The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 4

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London: Cassell, pages 39–49



On arrival at St. Petersburg, Tolstoy was at once received by the editors and the staff of contributors of the Sovremennik as one of themselves, for they highly appreciated his first literary work and his sketches from Sebastopol. But there was no affinity between him and this circle, and even with Turgenef, whom he respected most of all, he often quarrelled.

By his nature Tolstoy was quite unsuited to any collective action. Every collective initiative found in him a hot opponent. It was as if he feared to lose his independence or to be carried away by a general current of opinion in a direction which was not his own. This was the cause of all his misunderstandings and quarrels with his literary comrades.

Turgenef, who very much liked Tolstoy's first works, took a great interest in him; he even invited him to live with him in St. Petersburg. Fet, in his reminiscences, gives a comical description of Turgenef, who quite changed his usual order of life to give greater comfort to his beloved guest, and even would speak in a subdued voice so as not to awaken the sleeping Tolstoy. Soon he discovered that this infant whom he had taken in charge had long ago outgrown its swaddling-clothes, stood on its own legs, and even began to attack. Turgenef then regretfully, but kindly, withdrew to a certain respectful distance, and at that distance he continued, during his whole life, to admire Tolstoy's talents and to criticise what he used to call his "eccentricities."

Of all the members of the staff of the Sovremennik Tolstoy entered into intimate friendly connections with the poet Fet only—an intimacy which lasted many years.

Tolstoy had resigned his commission in order to get out of military circles, which did not suit him. The resignation was accepted in November, 1856, and he immediately prepared for a foreign tour. Before his departure he went to Yasnaya Polyana, where he had some romantic entanglement. From letters to his relatives, it is clear that Tolstoy had for some time been preoccupied by the thought of his lonely, unsettled life. He was longing for the quiet harbour of family happiness, and suddenly he began to feel a tender attachment to Valérie Arsenef, the young daughter of a neighbouring nobleman. In order to test whether this sudden sentiment was not a mistake, he courageously separated himself from her and returned to St. Petersburg, whence he corresponded with the girl, whom he already regarded as his betrothed. These letters form quite a novel, in which a man desires to educate and prepare a young, inexperienced girl to become a good, loving wife, mistress, and mother. But their attachment was not strong enough to develop at such a distance. The letters began gradually to be cooler, and as soon as they realised that there was no true affection between them the correspondence ceased, and farewell letters were exchanged expressing mutual respect and restoring to each full liberty.

In January, 1857, Tolstoy started for Europe. He went by mail-coach to Warsaw, and thence by railway to Paris.[1]

In Paris he saw much of Turgenef, with whom he became more intimate. There, too, he had a trying experience. It seemed as if fate itself always led him into a situation where he had to protest against contemporary civilisation. He had gone to Europe in order to learn—to see how the West was living, and whether he could not find something to adopt for his own country—when, shortly after his arrival in Paris, he witnessed an execution by guillotine.

"When I saw how the head was separated from the body," he says in his "Confession," "and as it dropped noisily into the basket, I understood, not with my reason but with my whole being, that no theories of the rationality of modern civilisation and its institutions could justify this act; that if all the people in the world, from the very beginning of the world, by whatever theory, had found it necessary, I knew that it was useless, that it was evil. I knew, also, that the standard of good and evil was not what people said or did, not progress, but myself and my own heart."

The day after the execution he wrote in his diary: "I got up before seven and went to see the execution. A thick, white, and healthy neck and chest; he kissed the New Testament, and then death. What nonsense! It made a strong impression which has not been in vain. I am not a political man. Morality and Art I know, I love. . . . The guillotine prevented me a long time from sleeping, and made me start often."

The life of Tolstoy 069.jpg

Tolstoy at work at Yasnaya Polyana.

In the beginning of May he left Paris for Switzerland, where he settled at Clarens on the Lake of Geneva. He rested here after the Paris bustle, and was delighted with the beauty of nature.

These are his travelling impressions:

"The 15th of May the weather was bright; the shining blue—dark blue—lake, dotted with its white and dark spots of sails and boats, lay glittering nearly three sides around me. Towards Geneva, far over the lake, the hot air was vibrating and darkening; on the other side rose abruptly the green Savoy mountains, with little, white houses at their foot, and the jagged rocks, one of which resembled a giant white woman in an old-fashioned costume. On the left, clearly outlined just above the brownish vineyards, in the deep green of orchards, Montreux appeared, with its graceful church rising from the slope of the mountain. Along the very border of the lake the houses of Villeneuve are spread out, their metallic roofs shining in the midday sun; the mysterious valley of the Rhone, with mountains rising one above the other; white, cold Chillon on the brink of the water, the much-sung islet, artificial, but lying, nevertheless, charmingly opposite Villeneuve.

"The lake rippled slightly. The sun struck vertically on its azure surface; and the outspread sails, scattered about the lake, appeared motionless.

