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A brief survey of the short story part 25: Leo Tolstoy
The best of Tolstoy's short fiction confronts the reality of death better than any other writer
Tuesday 16 March 2010 09.00 GMT
By 1877 Leo Tolstoy was finished with the long-form novel: no other vast work would flow from his pen to join War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But that's not to say the great writer was content to rusticate on his estate. Instead, he spent the remaining 33 years of his life – an appropriately Christ-like period – sermonising, attempting to foment social change according to anti-establishment Christian ideals, and producing acreages of pamphlets, essays and correspondence. He also wrote some of the greatest short stories of his career.
Tolstoy translator Richard Pevear asserts 'there is no such thing as a "Tolstoy story,"' and it's certainly true to say that the folktale simplicity of Alyosha the Pot (1905) is miles apart from the suffocating psychological interiority of The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), which in turn bears little relation to the exhilarating Prisoner of the Caucasus (1872). Yet these stories are linked by what the French scholar and translator Michel Aucouturier calls Tolstoy's "gift of concrete realisation", and an ever-restless breed of philosophical inquiry – a combination that could produce works of an intensity that surprises even after repeated readings.
|Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) Russian writer, philosopher and mystic, telling his grandchildren a story. |
Photograph: World History Archive / Alamy/Alamy
Following publication of the non-fictional A Confession in 1882, Tolstoy aimed to concentrate on morally improving tales. It may be unwise to judge a book by its cover, but if we can do so by title those such as Where Love Is, God Is, Evil Allures, but Good Endures, and A Spark Neglected Burns the House might rightly dampen expectations. Even in the throes of such didacticism, however, Tolstoy's storytelling ability could not be subdued. This is true to the extent that, after completing the short novel Hadji Murat in 1904, he said that he wrote it "in secret" from himself, and against the strict notions of "good art" laid down in his essay What is Art? (1898).
Some of Tolstoy's fables fall foul of over-simplification, a sentimentalising of the peasantry, and blared moral lessons. Others, however, such as Alyosha the Pot, are triumphs. Written in a single day, you can almost inhale its freshness; it contrives to sound like an oral tale shaped by a thousand mouths, rather than a lone man at his desk. Writing in 1911, the poet Alexander Blok called it "one of the greatest works of genius I have ever read". Tolstoy's own opinion, recorded in his diary, differed somewhat: "Wrote Alyosha, very bad. Gave it up."
Part of the power of Alyosha, which describes a cheery peasant worker who remains sanguine whatever befalls him, derives from the extraordinary death scene with which it ends: "He spoke little. Only asked to drink and kept being surprised at something. He got surprised at something, stretched out, and died."
Here, in synopsis, is the great obsession of Tolstoy's fiction: death. Orlando Figes points out in his cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance (named for a scene in War and Peace), "No other writer wrote so often, or so imaginatively, about the actual moment of dying." It's this distinction that characterises Tolstoy's greatest short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich – probably the greatest work about a death in world literature.
The story revolves around the eponymous judge discovering, as he slowly, painfully expires, that his entire life has been a sham, built on bourgeois inconsequentialities and bereft of love. Even at his end his family cannot comfort him – "he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation" – leaving him to receive succour from Gerasim, the butler's helper.
Tolstoy often contemplated suicide throughout the latter half of his life, but his fear of death was greater even than his suspicion of the meaninglessness of existence. Chekhov wrote to Gorky that Tolstoy didn't want to admit his terror, so calmed himself by reading the Scriptures. Apprehending this adds another layer to the terrifyingly powerful climax of Ivan Ilyich, in which Ivan's rapture ("There was no more fear because there was no more death") does not convince, but jars against his earlier, terrible description of death as "that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him".
Tolstoy's understanding of death, informed by his wartime experiences in Silistria and Crimea, seems to me unrivalled in literature. Visceral as well as meditative, it attains a sort of frozen horror when he describes the thought processes of serial killer Stepan in The Forged Coupon (1896-1904):
"The carter was not at home. He said he would wait and sat talking with his wife. Then, when she turned to the stove, it came into his head to kill her. He was surprised, shook his head at himself, then took the knife from his boot top and, having thrown her down, cut her throat. The children began to scream, he killed them as well, and, without spending the night, left town."
(Incidentally, in the same story, a thrilling escape from prison by Stepan's cellmate is drummed out in terse sentences that, provenance unknown, might easily be attributed to Hemingway – Tolstoy being, of course, the only writer of whom Hemingway said "nobody's going to get me in any ring with".)
Commonalities exist in Tolstoy's immense, varied body of work: scorn for all doctors and most priests; chain-smoking at moments of crisis; an elevation of the rural peasantry above the urban bourgeoisie. But surrounding all this, patiently waiting or greedily snatching, one constant encompasses them all: death, that awful black sack.
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger