Essays on Russian Novelists
by William Lyon Phelps
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The story "Poor Folk" is told in the highly artificial form of letters, but is redeemed by its simplicity and deep tenderness. Probably no man ever lived who had a bigger or warmer heart than Dostoevski, and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. All the great qualities of the mature man are in this slender volume: the wideness of his mercy, the great deeps of his pity, the boundlessness of his sympathy, and his amazing spiritual force. If ever there was a person who would forgive any human being anything seventy times seven, that individual was Dostoevski. He never had to learn the lesson of brotherly love by long years of experience: the mystery of the Gospel, hidden from the wise and prudent, was revealed to him as a babe. The language of these letters is so simple that a child could understand every word; but the secrets of the human heart are laid bare. The lover is a grey-haired old man, with the true Slavonic genius for failure, and a hopeless drunkard; the young girl is a veritable flower of the slums, shedding abroad the radiance and perfume of her soul in a sullen and sodden environment. She has a purity of soul that will not take pollution.

"See how this mere chance-sown deft-nursed seed That sprang up by the wayside 'neath the foot Of the enemy, this breaks all into blaze, Spreads itself, one wide glory of desire To incorporate the whole great sun it loves From the inch-height whence it looks and longs!"

No one can read a book like this without being better for it, and without loving its author.

It is unfortunate that Dostoevski did not learn from his first little masterpiece the great virtue of compression. This story is short, but it is long enough; the whole history of two lives, so far as their spiritual aspect is concerned, is fully given in these few pages. The besetting sin of Dostoevski is endless garrulity with its accompanying demon of incoherence: in later years he yielded to that, as he did to other temptations, and it finally mastered him. He was never to write again a work of art that had organic unity.

Like all the great Russian novelists, Dostoevski went to school to Gogol. The influence of his teacher is evident throughout "Poor Folk." The hero is almost an imitation of the man in Gogol's short story, "The Cloak," affording another striking example of the germinal power of that immortal work. Dostoevski seemed fully to realise his debt to Gogol, and in particular to "The Cloak;" for in "Poor Folk," one entire letter is taken up with a description of Makar's emotions after reading that extraordinary tale. Makar assumes that it is a description of himself. "Why, I hardly dare show myself in the streets! Everything is so accurately described that one's very gait is recognisable."

Dostoevski's consuming ambition for literary fame is well indicated in his first book. "If anything be well written, Varinka, it is literature. I learned this the day before yesterday. What a wonderful thing literature is, which, consisting but of printed words, is able to invigorate, to instruct, the hearts of men!"

So many writers have made false starts in literature that Dostoevski's instinct for the right path at the very outset is something notable. His entire literary career was to be spent in portraying the despised and rejected. Never has a great author's first book more clearly revealed the peculiar qualities of his mind and heart.

But although he struck the right path, it was a long time before he found again the right vein. He followed up his first success with a row of failures, whose cold reception by the public nearly broke his heart. He was extremely busy, extremely productive, and extremely careless, as is shown by the fact that during the short period from 1846 to 1849, he launched thirteen original publications, not a single one of which added anything to his fame. It was not until after the cruel years of Siberia that the great books began to appear.

Nor did they appear at once. In 1859 he published "The Uncle's Dream," a society novel, showing both in its humour and in its ruthless satire the influence of Gogol. This is an exceedingly entertaining book, and, a strange thing in Dostoevski, it is, in many places, hilariously funny. The satire is so enormously exaggerated that it completely overshoots the mark, but perhaps this very exaggeration adds to the reader's merriment. The conversation in this story is often brilliant, full of unexpected quips and retorts delivered in a manner far more French than Russian. The intention of the author seems to have been to write a scathing and terrible satire on provincial society, where every one almost without exception is represented as absolutely selfish, absolutely conceited, and absolutely heartless. It is a study of village gossip, a favourite subject for satirists in all languages. In the middle of the book Dostoevski remarks: "Everybody in the provinces lives as though he were under a bell of glass. It is impossible for him to conceal anything whatever from his honourable fellow-citizens. They know things about him of which he himself is ignorant. The provincial, by his very nature, ought to be a very profound psychologist. That is why I am sometimes honestly amazed to meet in the provinces so few psychologists and so many imbeciles."

Never again did Dostoevski write a book containing so little of himself, and so little of the native Russian element. Leaving out the exaggeration, it might apply to almost any village in any country, and instead of sympathy, it shows only scorn. The scheming mother, who attempts to marry her beautiful daughter to a Prince rotten with diseases, is a stock figure on the stage and in novels. The only truly Russian personage is the young lover, weak-willed and irresolute, who lives a coward in his own esteem.

This novel was immediately followed by another within the same year, "Stepanchikovo Village," translated into English with the title "The Friend of the Family." This has for its hero one of the most remarkable of Dostoevski's characters, and yet one who infallibly reminds us of Dickens's Pecksniff. The story is told in the first person, and while it cannot by any stretch of language be called a great book, it has one advantage over its author's works of genius, in being interesting from the first page to the last. Both the uncle and the nephew, who narrate the tale, are true Russian characters: they suffer long, and are kind; they hope all things, and believe all things. The household is such a menagerie that it is no wonder that the German translation of this novel is called "Tollhaus oder Herrenhaus"? Some of the inmates are merely abnormal; others are downright mad. There is not a natural or a normal character in the entire book, and not one of the persons holds the reader's sympathy, though frequent drafts are made on his pity. The hero is a colossal hypocrite, hopelessly exaggerated. If one finds Dickens's characters to be caricatures, what shall be said of this collection? This is the very apotheosis of the unctuous gasbag, from whose mouth, eternally ajar, pours a viscous stream of religious and moral exhortation. Compared with this Friend of the Family, Tartuffe was unselfish and noble: Joseph Surface modest and retiring; Pecksniff a humble and loyal man. The best scene in the story, and one that arouses outrageous mirth, is the scene where the uncle, who is a kind of Tom Pinch, suddenly revolts, and for a moment shakes off his bondage. He seizes the fat hypocrite by the shoulder, lifts him from the floor, and hurls his carcass through a glass door. All of which is in the exact manner of Dickens.

One of the most characteristic of Dostoevski's novels, characteristic in its occasional passages of wonderful beauty and pathos, characteristic in its utter formlessness and long stretches of uninspired dulness, is "Downtrodden and Oppressed." Here the author gives us the life he knew best by actual experience and the life best suited to his natural gifts of sympathetic interpretation. Stevenson's comment on this story has attracted much attention. Writing to John Addington Symonds in 1886, he said: "Another has been translated—"Humilies et Offenses." It is even more incoherent than "Le Crime et le Chatiment," but breathes much of the same lovely goodness, and has passages of power. Dostoevski is a devil of a swell, to be sure." There is no scorn and no satire in this book; it was written from an overflowing heart. One of the speeches of the spineless young Russian, Alosha, might be taken as illustrative of the life-purpose of our novelist: "I am on fire for high and noble ideals; they may be false, but the basis on which they rest is holy."

"Downtrodden and Oppressed" is full of melodrama and full of tears; it is four times too long, being stuffed out with interminable discussions and vain repetitions. It has no beauty of construction, no evolution, and irritates the reader beyond all endurance. The young hero is a blazing ass, who is in love with two girls at the same time, and whose fluency of speech is in inverse proportion to his power of will. The real problem of the book is how either of the girls could have tolerated his presence for five minutes. The hero's father is a melodramatic villain, who ought to have worn patent-leather boots and a Spanish cloak. And yet, with all its glaring faults, it is a story the pages of which ought not to be skipped. So far as the narrative goes, one may skip a score of leaves at will; but in the midst of aimless and weary gabble, passages of extraordinary beauty and uncanny insight strike out with the force of a sudden blow. The influence of Dickens is once more clearly seen in the sickly little girl Nelly, whose strange caprices and flashes of passion are like Goethe's Mignon, but whose bad health and lingering death recall irresistibly Little Nell. They are similar in much more than in name.

Dostoevski told the secrets of his prison-house in his great book "Memoirs of a House of the Dead"—translated into English with the title "Buried Alive." Of the many works that have come from prison-walls to enrich literature, and their number is legion, this is one of the most powerful, because one of the most truthful and sincere. It is not nearly so well written as Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis;" but one cannot escape the suspicion that this latter masterpiece was a brilliant pose. Dostoevski's "House of the Dead" is marked by that naive Russian simplicity that goes not to the reader's head but to his heart. It is at the farthest remove from a well-constructed novel; it is indeed simply an irregular, incoherent notebook. But if the shop-worn phrase "human document" can ever be fittingly applied, no better instance can be found than this. It is a revelation of Dostoevski's all-embracing sympathy. He shows no bitterness, no spirit of revenge, toward the government that sent him into penal servitude; he merely describes what happened there. Nor does he attempt to arouse our sympathy for his fellow-convicts by depicting them as heroes, or in showing their innate nobleness. They are indeed a bad lot, and one is forced to the conviction that they ought not to be at large. Confinement and hard labour is what most of them need; for the majority of them in this particular Siberian prison are not revolutionists, offenders against the government, sent there for some petty or trumped-up charge, but cold-blooded murderers, fiendishly cruel assassins, wife-beaters, dull, degraded brutes. But the regime, as our novelist describes it, does not improve them; the officers are as brutal as the men, and the floggings do not make for spiritual culture. One cannot wish, after reading the book, that such prisoners were free, but one cannot help thinking that something is rotten in the state of their imprisonment. Dostoevski brings out with great clearness the utter childishness of the prisoners; mentally, they are just bad little boys; they seem never to have developed, except in an increased capacity for sin. They spend what time they have in silly talk, in purposeless discussions, in endeavours to get drink, in practical jokes, and in thefts from one another. The cruel pathos of the story is not in the fact that such men are in prison, but that a Dostoevski should be among them. Here is a delicate, sensitive man of genius, in bad health, with a highly organised nervous system, with a wonderful imagination, condemned to live for years in slimy misery, with creatures far worse than the beasts of the field. Indeed, some of the most beautiful parts of the story are where Dostoevski turns from the men to the prison dog and the prison horse, and there finds true friendship. His kindness to the neglected dog and the latter's surprise and subsequent devotion make a deep impression. The greatness of Dostoevski's heart is shown in the fact that although his comrades were detestable characters, he did not hate them. His calm account of their unblushing knavery is entirely free from either vindictive malice or superior contempt. He loved them because they were buried alive, he loved them because of their wretchedness, with a love as far removed from condescension as it was from secret admiration of their bold wickedness. There was about these men no charm of personality and no glamour of desperate crime. The delightful thing about Dostoevski's attitude is that it was so perfect an exemplification of true Christianity. No pride, no scorn, no envy. He regarded them as his brothers, and one feels that not one of the men would ever have turned to Dostoevski for sympathy and encouragement without meeting an instant and warm response. That prison was a great training-school for Dostoevski's genius, and instead of casting a black shadow over his subsequent life, it furnished him with the necessary light and heat to produce a succession of great novels.

Their production was, however, irregular, and at intervals he continued to write and publish books of no importance. One of his poorest stories is called "Memoirs of the Cellarage," or, as the French translation has it, "L'Esprit Souterrain." The two parts of the story contain two curious types of women. The hero is the regulation weak-willed Russian; his singular adventures with an old criminal and his mistress in the first part of the story, and with a harlot in the second, have only occasional and languid interest; it is one of the many books of Dostoevski that one vigorously vows never to read again. The sickly and impractical Ordinov spends most of his time analysing his mental states, and indulging in that ecstasy of thought which is perhaps the most fatal of all Slavonic passions. Soon after appeared a strange and far better novel, called "The Gambler." This story is told in the first person, and contains a group of highly interesting characters, the best being an old woman, whose goodness of heart, extraordinary vitality, and fondness for speaking her mind recall the best type of English Duchess of the eighteenth century. There is not a dull page in this short book; and often as the obsession of gambling has been represented in fiction, I do not at this moment remember any other story where the fierce, consuming power of this heart-eating passion has been more powerfully pictured. No reader will ever forget the one day in the sensible old lady's life when all her years of training, all her natural caution and splendid common sense, could not keep her away from the gaming table. This is a kind of international novel, where the English, French, German, and Russian temperaments are analysed, perhaps with more cleverness than accuracy. The Englishman, Astley, is utterly unreal, Paulina is impossible, and the Slavophil attacks on the French are rather pointless. Some of the characters are incomprehensible, but none of them lacks interest.

Of all Dostoevski's novels, the one best known outside of Russia is, of course, "Crime and Punishment." Indeed, his fame in England and in America may be said still to depend almost entirely on this one book. It was translated into French, German, and English in the eighties, and has been dramatised in France and in America. While it is assuredly a great work, and one that nobody except a genius could have written, I do not think it is Dostoevski's most characteristic novel, nor his best. It is characteristic in its faults; it is abominably diffuse, filled with extraneous and superfluous matter, and totally lacking in the principles of good construction. There are scenes of positively breathless excitement, preceded and followed by dreary drivel; but the success of the book does not depend on its action, but rather on the characters of Sonia, her maudlin father, the student Raskolnikov, and his sister. It is impossible to read "Crime and Punishment" without reverently saluting the author's power. As is well known, the story gave Stevenson all kinds of thrills, and in a famous letter written while completely under the spell he said: "Raskolnikov is easily the greatest book I have read in ten years; I am glad you took to it. Many find it dull; Henry James could not finish it; all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikov was not objective; and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and, on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living IN a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show. To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are purified. The Juge d'Instruction I thought a wonderful, weird, touching, ingenious creation; the drunken father, and Sonia, and the student friend, and the uncircumscribed, protoplasmic humanity of Raskolnikov, all upon a level that filled me with wonder; the execution, also, superb in places."

Dostoevski is fond of interrupting the course of his narratives with dreams,—dreams that often have no connection with the plot, so far as there may be said to exist a plot,—but dreams of vivid and sharp verisimilitude. Whether these dreams were interjected to deceive the reader, or merely to indulge the novelist's whimsical fancy, is hard to divine; but one always wakes with surprise to find that it is all a dream. A few hours before Svidrigailov commits suicide he has an extraordinary dream of the cold, wet, friendless little girl, whom he places tenderly in a warm bed, and whose childish eyes suddenly give him the leer of a French harlot. Both he and the reader are amazed to find that this is only a dream, so terribly real has it seemed. Then Raskolnikov's awful dream, so minutely circumstanced, of the cruel peasants maltreating a horse, their drunken laughter and vicious conversation, their fury that they cannot kill the mare with one blow, and the wretched animal's slow death makes a picture that I have long tried in vain to forget. These dream episodes have absolutely no connection with the course of the story—they are simply impressionistic sketches.

Another favourite device of Dostoevski's is to have one of his characters take a walk, and on this walk undergo some experience that has nothing whatever to do with the course of the action, but is, as it were, a miniature story of its own introduced into the novel. One often remembers these while forgetting many vital constructive features. That picture of the pretty young girl, fifteen or sixteen years old, staggering about in the heat of the early afternoon, completely drunk, while a fat libertine slowly approaches her, like a vulture after its prey, stirs Raskolnikov to rage and then to reflection—but the reader remembers it long after it has passed from the hero's mind. Dostoevski's books are full of disconnected but painfully oppressive incidents.

Raskolnikov's character cannot be described nor appraised; one must follow him all the way through the long novel. He is once more the Rudin type—utterly irresolute, with a mind teeming with ideas and surging with ambition. He wants to be a Russian Napoleon, with a completely subservient conscience, but instead of murdering on a large scale, like his ideal, he butchers two inoffensive old women. Although the ghastly details of this double murder are given with definite realism, Dostoevski's interest is wholly in the criminal psychology of the affair, in the analysis of Raskolnikov's mind before, during, and chiefly after the murder; for it is the mind, and not the bodily sensations that constitute the chosen field of our novelist. After this event, the student passes through almost every conceivable mental state; we study all these shifting moods under a powerful microscope. The assassin is redeemed by the harlot Sonia, who becomes his religious and moral teacher. The scene where the two read together the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, and where they talk about God, prayer, and the Christian religion, shows the spiritual force of Dostoevski in its brightest manifestations. At her persuasion, he finally confesses his crime, and is deported to Siberia, where his experiences are copied faithfully from the author's own prison life. Sonia accompanies him, and becomes the good angel of the convicts, who adore her. "When she appeared while they were at work, all took off their hats and made a bow. 'Little mother, Sophia Semenova, thou art our mother, tender and compassionate,' these churlish and branded felons said to her. She smiled in return; they loved even to see her walk, and turned to look upon her as she passed by. They praised her for being so little, and knew not what not to praise her for. They even went to her with their ailments."

It is quite possible that Tolstoi got the inspiration for his novel "Resurrection" from the closing words of "Crime and Punishment." Raskolnikov and Sonia look forward happily to the time when he will be released. "Seven years—only seven years! At the commencement of their happiness they were ready to look upon these seven years as seven days. They did not know that a new life is not given for nothing; that it has to be paid dearly for, and only acquired by much patience and suffering, and great future efforts. But now a new history commences; a story of the gradual renewing of a man, of his slow, progressive regeneration, and change from one world to another—an introduction to the hitherto unknown realities of life. This may well form the theme of a new tale; the one we wished to offer the reader is ended."

It did indeed form the theme of a new tale—and the tale was Tolstoi's "Resurrection."

Sonia is the greatest of all Dostoevski's woman characters. The professional harlot has often been presented on the stage and in the pages of fiction, but after learning to know Sonia, the others seem weakly artificial. This girl, whose father's passion for drink is something worse than madness, goes on the street to save the family from starvation. It is the sacrifice of Monna Vanna without any reward or spectacular acclaim. Deeply spiritual, intensely religious, she is the illumination of the book, and seems to have stepped out of the pages of the New Testament. Her whole story is like a Gospel parable, and she has saved many besides Raskolnikov. . . . She dies daily, and from her sacrifice rises a life of eternal beauty.

Two years later came another book of tremendous and irregular power—"The Idiot." With the exception of "The Karamazov Brothers," this is the most peculiarly characteristic of all Dostoevski's works. It is almost insufferably long; it reads as though it had never been revised; it abounds in irrelevancies and superfluous characters. One must have an unshakable faith in the author to read it through, and one should never begin to read it without having acquired that faith through the perusal of "Crime and Punishment." The novel is a combination of a hospital and an insane asylum; its pages are filled with sickly, diseased, silly, and crazy folk. It is largely autobiographical; the hero's epileptic fits are described as only an epileptic could describe them, more convincingly than even so able a writer as Mr. De Morgan diagnoses them in "An Affair of Dishonour." Dostoevski makes the convulsion come unexpectedly; Mr. De Morgan uses the fit as a kind of moral punctuation point. The author's sensations when under condemnation of death and expecting the immediate catastrophe are also minutely given from his own never paling recollection. Then there are allusions to Russian contemporary authors, which occur, to be sure, in his other books. One reason why Dostoevski is able to portray with such detail the thoughts and fancies of abnormal persons is because he was so abnormal himself; and because his own life had been filled with such an amazing variety of amazing experiences. Every single one of his later novels is a footnote to actual circumstance; with any other author, we should say, for example, that his accounts of the thoughts that pass in a murderer's mind immediately before he assassinates his victim were the fantastical emanation of a diseased brain, and could never have taken place; one cannot do that in Dostoevski's case, for one is certain that he is drawing on his Siberian reservoir of fact. These novels are fully as much a contribution to the study of abnormal psychology as they are to the history of fiction.

The leading character, the epileptic Idiot, has a magnetic charm that pulls the reader from the first, and from which it is vain to hope to escape. The "lovely goodness" that Stevenson found in Dostoevski's "Downtrodden and Oppressed" shines in this story with a steady radiance. The most brilliant and beautiful women in the novel fall helplessly in love with the Idiot, and the men try hard to despise him, without the least success. He has the sincerity of a child, with a child's innocence and confidence. His character is almost the incarnation of the beauty of holiness. Such common and universal sins as deceit, pretence, revenge, ambition, are not only impossible to him, they are even inconceivable; he is without taint. From one point of view, he is a natural-born fool; but the wisdom of this world is foolishness with him. His utter harmlessness and incapacity to hurt occasion scenes of extraordinary humour, scenes that make the reader suddenly laugh out loud, and love him all the more ardently. Dostoevski loved children and animals, and so-called simple folk; what is more, he not only loved them, he looked upon them as his greatest teachers. It is a delight to hear this Idiot talk:—

"What has always surprised me, is the false idea that grown-up people have of children. They are not even understood by their fathers and mothers. We ought to conceal nothing from children under the pretext that they are little and that at their age they should remain ignorant of certain things. What a sad and unfortunate idea! And how clearly the children themselves perceive that their parents take them for babies who can't understand anything, when really they understand everything! Great folks don't know that in even the most difficult affairs a child is able to give advice that is of the utmost importance. O God! when this pretty little bird stares at you with a happy and confiding look, you are ashamed to deceive him! I call them little birds because little birds are the finest things in the world."

The Idiot later in the story narrates the following curious incident. Two friends stopping together at an inn retired to their room peacefully, when one of them, lusting to possess the other's watch, drew a knife, sneaked up behind his victim stealthily, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself, and piously murmured this prayer: "O Lord, pardon me through the merits of Christ!" then stabbed his friend to death, and quietly took the watch. Naturally the listener roars with laughter, but the Idiot quietly continues: "I once met a peasant woman crossing herself so piously, so piously! 'Why do you do that, my dear?' said I (I am always asking questions). 'Well,' said she, 'just as a mother is happy when she sees the first smile of her nursling, so God experiences joy every time when, from the height of heaven, he sees a sinner lift toward Him a fervent prayer.' It was a woman of the people who told me that, who expressed this thought so profound, so fine, so truly religious, which is the very basis of Christianity, that is to say, the idea that God is our father, that He is delighted at the sight of a man as a mother is at the sight of her child,—the chief thought of Christ! A simple peasant woman! To be sure, she was a mother. . . . The religious sentiment, in its essence, can never be crushed by reasoning, by a sin, by a crime, by any form of atheism; there is something there which remains and always will remain beyond all that, something which the arguments of atheists will never touch. But the chief thing is, that nowhere does one notice this more clearly than in the heart of Russia. It is one of the most important impressions that I first received from our country."

The kindness of the Idiot toward his foes and toward those who are continually playing on his generosity and exploiting him, enrages beyond all endurance some of his friends. A beautiful young society girl impatiently cries: "There isn't a person who deserves such words from you! here not one of them is worth your little finger, not one who has your intelligence or your heart! You are more honest than all of us, more noble than all, better than all, more clever than all! There isn't one of these people who is fit to pick up the handkerchief you let fall, so why then do you humiliate yourself and place yourself below everybody! Why have you crushed yourself, why haven't you any pride?"

She had begun her acquaintance with him by laughing at him and trying to cover him with ridicule. But in his presence those who come to scoff remain to pray. Such men really overcome the world.

He is not the only Idiot in fiction who is able to teach the wise, as every one knows who remembers his "David Copperfield." How Betsy Trotwood would have loved Dostoevski's hero! Dickens and Dostoevski were perhaps the biggest-hearted of all novelists, and their respect for children and harmless men is notable. The sacredness of mad folk is a holy tradition, not yet outworn.

"The Eternal Husband" is a story dealing, of course, with an abnormal character, in abnormal circumstances. It is a quite original variation on the triangle theme. It has genuine humour, and the conclusion leaves one in a muse. "The Hobbledehoy," translated into French as "Un Adolescent," is, on the whole, Dostoevski's worst novel, which is curious enough, coming at a time when he was doing some of his best work. He wrote this while his mind was busy with a great masterpiece, "The Karamazov Brothers," and in this book we get nothing but the lees. It is a novel of portentous length and utter vacuity. I have read many dull books, but it is hard to recall a novel where the steady, monotonous dulness of page after page is quite so oppressive. For it is not only dull; it is stupid.

Dostoevski's last work, "The Karamazov Brothers," was the result of ten years' reflection, study, and labour, and he died without completing it. It is a very long novel as it stands; had he lived five years more, it would probably have been the longest novel on the face of the earth, for he seems to have regarded what he left as an introduction. Even as it is, it is too long, and could profitably be cut down one-third. It is incomplete, it is badly constructed, it is very badly written; but if I could have only one of his novels, I would take "The Karamazov Brothers." For Dostoevski put into it all the sum of his wisdom, all the ripe fruit of his experience, all his religious aspiration, and in Alosha he created not only the greatest of all his characters, but his personal conception of what the ideal man should be. Alosha is the Idiot, minus idiocy and epilepsy.