"It is wonderful! I lived in Clarens two full months, and every time at morning, but especially towards evening, that I opened the shutters of my windows, then already in the shade, looking on the lake and on the distant mountains reflected in the water, the beauty blinded me and acted instantly on me with unexpected strength. I felt a sudden desire to love, even myself. I regretted the past, was hopeful for the future. Life appeared joyous, and I wished to live long, very long; and the idea of death began to assume a childish, poetic terror. Sometimes, sitting alone in the little, shady garden, and gazing, gazing on the lake and its shores, I seemed to feel the physical sensation as of beauty pouring through my eyes into my soul."

Having fully enjoyed the loveliness of the Lake of Geneva, Tolstoy set forth to see more of the country. At first he walked through the mountains; afterwards he crossed the Oberland on horseback to Lucerne, that wonderful corner of Switzerland, establishing himself at the best hotel, the Schweizerhof, then crowded with tourists, mostly English.

Full of charming impressions of the Swiss mountains and nature, he could not bear the striking contrast between the freedom of the wilds and the artificial affectedness of the English, for whose pleasure the beautiful shore of the Lucerne lake had been transformed into a stone quay in full accord with the cold nature of that race. At the moment of Tolstoy's arrival, these people were looking with contempt on a little, begging street minstrel, who did not receive anything from them for his sweet singing.

At the table d'hôte Tolstoy created a sensation by inviting this street singer to dine with him, to the great horror of the Englishmen and the solemn waiters. This incident is described in Tolstoy's novelette, "Lucerne," which ends in a beautiful hymn to the Eternal One:

"Who has weighed the internal happiness which lies in the soul of each of these men? There he sits now, somewhere on a dirty threshold, gazing on the bright, moonlit sky and joyfully singing to the quiet, fragrant night; there is no reproach, no anger or regret in his soul. And who knows what is passing in the hearts of those people behind these rich and lofty walls? Who knows whether they possess as careless and serene a joy of life and harmony with the world as lie in the heart of this little man? Unlimited are the mercy and wisdom of Him who permitted and ordered the existence of these contradictions. Only to thee, worthless worm, impudently, lawlessly trying to penetrate His laws. His intentions, only to thee they appear as contradictions. He tenderly looks down from His bright, immeasurable heights, and enjoys the endless harmony in which ye all in your contradictions are eternally moving. In your pride ye thought to evade the universal law. Nay, thou, with thy petty, vulgar contempt for the waiters, thou also respondest to the harmonious necessity of the eternal and endless."

From Lucerne Tolstoy returned to Russia through Germany, and in August he reached Yasnaya Polyana. There he intended to occupy himself with the estate and to open a school, but for that winter the whole family went to Moscow.

In December of the same year Tolstoy, with his friend, Fet, went bear-hunting on the estate of their mutual friend Gromeka, in the Tver province. This amusement nearly cost Tolstoy his life. When, on one occasion, a she-bear had been driven out of her lair and came towards Tolstoy, he fired and missed. The bear threw him to the ground, fell on top of him, and had her jaws already open to seize his head, when his friends, rushing forward, drove her away and killed her. However, she had succeeded in biting Tolstoy, and had torn off a piece of skin. He was bandaged on the spot, and the wound soon healed. He described this incident in a story called "The Wish is Stronger than Bondage," published in school reading-books.

During the winter in Moscow he was giving much time to gymnastics, which at that period began to be fashionable in Russia. These physical exercises he continued also in Yasnaya Polyana. Here we give a humorous description, by his brother Nicolas, of these gymnastics:

"Leo desires to take up all, not to miss anything—not even gymnastics. Now he has erected a bar outside his window. Of course, if we put aside prejudice, against which he is always fighting, he is quite right: gymnastics do not interfere with the management of the estate. But the bailiff looks somewhat differently on the matter. 'I come to the master,' he says, 'to get orders, and the master, in a short red jacket, swings with one leg over the bar, head down, his face red, hair hanging down and flying about. I wonder, must I wait for orders or look at him!'"

These practices did not interfere with his management. Already at that time, in the summer, he was working in the fields, ploughing, mowing grass, giving a poetic glamour to this work.

In the autumn he again went to Moscow, and lived a gay, society life. In all literary circles he was welcome, and in February, 1859, he was elected member of the Moscow Literary Society. According to the rules of that body, a newly-elected member had to make his inaugural speech at a general meeting. Tolstoy duly delivered his address, but the record of it has not been preserved. The subject was, "The Superiority of the Element of Art in Literature above all Temporary Tendencies."

The president of the society, A. Khomyakoff, in his reply, expressed sympathy with Tolstoy's words, but remarked that literary art does not exclude the contemporary and the casual, quoting, as an example, Tolstoy's own novel, "Three Deaths," just published, in which work, as in many others, the temporary is united with the eternal.

"Continue with the same, if possible even greater, success," concluded Khomyakoff, in his reply to Tolstoy. "Your talent is not transitory and easily exhausted; but remember that in letters the eternal and artistic constantly assimilate the temporary and transient, remodelling and ennobling it, and all the various aspects of human thought are incessantly uniting in one harmonious whole."

The influence and power of Leo Tolstoy in Russian life was constantly growing. But many trying experiences awaited him yet before he reached his full development.

  1. At that time there existed only two lines in all Russia: that from St. Petersburg to Moscow, with a small branch from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo; and the route from Warsaw to Berlin.—Translator.