Although his huge stature derives almost entirely from two mighty novels, there are a lot of other books to recommend
Wednesday 6 January 2010 10.22 GMT
This is the anniversary year for Tolstoy's death – a century ago he fled his ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, and went on the road with a friend (his private doctor) to become a kind of wandering monk. He died only a couple of weeks later, in a remote railway station called Astapovo. He was estranged from his wife of nearly five decades, cut off from all of his children except one daughter, who had become a devoted "Tolstoyan". It was a strange end, and the story itself was (to me) so compelling that I wrote a novel about it, The Last Station, in 1990. It has now been made into a film, with Helen Mirren as the Countess and Christopher Plummer as the great man himself.
Needless to say, the anniversary is going to draw a lot of readers to Tolstoy. This is certainly a good thing. I would assume that most readers who have read Tolstoy seriously will know the important novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. These are certainly masterpieces that rank among the great works of western European literature. I go back to them myself every few years, just to sink into their worlds, which are endlessly informative, stimulating, and convincing. I love these books.
But there is a vast shelf of books by Leo Tolstoy, and these contain some very intriguing and much less widely read works. It's not, as popularly thought, that Tolstoy abandoned writing fiction after Anna Karenina. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a late piece of writing, or relatively so, and it's as good as anything Tolstoy ever wrote: a vivid account of the dying process, as harrowing as anything I have ever read. He also wrote any number of wonderful late tales that read a bit like folktales, but they are self-assured, vital, unforgettable. I like especially a very late tale called "Alyosha Gorshak". And then, indeed, there is a fine historical novel, Hadji Murat – not a book easily bypassed by anyone seriously interested in Tolstoy's accomplishment as a writer.
Tolstoy became a kind of prophet in his old age, during the last few decades. He turned to Christianity, but he did so with a twist. It was his Christianity. That is, he had a vision of Christ that did not include supernatural trappings. He learned New Testament Greek and spent a great deal of time rewriting the Gospels, taking out the miracles, all the supernatural bits. He saw Jesus as a great man who had a special relationship with God, and he spent decades elaborating this idea in essay after essay. The Kingdom of God Is Within You is a whole book that puts forward his ideas on Jesus, faith, God, pacifism, and the moral life. I myself collected bits and pieces from his last four decades in a new volume out from Penguin Classics called Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy.
This volume also contains some of Tolstoy's later writings on vegetarianism, sex, and literature. Oddly, Tolstoy wrote a very long essay – almost a small book – on Shakespeare only a few years before he died. It's a deeply eccentric book but still fascinating. Tolstoy hated Shakespeare because he didn't take a stand. He could see things from endless viewpoints. There was no moral centre, or so Tolstoy believed.
Isaiah Berlin once wrote an essay called "The Hedgehog and the Fox" where he classified Tolstoy as a hedgehog because he was devoted to one big idea. That idea was God. Tolstoy was saturated in the idea of God, and he felt the presence of God in all things. In a sense, Tolstoy had an Oriental viewpoint here: he was deeply versed in eastern philosophy and religion, and he really combines that sense of a pervasively interconnected, timeless world with western ideas of God. I would direct readers who want to know more about Tolstoy to these later essays – especially the religious ones. It was not for nothing that such figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King looked to Tolstoy as a kind of moral hero, a man in touch with the inner workings of the spirit.
Tolstoy was a writer who could not write a line that did not come from a deep centre. He wrote with power and conviction, and his work is everlasting.