The women in this book are not nearly so well drawn as the men. I cannot even tell them apart, so it would be a waste of labour to write further about them. But the four men who make up the Karamazov family, the father and the three sons, are one of the greatest family parties in the history of fiction. Then the idiotic and epileptic Smerdakov—for Dostoevski must have his idiot and his fits, and they make an effective combination—is an absolutely original character out of whose mouth come from time to time the words of truth and soberness. The old monk at the head of the chapter is marvellous; he would find a natural place in one of Ibsen's early historical dramas, for he is a colossal pontifical figure, and has about him the ancient air of authority. If one really doubted the genius of Dostoevski, one would merely need to contemplate the men in this extraordinary story, and listen to their talk. Then if any one continued to doubt Dostoevski's greatness as a novelist, he could no longer doubt his greatness as a man.

The criminal psychology of this novel and the scenes at the trial are more interesting than those in "Crime and Punishment," for the prisoner is a much more interesting man than Raskolnikov, and by an exceedingly clever trick the reader is completely deceived. The discovery of the murder is as harsh a piece of realism as the most difficult realist could desire. The corpse lies on its back on the floor, its silk nightgown covered with blood. The faithful old servant, smitten down and bleeding copiously, is faintly crying for help. Close at hand is the epileptic, in the midst of a fearful convulsion. There are some dramatic moments!

But the story, as nearly always in Dostoevski, is a mere easel for the portraits. From the loins of the father—a man of tremendous force of character, all turned hellward, for he is a selfish, sensual beast—proceed three sons, men of powerful individualities, bound together by fraternal affection. Mitia is in many respects like his father, but it is wonderful how we love him in the closing scenes; Ivan is the sceptic, whose final conviction that he is morally responsible for his father's murder shows his inability to escape from the domination of moral ideas; Alosha, the priestly third brother, has all the family force of character, but in him it finds its only outlet in love to God and love to man. He has a remarkably subtle mind, but he is as innocent, as harmless, as sincere, and as pure in heart as a little child. He invariably returns for injury, not pardon, but active kindness. No one can be offended in him for long, and his cheerful conversation and beautiful, upright life are a living witness to his religious faith, known and read of all men. Angry, sneering, and selfish folk come to regard him with an affection akin to holy awe. But he is not in the least a prig or a stuffed curiosity. He is essentially a reasonable, kind-hearted man, who goes about doing good. Every one confides in him, all go to him for advice and solace. He is a multitudinous blessing, with masculine virility and shrewd insight, along with the sensitiveness and tenderness of a good woman. Seeing six boys attacking one, he attempts to rescue the solitary fighter, when to his surprise the gamin turns on him, insults him, strikes him with a stone, and bites him. Alosha, wrapping up his injured hand, after one involuntary scream of pain, looks affectionately at the young scoundrel, and quietly asks, "Tell me, what have I done to you?" The boy looks at him in amazement. Alosha continues: "I don't know you, but of course I must have injured you in some way since you treat me so. Tell me exactly where I have been wrong." The child bursts into tears, and what no violence of punishment has been able to accomplish, Alosha's kindness has done in a few moments. Here is a boy who would gladly die for him.

The conversations in this book have often quite unexpected turns of humour, and are filled with oversubtle questions of casuistry and curious reasonings. From one point of view the novel is a huge, commonplace book, into which Dostoevski put all sorts of whimsies, queries, and vagaries. Smerdakov, the epileptic, is a thorn in the side of those who endeavour to instruct him, for he asks questions and raises unforeseen difficulties that perplex those who regard themselves as his superiors. No one but Dostoevski would ever have conceived of such a character, or have imagined such ideas.

If one reads "Poor Folk," "Crime and Punishment," "Memoirs of the House of the Dead," "The Idiot," and "The Karamazov Brothers," one will have a complete idea of Dostoevski's genius and of his faults as a writer, and will see clearly his attitude toward life. In his story called "Devils" one may learn something about his political opinions; but these are of slight interest; for a man's opinions on politics are his views on something of temporary and transient importance, and like a railway time-table, they are subject to change without notice. But the ideas of a great man on Religion, Humanity, and Art take hold on something eternal, and sometimes borrow eternity from the object.

No doubt Dostoevski realised the sad inequalities of his work, and the great blunders due to haste in composition. He wrote side by side with Turgenev and Tolstoi, and could not escape the annual comparison in production. Indeed, he was always measuring himself with these two men, and they were never long out of his mind. Nor was his soul without bitterness when he reflected on their fortunate circumstances which enabled them to write, correct, and polish at leisure, and give to the public only the last refinement of their work. In the novel "Downtrodden and Oppressed" Natasha asks the young writer if he has finished his composition. On being told that it is all done, she says: "God be praised! But haven't you hurried it too much? Haven't you spoiled anything?" "Oh, I don't think so," he replied; "when I have a work that demands a particular tension of the mind, I am in a state of extraordinary nervous excitement; images are clearer, my senses are more alert, and for the form, why, the style is plastic, and steadily becomes better in proportion as the tension becomes stronger." She sighed, and added: "You are exhausting yourself and you will ruin your health. Just look at S. He spent two years in writing one short story; but how he has worked at it and chiselled it down! not the least thing to revise; no one can detect a blemish." To this stricture the poor fellow rejoined, "Ah, but those fellows have their income assured, they are never compelled to publish at a fixed date, while I, why, I am only a cabhorse!"

Although Dostoevski's sins against art were black and many, it was a supreme compliment to the Novel as an art-form that such a man should have chosen it as the channel of his ideas. For he was certainly one of the most profound thinkers of modern times. His thought dives below and soars above the regions where even notable philosophers live out their intellectual lives. He never dodged the ugly facts in the world, nor even winced before them. Nor did he defy them. The vast knowledge that he had of the very worst of life's conditions, and of the extreme limits of sin of which humanity is capable, seemed only to deepen and strengthen his love of this world, his love of all the creatures on it, and his intense religious passion. For the religion of Dostoevski is thrilling in its clairvoyance and in its fervour. That so experienced and unprejudiced a man, gifted with such a power of subtle and profound reflection, should have found in the Christian religion the only solution of the riddle of existence, and the best rule for daily conduct, is in itself valuable evidence that the Christian religion is true.

Dostoevski has been surpassed in many things by other novelists. The deficiencies and the excrescences of his art are glaring. But of all the masters of fiction, both in Russia and elsewhere, he is the most truly spiritual.



On the 6 September 1852, signed only with initials, appeared in a Russian periodical the first work of Count Leo Tolstoi—"Childhood." By 1867, his name was just barely known outside of Russia, for in that year the American diplomat, Eugene Schuyler, in the preface to his translation of "Fathers and Sons," said, "The success of Gogol brought out a large number of romance-writers, who abandoned all imitation of German, French, and English novelists, and have founded a truly national school of romance." Besides Turgenev, "easily their chief," he mentioned five Russian writers, all but one of whom are now unknown or forgotten in America. The second in his list was "the Count Tolstoi, a writer chiefly of military novels." During the seventies, the English scholar Ralston published in a review some paraphrases of Tolstoi, because, as he said, "Tolstoi will probably never be translated into English." To-day the works of Tolstoi are translated into forty-five languages, and in the original Russian the sales have gone into many millions. During the last ten years of his life he held an absolutely unchallenged position as the greatest living writer in the world, there being not a single contemporary worthy to be named in the same breath.

Tolstoi himself, at the end of the century, divided his life into four periods:* the innocent, joyous, and poetic time of childhood, from earliest recollection up to the age of fourteen; the "terrible twenties," full of ambition, vanity, and licentiousness, lasting till his marriage at the age of thirty-four; the third period of eighteen years, when he was honest and pure in family life, but a thorough egoist; the fourth period, which he hoped would be the last, dating from his Christian conversion, and during which he tried to shape his life in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount.

*His own "Memoirs," edited by Birukov, are now the authority for biographical detail. They are still in process of publication.

He was born at Yasnaya Polyana, in south central Russia, not far from the birthplace of Turgenev, on the 28 August 1828. His mother died when he was a baby, his father when he was only nine. An aunt, to whom he was devotedly attached, and whom he called "Grandmother," had the main supervision of his education. In 1836 the family went to live at Moscow, where the boy formed that habit of omnivorous reading which characterised his whole life. Up to his fourteenth year, the books that chiefly influenced him were the Old Testament, the "Arabian Nights," Pushkin, and popular Russian legends. It was intended that he should follow a diplomatic career, and in preparation for the University of Kazan, he studied Oriental languages. In 1844 he failed to pass his entrance examinations, but was admitted some months later. He left the University in 1847. From his fourteenth to his twenty-first year the books that he read with the most profit were Sterne's "Sentimental Journey," under the influence of which he wrote his first story, Pushkin, Schiller's "Robbers," Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev's "A Sportsman's Sketches;" and to a less degree he was affected by the New Testament, Rousseau, Dickens's "David Copperfield," and the historical works of the American Prescott. Like all Russian boys, he of course read the romances of Fenimore Cooper.

On leaving the University, he meant to take up a permanent residence in the country; but this enthusiasm waned at the close of the summer, as it does with nearly everybody, and he went to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1847, where he entered the University in the department of law. During all this time he had the habit of almost morbid introspection, and like so many young people, he wrote resolutions and kept a diary. In 1851 he went with his brother to the Caucasus, and entered the military service, as described in his novel, "The Cossacks." Here he indulged in dissipation, cards, and women, like the other soldiers. In the midst of his life there he wrote to his aunt, in French, the language of most of their correspondence, "You recall some advice you once gave me—to write novels: well, I am of your opinion, and I am doing literary work. I do not know whether what I write will ever appear in the world, but it is work that amuses me, and in which I have persevered for too long a time to give it up." He noted at this time that the three passions which obstructed the moral way were gambling, sensuality, and vanity. And he further wrote in his journal, "There is something in me which makes me think that I was not born to be just like everybody else." Again: "The man who has no other goal than his own happiness is a bad man. He whose goal is the good opinion of others is a weak man. He whose goal is the happiness of others is a virtuous man. He whose goal is God is a great man!"

He finished his first novel, "Childhood," sent it to a Russian review, and experienced the most naive delight when the letter of acceptance arrived. "It made me happy to the limit of stupidity," he wrote in his diary. The letter was indeed flattering. The publisher recognised the young author's talent, and was impressed with his "simplicity and reality," as well he might be, for they became the cardinal qualities of all Tolstoi's books. It attracted little attention, however, and no criticism of it appeared for two years. But a little later, when Dostoevski obtained in Siberia the two numbers of the periodical containing "Childhood" and "Boyhood," he was deeply moved, and wrote to a friend, asking, Who is this mysterious L. N. T.? But for a long time Tolstoi refused to let his name be known.

Tolstoi took part in the Crimean war, not as a spectator or reporter, but as an officer. He was repeatedly in imminent danger, and saw all the horrors of warfare, as described in "Sevastopol." Still, he found time somehow for literary work, wrote "Boyhood," and read Dickens in English. About this time he decided to substitute the Lord's Prayer in his private devotions for all other petitions, saying that "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" included everything. On the 5 March 1855 he wrote in his diary a curious prophecy of his present attitude toward religion: "My conversations on divinity and faith have led me to a great idea, for the realisation of which I am ready to devote my whole life. This idea is the founding of a new religion, corresponding to the level of human development, the religion of Christ, but purified of all dogmas and mysteries, a practical religion not promising a blessed future life, but bestowing happiness here on earth."

In this same year he wrote the book which was the first absolute proof of his genius, and with the publication of which his reputation began—"Sevastopol in December." This was printed in the same review that had accepted his first work, was greeted with enthusiasm by Turgenev and the literary circles at Petersburg, was read by the Tsar, and translated into French at the imperial command. It was followed by "Sevastopol in May" and "Sevastopol in August," and Tolstoi found himself famous.

It was evident that a man so absorbed in religious ideas and so sensitive to the hideous wholesale murder of war, could not remain for long in the army. He arrived at Petersburg on the 21 November 1855, and had a warm reception from the distinguished group of writers who were at that time contributors to the "Sovremennik* (The Contemporary Review)," which had published Tolstoi's work. This review had been founded by Pushkin in 1836, was now edited by Nekrassov, who had accepted Tolstoi's first article, "Childhood," and had enlisted the foremost writers of Russia, prominent among whom was, of course, Turgenev. The books which Tolstoi read with the most profit during this period were Goethe, Hugo's "Notre-Dame," Plato in French, and Homer in Russian.

*An amusing caricature of the time represents Turgenev, Ovstrovski, and Tolstoi bringing rolls of manuscripts to the editors.

Turgenev had a fixed faith in the future of Tolstoi; he was already certain that a great writer had appeared in Russia. Writing to a friend from Paris, in 1856, he said, "When this new wine is ripened there will be a drink fit for the gods." In 1857, after Tolstoi had visited him in Paris, Turgenev wrote, "This man will go far and will leave behind him a profound influence." But the two authors had little in common, and it was evident that there could never be perfect harmony between them. Explaining why he could not feel wholly at ease with Tolstoi, he said, "We are made of different clay."

In January 1857, Tolstoi left Moscow for Warsaw by sledge, and from there travelled by rail for Paris. In March, accompanied by Turgenev, he went to Dijon, and saw a man executed by the guillotine. He was deeply impressed both by the horror and by the absurdity of capital punishment, and, as he said, the affair "pursued" him for a long time. He travelled on through Switzerland, and at Lucerne he felt the contrast between the great natural beauty of the scenery and the artificiality of the English snobs in the hotel. He journeyed on down the Rhine, and returned to Russia from Berlin. During all these months of travel, his journal expresses the constant religious fermentation of his mind, and his intense democratic sentiments. They were the same ideas held by the Tolstoi of 1900.

On the 3 July 1860, he left Petersburg by steamer, once more to visit southern Europe. He visited schools, universities, and studied the German methods of education. He also spent some time in the south of France, and wrote part of "The Cossacks" there. In Paris he once more visited Turgenev, and then crossed over to London, where he saw the great Russian critic Herzen almost every day. Herzen was not at all impressed by Tolstoi's philosophical views, finding them both weak and vague. The little daughter of Herzen begged her father for the privilege of meeting the young and famous author. She expected to see a philosopher, who would speak of weighty matters: what was her disappointment when Count Tolstoi appeared, dressed in the latest English style, looking exactly like a fashionable man of the world, and talking with great enthusiasm of a cock-fight he had just witnessed!

After nine months' absence, Tolstoi returned to Russia in April 1861. He soon went to his home at Yasnaya Polyana, established a school for the peasants, and devoted himself to the arduous labour of their education. Here he had a chance to put into practice all the theories that he had acquired from his observations in Germany and England. He worked so hard that he injured his health, and in a few months was forced to travel and rest. In this same year he lost a thousand rubles playing billiards with Katkov, the well-known editor of the "Russian Messenger." Not being able to pay cash, he gave Katkov the manuscript of his novel, "The Cossacks," which was accordingly printed in the review in January 1863.

On the 23 September 1862, he was married. A short time before this event he gave his fiancee his diary, which contained a frank and free account of all the sins of his bachelor life. She was overwhelmed, and thought of breaking off the engagement. After many nights spent in wakeful weeping, she returned the journal to him, with a full pardon, and assurance of complete affection. It was fortunate for him that this young girl was large-hearted enough to forgive his sins, for she became an ideal wife, and shared in all his work, copying in her own hand his manuscripts again and again. In all her relations with the difficult temperament of her husband, she exhibited the utmost devotion, and that uncommon quality which we call common sense.

Shortly after the marriage, Tolstoi began the composition of a leviathan in historical fiction, "War and Peace." While composing it, he wrote: "If one could only accomplish the hundredth part of what one conceives, but one cannot even do a millionth part! Still, the consciousness of Power is what brings happiness to a literary man. I have felt this power particularly during this year." He suffered, however, from many paroxysms of despair, and constantly corrected what he wrote. This made it necessary for his wife to copy out the manuscript; and it is said that she wrote in her own hand the whole manuscript of this enormous work seven times!

The publication of the novel began in the "Russki Viesinik (Russian Messenger)" for January 1865, and the final chapters did not appear till 1869. It attracted constant attention during the process of publication, and despite considerable hostile criticism, established the reputation of its author.

During its composition Tolstoi read all kinds of books, "Pickwick Papers," Anthony Trollope, whom he greatly admired, and Schopenhauer, who for a time fascinated him. In 1869 he learned Greek, and was proud of being able to read the "Anabasis" in a few months. He interested himself in social problems, and fought hard with the authorities to save a man from capital punishment. To various schemes of education, and to the general amelioration of the condition of the peasants, he gave all the tremendous energy of his mind.

On the 19 March 1873, he began the composition of "Anna Karenina," which was to give him his greatest fame outside of Russia. Several years were spent in its composition and publication. Despite the power of genius displayed in this masterpiece, he did not enjoy writing it, and seemed to be unaware of its splendid qualities. In 1875 he wrote, "For two months I have not soiled my fingers with ink, but now I return again to this tiresome and vulgar "Anna Karenina," with the sole wish of getting it done as soon as possible, in order that I may have time for other work." It was published in the "Russian Messenger," and the separate numbers drew the attention of critics everywhere, not merely in Russia, but all over Europe.

The printing began in 1874. All went well enough for two years, as we see by a letter of the Countess Tolstoi, in December 1876. "At last we are writing "Anna Karenina comme il faut," that is, without interruptions. Leo, full of animation, writes an entire chapter every day, and I copy it off as fast as possible; even now, under this letter, there are the pages of the new chapter that he wrote yesterday. Katkov telegraphed day before yesterday to send some chapters for the December number." But, just before the completion of the work, Tolstoi and the editor, Katkov, had an irreconcilable quarrel. The war with Turkey was imminent. Tolstoi was naturally vehemently opposed to it, while Katkov did everything in his power to inflame public opinion in favour of the war party; and he felt that Vronsky's departure for the war, after the death of Anna, with Levin's comments thereupon, were written in an unpatriotic manner. Ridiculous as it now seems to give this great masterpiece a political twist, or to judge it from that point of view, it was for a time the sole question that agitated the critics. Katkov insisted that Tolstoi "soften" the objectionable passages. Tolstoi naturally refused, editor and author quarrelled, and Tolstoi was forced to publish the last portion of the work in a separate pamphlet. In the number of May 1877, Katkov printed a footnote to the instalment of the novel, which shows how little he understood its significance, although the majority of contemporary Russian critics understood the book no better than he.

"In our last number, at the foot of the novel "Anna Karenina," we printed, 'Conclusion in the next issue.' But with the death of the heroine the real story ends. According to the plan of the author, there will be a short epilogue, in which the reader will learn that Vronsky, overwhelmed by the death of Anna, will depart for Servia as a volunteer; that all the other characters remain alive and well; that Levin lives on his estates and fumes against the Slavonic party and the volunteers. Perhaps the author will develop this chapter in a special edition of his novel."

Levin's conversation with the peasant, toward the close of "Anna Karenina," indicates clearly the religious attitude of Tolstoi, and prepares us for the crisis that followed. From 1877 to 1879 he passed through a spiritual struggle, read the New Testament constantly, and became completely converted to the practical teachings of the Gospel. Then followed his well-known work, "My Religion," the abandonment of his former way of life, and his attempts to live like a peasant, in daily manual labour. Since that time he wrote a vast number of religious, political, and social tracts, dealing with war, marriage, law-courts, imprisonment, etc. Many of the religious tracts belong to literature by the beauty and simple directness of their style. Two short stories and one long novel, all written with a didactic purpose, are of this period, and added to their author's reputation: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreuzer Sonata," and "Resurrection."

One cannot but admire the courage of Tolstoi in attempting to live in accordance with his convictions, just as we admire Milton for his motives in abandoning poetry for politics. But our unspeakable regret at the loss to the world in both instances, when its greatest living author devotes himself to things done much better by men destitute of talent, makes us heartily sympathise with the attitude of the Countess, who hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry. In a letter to her husband, written in October 1884, and filled with terms of affectionate tenderness, she said: "Yesterday I received your letter, and it has made me very sad. I see that you have remained at Yasnaya not for intellectual work, which I place above everything, but to play 'Robinson.' You have let the cook go . . . and from morning to night you give yourself up to manual toil fit only for young men. . . . You will say, of course, that this manner of life conforms to your principles and that it does you good. That's another matter. I can only say, 'Rejoice and take your pleasure,' and at the same time I feel sad to think that such an intellectual force as yours should expend itself in cutting wood, heating the samovar, and sewing boots. That is all very well as a change of work, but not for an occupation. Well, enough of this subject. If I had not written this, it would have rankled in me, and now it has passed and I feel like laughing. I can calm myself only by this Russian proverb: 'Let the child amuse himself, no matter how, provided he doesn't cry."

In the last few weeks of his life, the differences of opinion between the aged couple became so acute that Tolstoi fled from his home, and refused to see the Countess again. This flight brought on a sudden illness, and the great writer died early in the morning of the 20 November 1910. He was buried under an oak tree at Yasnaya Polyana.

Although Count Tolstoi divided his life into four distinct periods, and although critics have often insisted on the great difference between his earlier and his later work, these differences fade away on a close scrutiny of the man's whole production, from "Childhood" to "Resurrection."

"Souls alter not, and mine must still advance," said Browning. This is particularly true of Tolstoi. He progressed, but did not change; and he progressed along the path already clearly marked in his first books. The author of "Sevastopol" and "The Cossacks" was the same man mentally and spiritually who wrote "Anna Karenina," "Ivan Ilyich," "The Kreuzer Sonata," and "Resurrection." Indeed, few great authors have steered so straight a course as he. No such change took place in him as occurred with Bjornson. The teaching of the later books is more evident, the didactic purpose is more obvious, but that is something that happens to almost all writers as they descend into the vale of years. The seed planted in the early novels simply came to a perfectly natural and logical fruition.

Not only do the early novels indicate the direction that Tolstoi's whole life was bound to assume, but his diary and letters show the same thing. The extracts from these that I have given above are substantial proof of this—he saw the truth just as clearly in 1855 as he saw it in 1885, or in 1905. The difference between the early and later Tolstoi is not, then, a difference in mental viewpoint, it is a difference in conduct and action.* The eternal moral law of self-sacrifice was revealed to him in letters of fire when he wrote "The Cossacks" and "Sevastopol;" everything that he wrote after was a mere amplification and additional emphasis. But he was young then; and although he saw the light, he preferred the darkness. He knew then, just as clearly as he knew later, that the life in accordance with New Testament teaching was a better life than that spent in following his animal instincts; but his knowledge did not save him.

*For a very unfavourable view of Tolstoi's later conduct, the "Tolstoi legend," see Merezhkovski, Tolstoi as Man and Artist.

Even the revolutionary views on art, which he expressed toward the end of the century in his book, "What is Art?" were by no means a sudden discovery, nor do they reveal a change in his attitude. The accomplished translator, Mr. Maude, said in his preface, "The fundamental thought expressed in this book leads inevitably to conclusions so new, so unexpected, and so contrary to what is usually maintained in literary and artistic circles," etc. But while the conclusions seemed new (and absurd) to many artists, they were not at all new to Tolstoi. So early as 1872 he practically held these views. In a letter to Strakov, expressing his contempt for modern Russian literature and the language of the great poets and novelists, he said: "Pushkin himself appears to me ridiculous. The language of the people, on the contrary, has sounds to express everything that the poet is able to say, and it is very dear to me." In the same letter he wrote, "'Poor Lisa' drew tears and received homage, but no one reads her any more, while popular songs and tales, and folk-lore ballads will live as long as the Russian language."

In his views of art, in his views of morals, in his views of religion, Tolstoi developed, but he did not change. He simply followed his ideas to their farthest possible extreme, so that many Anglo-Saxons suspected him even of madness. In reality, the method of his thought is characteristically and purely Russian. An Englishman may be in love with an idea, and start out bravely to follow it; but if he finds it leading him into a position contrary to the experience of humanity, then he pulls up, and decides that the idea must be false, even if he can detect no flaw in it; not so the Russian; the idea is right, and humanity is wrong.

No author ever told us so much about himself as Tolstoi. Not only do we now possess his letters and journals, in which he revealed his inner life with the utmost clarity of detail, but all his novels, even those that seem the most objective, are really part of his autobiography. Through the persons of different characters he is always talking about himself, always introspective. That is one reason why his novels seem so amazingly true to life. They seem true because they are true.

Some one said of John Stuart Mill, "Analysis is the king of his intellect." This remark is also true of most Russian novelists, and particularly true of Tolstoi. In all his work, historical romance, realistic novels, religious tracts, his greatest power was shown in the correct analysis of mental states. And he took all human nature for his province. Strictly speaking, there are no minor characters in his books. The same pains are taken with persons who have little influence on the course of the story, as with the chief actors. The normal interests him even more than the abnormal, which is the great difference between his work and that of Gorki and Andreev, as it was the most striking difference between Shakespeare and his later contemporaries. To reveal ordinary people just as they really are,—sometimes in terrific excitement, sometimes in humdrum routine,—this was his aim. Natural scenery is occasionally introduced, like the mountains in "The Cossacks," to show how the spectacle affects the mind of the person who is looking at it. It is seldom made use of for a background. Mere description occupied a very small place in Tolstoi's method. The intense fidelity to detail in the portrayal of character, whether obsessed by a mighty passion, or playing with a trivial caprice, is the chief glory of his work. This is why, after the reading of Tolstoi, so many other "realistic" novels seem utterly untrue and absurd.

The three stories, "Childhood, Boyhood, Youth," now generally published as one novel, are the work of a genius, but not a work of genius. They are interesting in the light of their author's later books, and they are valuable as autobiography. The fact that he himself repudiated them, was ashamed of having written them, and declared that their style was unnatural, means little or much, according to one's viewpoint. But the undoubted power revealed here and there in their pages is immature, a mere suggestion of what was to follow. They are exercises in composition. He learned how to write in writing these. But the intention of their author is clear enough. His "stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul." There is not a single unusual or sensational event in the whole narrative, nor did the hero grow up in any strange or remarkable environment. The interest therefore is not in what happened, but wholly in the ripening character of the child. The circumstances are partly true of Tolstoi's own boyhood, partly not; he purposely mixed his own and his friends' experiences. But mentally the boy is Tolstoi himself, revealed in all the awkwardness, self-consciousness, and morbidity of youth. The boy's pride, vanity, and curious mixture of timidity and conceit do not form a very attractive picture, and were not intended to. Tolstoi himself as a young man had little charm, and his numerous portraits all plainly indicate the fact. His Satanic pride made frank friendship with him almost an impossibility. Despite our immense respect for his literary power, despite the enormous influence for good that his later books have effected, it must be said that of all the great Russian writers, Tolstoi was the most unlovely.

These three sketches, taken as one, are grounded on moral ideas—the same ideas that later completely dominated the author's life. We feel his hatred of dissipation and of artificiality. The chapter on Love, in "Youth," might also form a part of the "Kreuzer Sonata," so fully does it harmonise with the teaching of the later work.

"I do not speak of the love of a young man for a young girl, and hers for him; I fear these tendernesses, and I have been so unfortunate in life as never to have seen a single spark of truth in this species of love, but only a lie, in which sentiment, connubial relations, money, a desire to bind or to unbind one's hands, have to such an extent confused the feeling itself, that it has been impossible to disentangle it. I am speaking of the love for man."*

*Translated by Isabel Hapgood.

Throughout this book, as in all Tolstoi's work, is the eternal question WHY? For what purpose is life, and to what end am I living? What is the real meaning of human ambition and human effort?

Tolstoi's reputation as an artist quite rightly began with the publication of the three Sevastopol stories, "Sevastopol in December" [1854], "Sevastopol in May, Sevastopol in August." This is the work, not of a promising youth, but of a master. There is not a weak or a superfluous paragraph. Maurice Hewlett has cleverly turned the charge that those 'who oppose war are sentimentalists, by risposting that the believers in war are the real sentimentalists: "they do not see the murder beneath the khaki and the flags." Tolstoi was one of the first novelists to strip war of its glamour, and portray its dull, commonplace filth, and its unspeakable horror. In reading that masterpiece "La Debacle," and every one who believes in war ought to read it, one feels that Zola must have learned something from Tolstoi. The Russian novelist stood in the midst of the flying shells, and how little did any one then realise that his own escape from death was an event of far greater importance to the world than the outcome of the war!

There is little patriotic feeling in "Sevastopol," and its success was artistic rather than political. Of course Russian courage is praised, but so is the courage of the French. In spite of the fact that Tolstoi was a Russian officer, actively fighting for his country, he shows a singular aloofness from party passion in all his descriptions. The only partisan statement is in the half sentence, "it is a comfort to think that it was not we who began this war, that we are only defending our own country," which might profitably be read by those who believe in "just" wars, along with Tennyson's "Maud," published at the same time. Tennyson was cock-sure that the English were God's own people, and in all this bloodshed were doing the blessed work of their Father in heaven.

"God's just wrath shall be wreak'd on a giant liar."

Throughout the heat of the conflict, Tolstoi felt its utter absurdity, really holding the same views of war that he held as an old man. "And why do not Christian people," he wrote in "Sevastopol in May," "who profess the one great law of love and self-sacrifice, when they behold what they have wrought, fall in repentance upon their knees before Him who, when He gave them life, implanted in the soul of each of them, together with the fear of death, a love of the good and beautiful, and, with tears of joy and happiness, embrace each other like brothers?"

Together with the fear of death-this fear is analysed by Tolstoi in all its manifestations. The fear of the young officer, as he exchanges the enthusiastic departure from Petersburg for the grim reality of the bastions; the fear of the still sound and healthy man as he enters the improvised hospitals; the fear as the men watch the point of approaching light that means a shell; the fear of the men lying on the ground, waiting with closed eyes for the shell to burst. It is the very psychology of death. In reading the account of Praskukhin's sensations just before death, one feels, as one does in reading the thoughts of Anna Karenina under the train, that Tolstoi himself must have died in some previous existence, in order to analyse death so clearly. And all these officers, who walk in the Valley of the Shadow, have their selfish ambitions, their absurd social distinctions, and their overweening, egotistical vanity.

At the end of the middle sketch, "Sevastopol in May," Tolstoi wrote out the only creed to which he remained consistently true all his life, the creed of Art.

"Who is the villain, who the hero? All are good and all are evil.

"The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is—the truth."

The next important book, "The Cossacks," is not a great novel. Tolstoi himself grew tired of it, and never finished it. It is interesting as an excellent picture of an interesting community, and it is interesting as a diary, for the chief character, Olenin, is none other than Leo Tolstoi. He departed for the Caucasus in much the same manner as the young writer, and his observations and reflections there are Tolstoi's own. The triple contrast in the book is powerfully shown: first, the contrast between the majesty of the mountains and the pettiness of man; second, the contrast between the noble simplicity of the Cossack women and the artificiality of the padded shapes of society females; third, the contrast between the two ways of life, that which Olenin recognises as right, the Christian law of self-denial, but which he does not follow, and the almost sublime pagan bodily joy of old Uncle Yeroshka, who lives in exact harmony with his creed. Yeroshka is a living force, a real character, and might have been created by Gogol.

Olenin, who is young Tolstoi, and not very much of a man, soliloquises in language that was echoed word for word by the Tolstoi of the twentieth century.

"Happiness consists in living for others. This also is clear. Man is endowed with a craving for happiness; therefore it must be legitimate. If he satisfies it egotistically,—that is, if he bends his energies toward acquiring wealth, fame, physical comforts, love, it may happen that circumstances will make it impossible to satisfy this craving. In fact, these cravings are illegitimate, but the craving for happiness is not illegitimate. What cravings can always be satisfied independently of external conditions? Love, self-denial."*

*Translated by Isabel Hapgood.

His later glorification of physical labour, as the way of salvation for irresolute and overeducated Russians, is as emphatically stated in "The Cossacks" as it is in the "Kreuzer Sonata."

"The constant hard field labour, and the duties intrusted to them, give a peculiarly independent, masculine character to the Greben women, and have served to develop in them, to a remarkable degree, physical powers, healthy minds, decision and stability of character."

