Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Tolstoy's embodiment of a kind of universal physical existence

In Tolstoy and the Novel, John Bayley writes:
“... Indeed we might make a distinction, in the context of Russian and Western literature, between the author who writes about himself and his experiences, and the author who exists. Gide writes about himself: Tolstoy writes about himself: but with the former we feel the will to create and impose upon us the idea of a unique and significant person; with the latter, only the transparent statement of an existence. It is the same with the comparison, made by Thomas Mann and others, between Goethe and Tolstoy. Both are supreme egotists. But Goethe is absorbed by himself because he is a national genius, a god-like apparition; Tolstoy, because he finds himself experiencing what all other human beings experience. Goethe’s self-preoccupation strikes us as perpetually narcissistic, incapable of disturbing its own image; Tolstoy’s is the egotism of a man like any other, but immensely more so.
[…] For surely the collapse of the sense of existence in Tolstoy is the surest proof both of how superb and how universal it had been? All of us are subject to such a temporary collapse: Tolstoy experienced it on an overwhelming scale. Tolstoy’s embodiment of a kind of universal physical existence would be nothing if it had not been so continually haunted and obsessed by the question of what there was, what there might be, outside himself. A Tolstoy who continued to write novels of the same kind would be an intolerable phenomenon, for his egotism seems to encompass all physical existence. But what grows with it, haunts it, and finally dominates it, is the admission of its limitations, the confrontation of self with what is not self, of life with death. Tolstoy is not ill, not perverse; he plays out in himself, and on his scale, the most universal and inevitable of human dramas. He is the state of our existence: he does not, like Goethe, attempt to conquer it and to put himself above it. Ultimately, as Thomas Mann comes near to admitting, Goethe cared for nothing but himself. Tolstoy was nothing but himself, and his sense of what awaited him, and what was outside him, is correspondingly more intimate to us all, and more moving...”
At the same time, I’ve been reading The Cossacks, because of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which I think applies to most readers. It is very much a Tolstoy novel (I would not use the word “Tolstoyan”, which refers more to Tolstoy's philosophical and religious ideas and the social movement): cold description and hot interiority, an obsession with death and the meaning of life and happiness and love. Dmitri Andreich Olenin is a complex, susceptible, self-contradictory young man torn between pleasures and his own idealism, a socially awkward man fed up with the artificiality and hypocrisy of his own class but unable to cut himself off from that world because he belongs nowhere else even while feeling that he doesn’t quite fit in with people of his class. His struggle to find meaning and to give his life meaning makes him feel even more alienated, because his motives are unknown and his efforts are therefore misunderstood, and because he’s uncertain. Like Pierre in War and Peace. Like Levin in Anna Karenina. Like Tolstoy himself. And in a way, like us, in our musings about life and struggle to make life meaningful and pursuit of happiness—just “larger”, more complex, more self-contradictory. 


  1. I am not sure that Bailey gets Goethe right, but whatever, as the kids say.

    The Cossacks is so much a Tolstoy novel. His early fiction is already so well formed. "Larger," yes.