- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

He is often called the greatest novelist who ever lived. But the claim of Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) to such preeminence is based on only two novels. Yet what books they are: the ne plus ultra of historical fiction ("War and Peace") and a glowing chronicle of personal relations in, and contrasted with society, which furthermore boasts the most bewitching of all heroines ("Anna Karenina").
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Benito Perez Galdos, Thomas Mann, and William Faulkner all wrote shelves full of great novels. Tolstoy's two masterpieces alone have the stature of Homer's matching epics. They're almost universally acknowledged the best books of their kind, unmatched even by their creator (his early "romantic" novel "The Cossacks" and later "Resurrection," an impassioned, labored examination of arduous spiritual growth, are decidedly lesser works).
It's perhaps rather less generally known that an extensive and fascinating fictional oeuvre surrounds them: ample evidence, conveniently gathered in "Collected Shorter Fiction" (two large volumes translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and Nigel J. Cooper published by Knopf in the Everyman's Library series) that the obsessively industrious nobleman's genius indeed expressed itself in an impressive variety of forms.
A reader with unlimited time to devote to this collection might want to read it while simultaneously scanning a Tolstoy biography. For what's really interesting about the shorter works (apart from the individual excellence of many of them) is the degree to which they comprise a factual, and also an intellectual de facto autobiography.
For example, the early semi-fictional "A History of Yesterday" (1851), based on the exhaustive diaries Tolstoy kept throughout his life, displays an ardent literary imagination bent on discovering some universal significance in the detailed (numbingly detailed) record of all the events of a single ordinary day. It's very much a young man's production. Tolstoy's military service as a young officer fighting rebel Cossacks in the Caucasus is fictionalized in several early stories which reveal both youthful excitement at the prospect of thunderous adventure and a veteran observer's weary horror of the phenomenon of war.
The most notable are "The Raid" (1852), a combat story whose narrator is imperfectly aware of the extremities he's experiencing, and three related "Sevastopol Sketches" (1855), of which the chilling "Sevastopol in May" shows war through the eyes of uprooted and endangered children. However they differ in theme and content, Tolstoy's early stories uniformly evince a precocious literary gift in their formal clarity and salutary briskness (no writer gets to the point as quickly, or sets a scene with comparable authority) and layered arrangements of meaningful specific detail.
And they are varied. "The Snow Storm" (1856) describes with heart-pounding intensity a perilous carriage ride into the heart of a blizzard and incidentally partially echoes Guy de Maupassant's classic "Boule de Suif." "A Landlord's Morning" (1856) details the aristocratic Nekhlyudov's fumbling efforts to improve the lives of "his" peasants (it's the first of several ironical portraits of society-bred masters contrasted with their "natural," elemental counterparts: their serfs and servants). And the remarkable "Strider: The Story of a Horse" (begun in 1861, though not completed until 1886) contains an aging equine's story of his long life and complicated relations with his human "betters."
The unbridgeable distances between upper and lower classes (an inequity that tormented Tolstoy throughout his long life) takes interestingly varied form in such stories as "Lucerne" (1857), about an itinerant musician who's passively indifferent to the efforts of (the same) Nekhlyudov to defend him from abuse by guests at a luxury hotel.
Another variation on this theme, "Polikushka" (1863) which was highly praised by Tolstoy's admiring contemporary Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev points clearly toward several later stories in its deftly plotted focus on the unforeseen consequences of a kindly landowner's faith in the integrity of a notorious drunken serf. And the skill with which Tolstoy handles the risky genre of parable is seen in fine early form in the exquisite "Three Deaths" (1859) a lovely little paean to the passing of an aristocratic woman, a self-sacrificing peasant, and an aged tree.
"Family Happiness" (1859), which initiates a series of increasingly bitter and despairing explorations of the institution of marriage, shapes a subtle criticism of both romantic infatuation and passionless sacrifice from the story of a meek young woman's marriage to an older man, and the gradual sublimation of her youthful energies and urgings into the routines and satisfactions of wedlock and motherhood.
The difficulties that characterized Tolstoy's long union with his formidable wife Sonya (at once his helpmate and amanuensis, the love of his life, and eventually his harshest critic and enemy) are undoubtedly dramatized in two haunting, deeply troubling novellas. "The Devil" (1890), which recounts a wealthy landowner's estrangement from his wife as he's drawn ever further into sexual obsession with a married peasant woman living on his estate, echoes confessions of undiminished sexual longings made in Tolstoy's diaries and in other confessional personal writings.
"The Kreutzer Sonata" (1889) goes beyond it, in a highly charged dramatic monologue (originally conceived as a play) whose protagonist Pozdnyshev slowly, insanely convinces himself that his docile wife is unfaithful and must be punished. It is the most Dostoyevskyan of all Tolstoy's stories.
The counterparts to these often intemperate dissections of (in Chaucer's phrase) "wo that ys in mariage" are stories that deal with the process of aging and the coming of death.
These include "Memoirs of a Madman" (1884), an unsparing psychological study of a complacent landowner reluctantly facing the fact of his own mortality, grounded in a skillful juxtaposition of realistic and surrealistic details; and the wonderful "Master and Man" (1895), in which an arrogant "master," trapped in a snowstorm with his patient manservant, attempts to save only himself, remains lost in the maze of his self-absorption (literally wandering around in circles), and eventually performs an act of ultimate sacrifice.
"The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1888), a painstakingly precise account of an unreflective, self-absorbed man's agonized final days, is another masterpiece: a savage critique of materialism and a stern denunciation of the pleasures of the flesh, developed with such exemplary documentary and psychological realism that the reader scarcely notices its innate preachiness.
Amid such monuments, many of the stories of Tolstoy's late maturity seem simplistic and forced. And yet, even those conceived as moral object lessons burn themselves into the memory, notably the very late "Alyosha Gorshok" (1905), a limpid description of the peaceful death of a saintly peasant; and the concise allegory "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" (1886), a parable of greed, renunciation, and judgment, capped by one of the all-time great final sentences.
Proof that Tolstoy's great powers never really waned abounds in "Hadji Murad" (1896-1904), which returns to the severe remote beauty of the Caucasus for the tale of a courageous Islamic warrior whose selfless devotion to his religion and his homeland are memorably contrasted to the effete, cupidinous court of Czar Nicholas I. It's tempting to think that Tolstoy never wrote anything better than this unfinished, nevertheless virtually perfect novella.
But every reader will find his own favorites among the 57 stories included in these volumes. They comprise an essential collection, whether or not you prefer the lucid, stately prose of the Maudes' long established (and now revised) translations to more recent English versions more attuned to Tolstoy's energetic colloquialism and directness (such as the estimable "Anna Karenina" of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).
My advice: Take Tolstoy any way you can get him. He is not specifically one of the great short story writers. He can be redundant and didactic. His often overextended narratives lack the concision of Maupassant or Flannery O'Connor, the steely emotional and tonal control of Anton Chekhov or Errnest Hemingway. But there's no other writer with such a genius for placing you squarely inside an unquestionably real world, evoking it with unparalleled specificity, and making you wish you never had to leave it.

Amanda Watson Schnetze is a writer and critic in Maine.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.


LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide