The Genius of Leo Tolstoy

This fall will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Tolstoy's death. The essay in appreciation of this great Russian writer is by KONSTANTIN FEDIN, the present head of the Union of Soviet Writers and a novelist whose books were influenced by his long sojourn in Western Europe, especially in Germany. Two volumes of his impressive post-war trilogy, EARLY JOYS and NO ORDINARY SUMMER, have been translated into English, and the third volume will shortly be published.


THE other night I picked up, quite by accident, Tolstoy’s story “The Master and the Worker” in German translation, and having started reading it, I could not stop until I reached the end. I had read this story more than once before, and it seemed to me that I knew it word for word, so I was amazed to find so much that was unexpectedly new in it. I decided that the foreign language may have helped me to see aspects of the story [ did not notice while reading it in Russian; good translations will often throw fresh light on a writer’s work, even though they may obscure certain features of it.

Memory reminded me, however, that each time I have reread “The Master and the Worker” in Russian, I have been surprised by its force and have become as excited as if I were reading it tor the first time. I think this happens every time I take up Tolstoy; the works that have been long familiar and carefully studied sound on the inner ear with the newness of previously unheard music, quickening the activity of the mind and the heart.

Why is it that rereading of Tolstoy continually refreshes our appreciation of his genius? Simply because the people he writes about are alive. They seem so to us because we see them in all their aspects, with their high and low ideas, their good and bad impulses, their kind and evil deeds. We clearly perceive their laughter, their joy, their tears, and their suffering, and we cannot help but live with them vicariously as we experience, while reading, the same gaiety or the same bitterness as we do in reality at the sight of tears and laughter.

There is no doubt that the fullness of our vision and the clarity of our perception depend on the depth with which Tolstoy unfolds the images of his heroes. But it is not immediately clear by what particular road Tolstoy leads us into the deep inner life of his heroes, and one must reflect for a long time in order to catch even the main techniques in Tolstoy’s rendering of life.

I think that one of the basic devices which Tolstoy uses in creating an image is testing the moral value of his hero at the decisive point of life and death. This device stems from Tolstoy’s philosophy concerning the meaning and content of life, and is inseparable from it.

In the story “The Master and the Worker,” three deaths are depicted: the merchant’s, the horse’s, and the peasant’s. The behavior of the merchant and the worker in the face of death reveals to the reader completely contrasting human characters, and beyond them, the contrasting world of owners and slaves. The story was written in 1895. Almost forty years before, in 1858, the young Tolstoy wrote a story, “Three Deaths,” in which he also described the ending of absolutely different lives — a peasant driver, a lady, and a tree — and in which, in the behavior of the lady and the peasant in the face of death, and in their essential conflict, the reader sees the two irreconcilable worlds.

I juxtapose the two stories because they present almost schematically in pure form the method, frequent with Tolstoy, of revealing the moral essence of the hero. Even before “Three Deaths,” in Tolstoy’s Caucasia and Sevastopol stories; later, in the greatest creation of his genius, War and Peace; and still later in the works written after “The Master and the Worker,” Tolstoy was developing his ideas in much the same method. He seems to be saying to his heroes: Show me your attitude toward death — if death is natural, if it is forced, if you are asking for it, if it comes with good will, if it has been long awaited, if it is accidental; show me, and we shall then understand people such as yourself.

It is remarkable that a writer who was unsurpassed in depicting human happiness, love, joy, and youth could also apply so severe a method of distinguishing between the virtues and the vices of a human being. Tolstoy was compelled to do this because of his high regard for the moral strength of a human being. Not one of his beloved heroes is made to die a pitiful, unworthy death. On the contrary, in the last hour of their lives they seem to be even more elevated as they undergo the trial of death.

War and Peace is particularly noteworthy in this sense: the fate of all the leading characters is determined by a trial hitherto unimagined in the history of modern Russia. The highly complex plot gave Tolstoy unlimited possibilities for testing any person in the face of death. Indeed, the character of the whole nation was subjected to an examination, and how remarkably, with what force, that character emerges, that great giant of history — the Russian people!

All the principal heroes of this epic face the immediate peril of death on the battlefield or of falling victim to the enemies of their fatherland. And the strongest, the most fascinating heroes, whom the reader of War and Peace will remember forever, are those inseparably connected with its most moving, dramatic scenes: Rostov, Bolkonsky, Kutuzov, Natasha, Tushin, Pierre. What a glorious procession passes through our memory!

The problem of form, as such, did not exist for Tolstoy. He was convinced, and tried to convince fellow artists, that one must live the life of one’s heroes, one must describe their inner sensations through vivid images, and then the heroes will act according to their character. He looked for, and found, the development and denouement of his plots in the inner thoughts of his characters and allowed them freedom to act in the only way they could possibly act, given their particular inclinations. All the dramatis personae are alive in his pages precisely because the form and content of his works are indivisible.

Such artistry did not come to Tolstoy all at once. We have no other writer who worked over his books so persistently, with such zeal, alternating between satisfaction and despair over the results. The decade of labor on his strongest social novel, Resurrection, was filled with attempts to continue and decisions to give up writing it, until finally the passionate wish to bring the novel to an end overcame all doubts.

“The most difficult thing is to express in a word something you understand, in such a way that another person would understand you as you do yourself; and you always feel that you are far, far from reaching what you must and can do.” Tolstoy jotted this down in his diary for 1890. To comprehend fully Tolstoy’s reverence for words, one must realize that this comes from a man who has War and Peace and Anna Karenina behind him and who has started to work on Resurrection.

“In order to say what you have to say clearly, you should speak sincerely, and in order to speak sincerely you must put it just the way the thought came to you.” This rule Tolstoy set for himself in an earlier diary, and he made a continuous effort not to break his own rule.

in his splendid introduction to the works of Maupassant, Tolstoy enumerates the necessary conditions for a “true artistic creation.” Here he discloses what he means by his standard of sincerity for a writer. Sincerity, he believes, is a “genuine feeling of love or hatred toward the object the artist is depicting.” In this same introduction he defines his conception of beauty of form as equivalent to “clarity of exposition.”

Tolstoy’s whole theory of writing can be reconstructed from his innumerable pronouncements on a writer’s labor, on the form of the work, the technique of writing, on words, on style. His diaries, notebooks, and letters contain all his thoughts on the art of writing.

Leo Tolstoy represents a Russian school of literary art which arouses a great response in the whole world, because he treats of universal man. It is from this Russian school that Soviet literature draws its understanding of art and its inspiration for its new work about modern man.

Tolstoy will never become obsolete. He is one of those geniuses whose word is like spring water. The spring is inexhaustible. We come to it again and again, and it seems to us that we have never drunk such freshness.

Translated by Elena Zarudnaya.