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Two departures

July 6, 2011

A recent book by Pavel Basinskii uses the word бегство (flight, running away) rather than the established уход (departure) for Lev Tolstoi’s act of leaving home in 1910. Sergei Bocharov might agree when it comes to the details of the last days of Tolstoi’s life, but he thinks what actually matters is the departure from literature Tolstoi had been planning since beginning his “Confession” (“Исповедь”) in 1879, or even since writing in 1859 that he had “apparently given up literary activities once and for all. Why? It’s hard to say.”

Tolstoi’s real departure is when he renounces what he has written for religious reasons, as Gogol had before him.* Each went on to write works in simple language that reflected their new and strongly felt ideas about Christianity. They also tried to incorporate their new views of what was important into purely literary works. But Gogol never really managed to; Bocharov paraphrases Siniavskii-Terts, who describes the man who couldn’t quite write part 2 of Dead Souls as a “centipede who thought and thought about its movements and for that reason forgot how to walk.”

Tolstoi in 1908

Tolstoi the aesthetic writer doesn’t go away, though, and Bocharov focuses on Tolstoi, in particular the two-way interactions between Tolstoi the artist and Tolstoi the philosopher. These two aspects of him were distinct even before they were in conflict. For example, the theory-of-history sections of War and Peace feel separate from the rest of the novel, to the point that the author takes them out for the second edition, only to reinstate them later. Later, Tolstoi finds his old “artistic” manner displeasingly ambiguous and inaccessible and turns to an extreme simplicity. He claims one story is aesthetically deficient, saying that he made it exactly as good as it needed to be to get his point across, but no better (“The Kreutzer Sonata”), and in another case jotted down his old sort of psychological insights into characters, but did not include them in a novel (Resurrection): he “seemingly hurries to switch from living psychological [dushevnaia] empiricism, which he now finds unnecessary and repulsive, to moral conclusions, formulas, and the very texts of the Gospels.”

It’s not a simple story of the religious Tolstoi stifling the artist, though. His old manner resurfaces in his new writings, and as often as he declares he is against it, he never leaves it entirely. There are pairs of late works where he seems to try to resolve the same problem in two ways, using his maximally simplified style in one and a comparatively traditional approach in the other. And a number of his late works are masterpieces, so good that he’d be an internationally famous writer even if the early novels didn’t exist. In “Notes of a Madman” (“Записки сумасшедшего,” 1884-1903) his simplified style “looks ahead toward something like the [early twentieth-century] avant-garde rather than aiming at present-day accessibility.”

Bocharov remarks on the Protestant and Buddhist aspects of Tolstoi’s religious beliefs and draws a neat contrast with Dostoevskii: the “philosophical bottom line” of Tolstoi’s story “Father Sergius” (“Отец Сергий,” 1889-98) is “the less it mattered what people thought, the closer God felt.” But nothing could be more foreign to Dostoevskii, for whom “Man before God is always Man before Man, like brother Ivan before brother Alesha, or on the other hand before Smerdiakov (who is his brother too).” Speaking of Dostoevskii, much earlier in the article we learn of Mariia Virolainen’s argument that “Stepan Trofimovich’s Last Journey” in The Demons is an uncanny prophecy of Tolstoi’s biographical departure, down to details.

There’s much more in this essay, including Lev Shestov and Mikhail Bakhtin on late Tolstoi, but for the rest I’ll refer you to the full text: S. Bocharov, “Dva ukhoda: Gogol’, Tolstoi,” Voprosy literatury 1 (2011).

* In pointing out the Gogol-Tolstoi parallel Bocharov says he follows Lidiia Ginzburg and many others, notably Tolstoi himself.

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