Good Reading : September 2007
SEPTEMBER 2007 ı goodreading 11 classics negotiations and councils with Napoleon and Alexander, he digresses to propound his theory of history, a view that is typically idiosyncratic and at odds with the prevailing view of his times. He even applies to history a new branch of mathematics – calculus – developed in the 17th century by Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Leibnitz in Germany. ‘Only by assuming an infinitesimally small unit for observation – a differential of history (that is, the common tendencies of men) – and arriving at the art of integration (finding the sum of the infinitesimals) can we hope to discover the laws of history,’ writes Tolstoy. In his understanding of the spirit of history and the multitudes of people and apparently insignificant events that contribute to its making,Tolstoy went against the intellectual fashions of his day, which were characterised by Thomas Carlyle’s hero-based view expounded in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).Tolstoy’s view is, in fact, closer to our current understanding of the behaviour of complex systems as explained by Chaos Theory. Over his 82 years,Tolstoy lived to see Russia change from a serf-based agricultural economy, through the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, to an industrialising nation engaged on the world scene in the early 20th century. To his dismay, Russia seemed to be abandoning its old ways in favour of the revolutionary spirit of western Europe fired by the great exploits of Napoleon early in the 19th century. In War and Peace, the soul of old Russia is embodied in the Russian general Kutuzov, whose sense of his own marginal role in the outcome of events is vastly different from the egoistic temperament and heroic dreams of Napoleon as Tolstoy portrays him. Kutuzov understands that battles are decided not by individuals, not by generals, but by ‘that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he kept an eye on that force and guided it as far as lay within his power’.Tolstoy’s interpretation of Kutuzov’s role ran against the common view of the day, which considered the old general to have been washed up and ineffectual. Tolstoy was born into an aristocratic family in 1828 on the family estate,Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow. His mother died when he was one and his father several years later, so Tolstoy and his four siblings were sent to stay with an aunt in western Russia. There he went to university in 1844 and spent several dissolute years studying Oriental languages before transferring to law because it was less demanding. During these years,Tolstoy read widely and voraciously, particularly enjoying the work of Dickens (he especially loved David Copperfield), Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Voyage and the French philosopher Rousseau’s Confessions, this last of which had an enormous influence on him. So much did Tolstoy love the work of Rousseau that instead of a cross around his neck he wore a medallion imprinted with the face of Rousseau.When he was 19,Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and began to keep a diary, filled with strict rules designed to restrain his vigorous appetite for sex and gambling – and harsh outbursts of self-reproach for his failure to stick to his rules. In 1851,Tolstoy travelled to the Caucasus, where his brother was an army officer. He too joined the army, fighting in the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, and soon began to write short stories about the war, horrified by the reality of battle and its abysmal failure to live up to his heroic dreams. After the war, Tolstoy resigned from the army in disgust to devote himself to a higher calling – education – and opened a school for the children of his serfs. His first published work, Childhood, appeared in a periodical in 1852. Plagued by crippling doubts about his talent, Tolstoy was overjoyed when he heard Childhood had been accepted for publication in the magazine The Contemporary, founded by the great poet Pushkin.Tolstoy began work on War and Peace in 1865 and completed it in 1869. As he wrote, his wife Sonya copied out his pages. She noted in her diary that her husband worked with great emotion, ‘the tears starting in his eyes and his heart swelling. I believe his novel is going to be wonderful.’ During their long marriage,Tolstoy and Sonya had 13 children, although the happy years of their early married life did not last long. Following the completion of Anna Karenina (1874– 1876),Tolstoy fell into profound despair. Plagued by thoughts of death and the meaninglessness of life, he read the great works of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, hoping to find comfort in their pages. He finally found solace in the teachings of Jesus. But, typical of the man, he was not content with the Gospels as they had been written and decided to write his own. Impatient with their miracles and the mystic trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost,Tolstoy rewrote the Gospels to forge his own singular version, fusing the four accounts of Jesus’ life into one that portrayed Jesus not as the sonofGodbutasawiseman who understood how to live. For this and other heretical behaviour,Tolstoy was excommuni- cated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. By the end of his long life,Tolstoy had renounced literature and become a spiritual leader with hundreds of followers around the world, some of whom saw him as a prophet with godlike powers. In 1894, the young Indian revolutionary Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and was profoundly influenced by its ideas, especially Tolstoy’s pacifist doctrine of non-resistance to evil (in War and Peace Tolstoy calls war ‘the vilest thing in life’). Gandhi referred to Tolstoy as ‘the sage of Yasnaya Polyana’ and in his honour founded the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg where he spent the final phase of his passive resistance campaign in South Africa, from 1908 to 1914. Dozens of Tolstoy’s many followers moved to Yasnaya Polyana to be closer to their idol, which interfered with his family life and put a great strain on his marriage. Eventually, in 1910, aged 82,Tolstoy fled the chaos of his beloved Yasnaya Polyana in the middle of the night with his doctor and one daughter. He died soon after at a deserted railway station on his way to a monastery. Four thousand people lined the streets for Tolstoy’s funeral and in Moscow students rallied.The Duma (parliament) was adjourned for the day and all of Russia mourned. Although Virginia Woolf thought little of James Joyce, the one thing the two writers agreed on was Tolstoy’s genius. Joyce worshipped Tolstoy.Woolf called him ‘the greatest of all novelists – for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?’ Classics: Books for Life by Jane Gleeson-White is published by Knopf Australia, rrp $34.95 By the end of his long life, Tolstoy had renounced literature and become a spiritual leader with hundreds of followers.