The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoï/Introduction to the Peasant Stories of S. T. Semenof
INTRODUCTION TO THE PEASANT STORIES OF S. T. SEMENOF
I HAVE long since made it a rule to judge every art production from three sides: first, from the side of the subject, how far important or necessary to men is that which is opened up newly by the artist, for every production is only so far a production of art as it discovers a new side of life; secondly, how far good and beautiful, corresponding to the subject, is the form of the production; and thirdly, how far is the artist's relation to his object genuine, in other words, how far does he believe in what he has produced.
This last always seems to me the most important to an art production. It gives the art production its strength, it makes the art production contagious—that is to say, it communicates to the spectator, the hearer, or the reader the feelings experienced by the artist.
In this respect Semenof is gifted to the highest degree.
There is a story by Flaubert, translated by Turgenief—"Julian." The last episode of the story, which ought to be the most touching, represents Julian lying on a bed together with a leper, and warming him with his body. This leper is Christ, who carries Julian with Him to heaven. The whole thing is described with great skill, but in reading this story I am always left perfectly cold and indifferent. I feel that the author would not have done and would not have cared to do what his hero did, and, therefore, I have no desire to do it, and I experience no emotion on reading of this marvelous exploit.
But here Semenof writes the simplest story, and it always affects me. A country lad comes to Moscow to find a place, and under the protection of a coachman from his own village, in service with a rich merchant, obtains the situation as dvornik's assistant. This situation had been formerly held by an old man. The merchant, by the coachman's advice, dismisses the old man and takes the young lad in his place. The lad comes at night to begin his work, and from the courtyard hears the old man in the dvornik's room bewailing the fact that for no fault of his he had been dismissed, but only to give up his place to a younger man. The lad suddenly feels compassion for the old man, and his conscience pricks him for having caused him to lose his situation. He considers, hesitates, and, at last, decides to give up the work, agreeable and important as it was to him.
All this is told in such a way that every time I read this story I feel that the author not only would have wished to behave that way in such circumstances, but would have done so, and his feeling communicates itself to me, and I feel happy, and it seems to me that I myself have done some good deed or was ready to.
Sincerity is Semenof's merit. But, moreover, his subject-matter is always important. Important because it concerns itself with the most important class in Russia,—the peasantry, which Semenof knows, as only a peasant can know it, having himself lived their agricultural life in the country.
Still more important is the subject-matter of his stories, because in all of them the interest is not confined to external events or to eccentricities of existence, but to the way men approach or fall away from the ideal of Christian truth which is held firmly and distinctly in the author's soul, and serves him as a true criterion and measure of the worth and significance of men's actions.
The form of the stories perfectly corresponds to their subject-matter: it is dignified and simple, and the details are always true; there is not a false note. Especially beautiful, often quite original in its methods of expression, but always artless and strikingly strong and picturesque is the language in which the characters of the stories talk.
April 4, 1894.