The chief difference between Turgenev and Tolstoi is that Turgenev was always an artist; Tolstoi always a moralist. It was not necessary for him to abandon novels, and write tracts; for in every novel his moral teaching was abundantly clear.

With the possible exception of "Taras Bulba," "War and Peace" is the greatest historical romance in the Russian language, perhaps the greatest in any language. It is not illumined by the humour of any such character as Zagloba, who brightens the great chronicles of Sienkiewicz; for if Tolstoi had had an accurate sense of humour, or the power to create great comic personages, he would never have been led into the final extremes of doctrine. But although this long book is unrelieved by mirth, and although as an objective historical panorama it does not surpass "The Deluge," it is nevertheless a greater book. It is greater because its psychological analysis is more profound and more cunning. It is not so much a study of war, or the study of a vital period in the earth's history, as it is a revelation of all phases of human nature in a time of terrible stress. It is filled with individual portraits, amazingly distinct.

Professors of history and military experts have differed widely—as it is the especial privilege of scholars and experts to differ—concerning the accuracy of "War and Peace" as a truthful narrative of events. But this is really a matter of no importance. Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever seen; but he is not an authority on history; he is an authority on man. When we wish to study the Wars of the Roses, we do not turn to his pages, brilliant as they are. Despite all the geographical and historical research that Tolstoi imposed on himself as a preliminary to the writing of "War and Peace," he did not write the history of that epoch, nor would a genuine student quote him as in authority. He created a prose epic, a splendid historical panorama, vitalised by a marvellous imagination, where the creatures of his fancy are more alive than Napoleon and Alexander. Underneath all the march of armies, the spiritual purpose of the author is clear. The real greatness of man consists not in fame or pride of place, but in simplicity and purity of heart. Once more he gives us the contrast between artificiality and reality.

This novel, like all of Tolstoi's, is by no means a perfect work of art. Its outline is irregular and ragged; its development devious. It contains many excrescences, superfluities, digressions. But it is a dictionary of life, where one may look up any passion, any emotion, any ambition, any weakness, and find its meaning. Strakov called it a complete picture of the Russia of that time, and a complete picture of humanity.

Its astonishing inequalities make the reader at times angrily impatient, and at other times inspired. One easily understands the varying emotions of Turgenev, who read the story piecemeal, in the course of its publication. "The second part of 1805 is weak. How petty and artificial all that is! . . . where are the real features of the epoch? where is the historical colour?" Again: "I have just finished reading the fourth volume. It contains things that are intolerable and things that are astounding; these latter are the things that dominate the work, and they are so admirable that never has a Russian written anything better; I do not believe there has ever been written anything so good." Again: "How tormenting are his obstinate repetitions of the same thing: the down on the upper lip of the Princess Bolkonsky. But with all that, there are in this novel passages that no man in Europe except Tolstoi could have written, things which put me into a frenzy of enthusiasm."

Tolstoi's genius reached its climax in "Anna Karenina." Greatly as I admire some of his other books, I would go so far as to say that if a forced choice had to be made, I had rather have "Anna Karenina" than all the rest of his works put together. Leave that out, and his position in the history of fiction diminishes at once. It is surely the most powerful novel written by any man of our time, and it would be difficult to name a novel of any period that surpasses it in strength. I well remember the excitement with which we American undergraduates in the eighties read the poor and clipped English translation of this book. Twenty years' contemplation of it makes it seem steadily greater.

Yet its composition was begun by a mere freak, by something analogous to a sporting proposition. He was thinking of writing a historical romance of the times of Peter the Great, but the task seemed formidable, and he felt no well of inspiration. One evening, the 19 March 1873, he entered a room where his ten-year-old boy had been reading aloud from a story by Pushkin. Tolstoi picked up the book and read the first sentence: "On the eve of the fete the guests began to arrive." He was charmed by the abrupt opening, and cried: "That's the way to begin a book! The reader is immediately taken into the action. Another writer would have begun by a description, but Pushkin, he goes straight to his goal." Some one in the room suggested playfully to Tolstoi that he try a similar commencement and write a novel. He immediately withdrew, and wrote the first sentence of Anna Karenina. The next day the Countess said in a letter to her sister: "Yesterday Leo all of a sudden began to write a novel of contemporary life. The subject: the unfaithful wife and the whole resulting tragedy. I am very happy."

The suicide of the heroine was taken almost literally from an event that happened in January 1872. We learn this by a letter of the Countess, written on the 10 January in that year: "We have just learned of a very dramatic story. You remember, at Bibikov's, Anna Stepanova? Well, this Anna Stepanova was jealous of all the governesses at Bibikov's house. She displayed her jealousy so much that finally Bibikov became angry and quarrelled with her; then Anna Stepanova left him and went to Tula. For three days no one knew where she was. At last, on the third day, she appeared at Yassenky, at five o'clock in the afternoon, with a little parcel. At the railway station she gave the coachman a letter for Bibikov, and gave him a ruble for a tip. Bibikov would not take the letter, and when the coachman returned to the station, he learned that Anna Stepanova had thrown herself under the train and was crushed to death. She had certainly done it intentionally. The judge came, and they read him the letter. It said: 'You are my murderer: be happy, if assassins can be. If you care to, you can see my corpse on the rails, at Yassenky.' Leo and Uncle Kostia have gone to the autopsy."

Most of the prominent characters in the book are taken from life, and the description of the death of Levin's brother is a recollection of the time when Tolstoi's own brother died in his arms.

Levin is, of course, Tolstoi himself; and all his eternal doubts and questionings, his total dissatisfaction and condemnation of artificial social life in the cities, his spiritual despair, and his final release from suffering at the magic word of the peasant are strictly autobiographical. When the muzhik told Levin that one man lived for his belly, and another for his soul, he became greatly excited, and eagerly demanded further knowledge of his humble teacher. He was once more told that man must live according to God—according to truth. His soul was immediately filled, says Tolstoi, with brilliant light. He was indeed relieved of his burden, like Christian at the sight of the Cross. Now Tolstoi's subsequent doctrinal works are all amplifications of the conversation between Levin and the peasant, which in itself contains the real significance of the whole novel.

Even "Anna Karenina," with all its titanic power, is not an artistic model of a story. It contains much superfluous matter, and the balancing off of the two couples, Levin and Kitty, with Vronsky and Anna, is too obviously arranged by the author. One Russian critic was so disgusted with the book that he announced the plan of a continuation of the novel where Levin was to fall in love with his cow, and Kitty's resulting jealousy was to be depicted.

It has no organic plot—simply a succession of pictures. The plot does not develop—but the characters do, thus resembling our own individual human lives. It has no true unity, such as that shown, for example, by the "Scarlet Letter." Our interest is largely concentrated in Anna, but besides the parallel story of Kitty, we have many other incidents and characters which often contribute nothing to the progress of the novel. They are a part of life, however, so Tolstoi includes them. One might say there is an attempt at unity, in the person of that sleek egotist, Stepan—his relation by blood and marriage to both Anna and Kitty makes him in some sense a link between the two couples. But he is more successful as a personage than as the keystone of an arch. The novel would really lose nothing by considerable cancellation. The author might have omitted Levin's two brothers, the whole Kitty and Levin history could have been liberally abbreviated, and many of the conversations on philosophy and politics would never be missed. Yes, the work could be shortened, but it would take a Turgenev to do it.

Although we may not always find Art in the book, we always find Life. No novel in my recollection combines wider range with greater intensity. It is extensive and intensive—broad and deep. The simplicity of the style in the most impressive scenes is so startling that it seems as if there were somehow no style and no language there; nothing whatever between the life in the book and the reader's mind; not only no impenetrable wall of style, such as Meredith and James pile up with curious mosaic, so that one cannot see the characters in the story through the exquisite and opaque structure,—but really no medium at all, transparent or otherwise. The emotional life of the men and women enter into our emotions with no let or hindrance, and that perfect condition of communication is realised which Browning believed would characterise the future life, when spirits would somehow converse without the slow, troublesome, and inaccurate means of language.

I believe that the average man can learn more about life by reading "Anna Karenina" than he can by his own observation and experience. One learns much about Russian life in city and country, much about human nature, and much about one's self, not all of which is flattering, but perhaps profitable for instruction.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse