bad news from Nikolas.
At that time a pause ensued in the literary activity of both Tolstoy and his friend Fet, who, though feebly, yet accurately reflected the inner process going on in Tolstoy's life.
The following are examples of the well-reasoned letters written by Druzhinin to Tolstoy and Fet, inciting them to literary work. His letter to Tolstoy is particularly interesting:
I hasten, my amiable friend Tolstoy, to answer your letter concerning your attitude to literature. As you will probably understand, every writer is attacked by moments of doubt and dissatisfaction with himself; it does not matter how strong and natural this feeling is, nobody relinquishes literature in consequence, but all write on till the end of life. But all your good and evil impulses stick to you with peculiar tenacity, and therefore you are more bound to think over it than anybody else, and you should consider the whole matter in a genial manner.
In the first place, remember that compared with the labor of poetry and thought, all other labors seem trivial. Qui a bu, boira, and for a writer to give up his activity at the age of thirty means depriving himself of one-half of all the interests of life. And this is only one of the difficulties of the matter; there is much of wider significance.
- A. Fet, "My Reminiscences, Part I" p324
- A. Fet, "My Reminiscences, Part I" p325
- A. Fet, "My Reminiscences, Part I" p326
- A. Fet, "My Reminiscences, Part I" p217
- E. Garshin, "Reminiscences of Turgenev" Historical Review, November 1883.
- A. Fet, "My Reminiscences, Part I", pp 328, 329