Peasant Stories/Introduction by Leo Tolstoy
I have long ago formed a rule to judge every artistic production from three sides:
- from the side of its contents, -- in how far that which is revealed by the artist from a new side is important and necessary for men, because every production is a production of art only when it reveals a new side of life;
- to what extent the form of the production is good, beautiful, and in correspondence with the contents; and
- in how far the relation of the artist to his subject is sincere, that is, in how far he believes in what he represents.
This last quality always seems to be to be the most important one in an artistic production. It gives to an artistic production its force, makes an artistic production infectious, that is, evokes in the hearer and reader those sensations which the artist experiences.
Semenov possesses this quality in the highest degree.
There is a certain story by Flaubert, translated by Turgenev, Julian the Merciful. The last episode of the story, which is intended to be most touching, consists in this, that Julian lies down in the same bed with a leper, whom he warms up with his body. This leper is Christ, who carries Julian off to heaven with Him. All that is told with great mastery, but I always remain very cold during the reading of this story. I feel that the author himself would not have done, and would not even have wished to do so, and I never feel any agitation in reading about this wonderful exploit.
But Semenov describes the simplest story, and it always touches me. A village lad comes to Moscow to find himself a place, and with the influence of a countryman of his, a coachman, who is living with a wealthy merchant, he here gets the position of assistant janitor. This place was formerly occupied by an old man. It was by the advice of his coachman that the merchant sent away the old man and in his place put the young lad. The lad arrives in the evening to begin his work, and in the yard hears the old man's complaints in the servant's room, for having been discharged for no cause whatsoever, only to make room for the young fellow. The lad suddenly feels pity for the old man and is ashamed to have pushed him out. He reflects for a moment, wavers, and finally decides to give up the place, which he needs and which has pleased him so much.
All this is told in such a way that every time when I read it I feel that the author not only would have wished to act similarly in such a case, but would certainly have done so, and his feeling infects me, and I am happy, and it seems to me that I have done something good or would be glad to do something good.
Sincerity is Semenov's chief characteristic. But, besides it, the contents are always significant, -- significant, because they deal with the most important class of Russia, the peasantry, which Semenov knows as only a peasant, who himself lives the hard life of a peasant, can know. The contents of his stories are also significant, because in all of them the chief interest is not in the external events, not in the peculiarities of the situations, but in the approximation to and the removal from the ideal of Christian truth, which stands firm and clear in the soul of the author and serves him as a safe measure for the valuation of the worth and importance of human acts.
The form of the stories fully corresponds to the contents: it is serious and simple, and the details are always correct, -- there are no false notes. What is particularly good is the figurative language of the persons in the stories, which is frequently quite new, and always artless and strikingly powerful.