Four Novels by Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks” (1859) traces the development of Dmitri Anréich Olenin, a privileged young man who abandons the world of Moscow society life to pursue his imagined idea of openness, freedom, authenticity and the natural life in the Caucasus. Leaving debts and boredom behind, Olenin enters this new world as a cadet, or apprentice officer, in the Tsar’s military operation to put down the insurgency of abreks in Chechnya, then as now a center of resistance to the central authority. The novel presents a vivid picture of country life in a district far from Moscow and its artificial conventions. In addition to Olenin, the principal characters include Maryanka, the beauty of the village, whom Olenin soon falls in love with, imagining he could easily make his life with her by walking away from his privileged upbringing and transplanting himself to the Caucasus.
The portrait of Maryanka: “she was certainly not pretty but beautiful. Her features might have been considered too masculine and almost harsh had it not been for her tall stately figure, her powerful chest and shoulders, and especially the severe yet tender expression of her long dark eyes which were darkly shadowed beneath their black brows, and for the gentle expression of her mouth and smile. She rarely smiled, but her smile was always striking. She seemed to radiate virginal strength and health…”
Other characters include Ustenka, the squeaky-voiced gamine, the young warrior Lukáshka, champion hunter, friend to everyone and soon to be betrothed to Maryanka, and Papa Eoshenka, a mountain man, a sage, an emblem of primitive vitality, an emotional old patriarch who breaks into tears at the memories and feelings that unexpectedly and often interrupt him in the midst of his everyday doings; Eoshenka is a sharp observer of Olenin and other people, knows the land and animals, has a weather eye, is an expert horseman and hunter, a teller of tales, a prolific giver of gifts, drainer of flagons, merry-maker among women, the center of attention and interest in whatever situation in field or mountain or village that he finds himself in.
To the end, though, Olenin remains detached and distant, self-conscious and unable to rid himself of the residue of city and society convention that clings to him despite all his efforts to throw it off. His naïve idea that he could marry a Cossack girl and be happy with her in the village, even as he remembers with disgust the rich, available Moscow girls with their pomaded hair and jeweled gowns, is turned topsy-turvy when the Chechens ambush the Cossacks, killing some of them and gravely wounding Lukáshka. In the shadow of this hard reality Maryanka rejects Olenin, still the outsider, who quietly leaves the village to join the military staff closer to the center of state power. After a tearful farewell with Eoshenka he departs, still with a sense that he never truly belonged, either in village life in the Caucasus or in society life in Moscow.
“Hadji Murád” (1904), Tolstoy’s last novel, is set in the 1850’s in the Caucasus, the wild area between the Black and Caspian Seas, then as now a locus of anti-Russian insurgency. Murád, the austere and pious champion of a Chechen faction, is the rival of Shamil, the extremist imam of an opposing faction who has captured Murád’s family. Murád needs Russian help to oppose Shamil and rescue his wives and children. The Russians need Murád to use his influence to persuade the people of the region to yield to Russian hegemony.
The Chechens are fiercely attached to their religion, loyal to their tribe and unwavering in their opposition to the Russians. To the destruction of one of their settlements by the Russians they respond with emotion “worse than hate: perplexity, repulsion, disgust at the senseless cruelty of these creatures and their desire to exterminate them like rats or poisonous spiders as a natural instinct of self preservation.”
On the Russian side a theme of corruption and incompetence on an imperial scale is delineated in a devastating portrait of Czar Nicholas as a pig-eyed hypocrite laced up in a corset, a “senile sensualist” whose “senseless, contradictory, unjust, insensate, cruel, dishonest” policies and decisions are promoted by fawning courtiers whose chief interest is to retain their positions in the power structure. Powerful descriptions of events and persons and personages flash through the narrative like lightning: the weeping of widows as jackals in the forest chuckle and moan in the background; nightingales pausing their song as the “merry, stirring rattle of gunfire” erupts; the “leathery acid smell peculiar to the mountaineers” permeating a room where Chechen insurgents have gathered.
In the end Murád fails to rescue his family and instead Cossacks in Russian service run him down, later showing around as war booty “a shaven head with salient brows, black shortcut beard and mustaches, one eye open and the other half-closed. The shaven skull was cleft, but not right through, and there was congealed blood in the nose. The neck was wrapped in a blood-stained towel. Notwithstanding the many wounds on the head, the blue lips still bore a kindly childlike expression.”
The Kreutzer Sonata
The tone of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata”(1889), a polemic against marriage, is set by an epigraph from Matthew recommending sexual abstinence. The novel opens with passengers in a rail carriage talking about what’s wrong with the women of today. A conservative old-timer says the female sex should be curbed. A liberal-minded lady disagrees, but she gets off the train at the next stop. A stranger with a “glittering eye” chimes in and soon dominates the conversation, insisting on getting to the “essence” of all questions. He turns out to be the notorious Pózdnyshev, just released from prison for killing his wife.
Over the course of the long journey he relates his story, leaving nothing out. In the beginning he had been “depraved” (i.e. boarding school buggery, a thread in other Tolstoy works as well). The years of his young manhood passed until as a sex-obsessed moralist, he was appalled to realize at age 30 that he had become a “libertine”. He rants about “the delusion that beauty is goodness,” about the over-stimulating super-abundance of rich food, idleness and excess sensuality available to his, the privileged class. Marriage is sordid, courtship is a bazaar (marital engagement: what shame! What nastiness!); women, dominated by men, are in turn the enslavers of men by way of their sexuality.
[Personal note by PW: When I was a student I lived in a boarding house where one of the other roomers was like this Pózdnyshev. He ended up castrating himself. The landlord told me he found the man’s testicles floating in a glass on his bedside table.]
Pózdnyshev married but soon Praskóvya Fedorovna, his bride, turned against him. They became satiated with sexuality and irritated with each other. Human nature is in contest with animal nature, observes Pózdnyshev. The solution is to be continent and withold the sexual impulse, but the lord of nature demands pleasure, demands release! Marriage becomes a form of slavery. Women are the root of the problem: the majority are “mentally diseased, hysterical, unhappy, lacking capacity for human development…” And: “A woman has attained all she can desire when she has bewitched a man”. But for their part men are swine too. Long passages follow about jealousy and against doctors. Consumed with impassioned frustration and admitting he is spoiled and jealous he declares, “I am a sort of a lunatic, I know!”
Praskóvya Fedorovna stopped having children. Her looks strikingly improved and her figure became lush. Pózdnyshev’s jealousy increased and was aggravated by the arrival of Trukhashévski, a music master, for Madame’s lessons. Pózdnyshev discovered he learned his manners in Paris, to him a sure sign of depravity. Arguments and slamming doors followed. Madame abandoned the family; in a desperate scene she takes opium to try to kill herself. The deterioration of the family is witnessed by children, nanny, servants. A musical evening is arranged to try to restore balance. Trukhashévski returns but there is more jealousy: Pózdnyshev’s behavior was coarse and rejecting and the concert was almost called off. But Pózdnyshev’s deep love of music, as shown in an affecting passage on the power of music, is not enough to bring equilibrium. He has an idea that everything is superficial, that true meaning is concealed and only he can see it. He’s a kind of megalomaniac. Trukhashévski and Mme. play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Pózdnyshev is so jealous and moved he has to step out of the salon. Jealousy and irrationality build. Pózdnyshev leaves on a trip, but when he returns it’s with a sword. After a long interior passage on his jealousy and rage there’s a final confrontation and he kills her. In the train carriage he concludes with, “I should not have married. “Yes. Forgive me.”
The Death of Ivan Ilych
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) is a story of the unexamined life. Ilych, a magistrate, followed the correct path professionally, cultivated the right people, always held himself within proper limits (as defined not by internal self-generated values but by the range of behavior seen in those in his professional class). He married and was happy for a time, until the children came, but then his wife became unsatisfied and shrewish. There was never quite enough money, even though Ilych was careful to keep up appearances and improve the material conditions as circumstances allowed. By good luck he got a better job, which alleviated the money pressure for a time, and the family moved to a more fashionable house. Ilych became preoccupied with furnishing and decorating it. But for all his effort, Tolstoi writes, “In reality, it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich.”
While demonstrating to a contractor how a particular job was to be done Ilych fell and hit his chest sharply on a piece of furniture. There was a bruise that wouldn’t go away. The pain persisted, magnified and eventually came to dominate his existence. He lost weight, the light went out of his eyes, there was an at first unpleasant and then foul taste in his mouth. There’s a terrifying passage toward the end with Ilych in court opening proceedings and carrying himself in his old agreeable way, when suddenly the pain surges up and for some moments blots out everything. His “easy, agreeable and correct life” unravels, leading finally to a grueling death scene, with doctors contradicting each other with worthless treatments, the pain relentless and unbearable, Ilych screaming unremittingly for three days, the attentions of the peasant boy Gerasim, his nurse, his only comfort.
At the funeral his friends calculate how his death will benefit them professionally by creating a vacancy at court and socially by opening a seat at the bridge table. It was a life, Tolstoi says, “most simple, most ordinary, most terrible.”
[Personal note by PW: A friend in my book group selected this novel. When the time came to meet my friend had had knee surgery and, because he lives alone, entered a convalescent hospital until he could walk again. We met in the deserted cafeteria of this place and while we were discussing certain scenes of this grim novel there was a series of howls and moans, deeply distressed, echoing from the corridor, from one of the inmates. Around our reading table no one in the group gave a hint that they heard anything unusual.]