Lev Tolstoi was one of the world’s greatest novelists; he was also perhaps the world’s leading exponent of literary realism. In his total oeuvre essays do not bulk large; no critic of his work would put him forward as primarily a practitioner of the essay. Nor, had one explained to Tolstoi what literary critics mean by the term “essay,” would he likely have acknowledged that certain of his shorter works are essays; indeed, he would probably have said that the essay (at least of the belletristic variety) was an effete luxury, and that there was no need in literature for a literary genre of that sort.
Most of Tolstoi’s slim production of essays belong to his final, post-conversion period, and are concerned with religion or art. Following his conversion to his own form of Christianity in the 1880s, Tolstoi altered almost completely his manner of writing.
Formerly his style had shown an exemplary realism, with a striving to give descriptive detail and to supply as consistent a narrative point of view as possible. His later manner, in both fiction and nonfiction, is simpler and more direct, a sermon-like style notable for its total authority, such that it is virtually impossible to doubt the author even when he utters patent absurdities. Tolstoi the objective chronicler has metamorphosed into Tolstoi the single-minded preacher. The new style is almost free from rhetoric, quite beautiful, without excessive lyricism, but with a note of stern command that cannot escape our notice.
Prominent among Tolstoi’s “essays” is his celebrated confession Ispoved’ (1884; A Confession). Though it is worthy, in both content and form, to rank with the famous examples of the genre by St. Augustine (cf. Confessions) or Rousseau, it also fits well into the essay form: though recounted in the first person, it is obviously about Everyman; though it contains many narrative elements, these are softened, generalized, and permeated with a lyric introspection. Thus, although Tolstoi did not choose to write essays as such, we may at least call him an essayist manqué.
Tolstoi’s Confession is an outpouring of his celebrated religious conversion, which is usually dated as taking place in 1881 and 1882, though its roots may be found far earlier, for instance in Levin’s doubts and his impulse toward suicide described in the closing pages of Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina (1875–77). Despite its simplified but refined style, there can be little doubt that Tolstoi’s Confession is close to the events of his life; we must wonder if there were not an attempt on Tolstoi’s part to “live literature” as well as to “reflect life in literature.” Tolstoi had always sought to bring life and literature together, as Boris Eikhenbaum tried to show (1922): in his early period of literary realism Tolstoi used the techniques of realism mentioned above; in his final period he dropped or constrained the customary techniques of fiction, unifying and compressing the authorial voice to give it the closest tie to life.
Tolstoi’s Confession, like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau, tells the story of his life, but life perceived almost solely as a quest for salvation. Wherever he searches, Tolstoi’s quest is frustrated, and he is dogged by anxiety and a compulsive urge to suicide. Only when he abandons that in which he seems to excel—money, noble rank, knowledge, literary fame, science—can he dispel his fear and set out on the true path. Finally, he confirms his insights by studying the life of the peasantry around him—the peasants who seem deficient only in what he himself has excelled in.
If Tolstoi had written only this single essay, one that has some claim, indeed, to be his masterpiece, he would be celebrated as an essayist. However, besides his Confession, he also wrote a handful of shorter essays on questions of religion and morality.
Tolstoi created what was for him a new style, which could be applied to meditations on moral and spiritual concerns. Just as the fiction Tolstoi wrote after his conversion— Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich) or Khoziain i rabotnik (1895;
Master and Man)—is itself full of essay-like passages concerned with man’s quest for salvation, so Tolstoi’s nonfictional style also changed. Paradoxically, he himself criticized his earlier masterpieces as worthless in that they seemed to be trying to teach when he had nothing to teach. But now that he had, he began to teach with a vengeance.
Tolstoi likewise employed this new style in a handful of essays on art, a subject almost as important to him as religion, since art, he supposed, might either lead man to salvation or tempt him to perdition. The major and most famous of these, Chto takoe iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?), is too polemical to be called an essay, but an earlier attempt to deal with the question, “Ob iskusstve” (1889; “On Art”), is certainly an essay in that it largely eschews forceful persuasion for reflection. Tolstoi tells us that he came to his subject because of the importance generally conceded to art and artistic interpretation by so many people; thus he does not begin with a view of art’s unimportance and powerlessness in daily life, a perhaps more common starting point. He also perceives fully the ambiguity and ambivalence of art: motivated by the best of reasons, works of art can in fact do great harm by representing as true a false way of life.
It is tempting to ask why Tolstoi did not write more essays. In spite of all the power and authority of a story like The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which some have even called Tolstoi’s masterpiece, the essay form may strike us as equally or more appropriate to the character of his ideas after his conversion. The essay remained closer and more faithful to those ideas; it did not compromise them with characters or objects drawn from our external world. It remained purer; this purity and the consistency it fostered could well have been attractive to the author as well as the reader.
Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoi. Born 9 September 1828 at lasnaia Poliana family estate, near Tula. Studied privately with tutors; studied Eastern languages, then law, Kazan University, 1844–47. Inherited estate, 1847, and lived there (with extended periods of absence) throughout his life. Served in the Russian Army, 1852–56. Lived in St. Petersburg, from 1856, frequenting literary circles and meeting leading writers and critics. Traveled abroad, 1857 and 1860–61. Studied European educational systems, established a school on his estate for the children of his serfs, 1859–62, wrote and published lasnaia Poliana journal outlining his theories on education, 1862–63, and wrote and compiled materials for a complete elementary education course: published it as the primer Azbuka, 1872, revised as Novaia azbuka, 1875, and widely used thereafter in Russian schools. Married Sof’ia Andreevna Bers, 1862:13 children (nine survived to adulthood); also had a son by one of the peasants on his estate. Suffered increasingly from depression and suicidal thoughts, until his conversion to his own version of
Christianity, early 1880s; most of his subsequent writings concerned religious themes and were banned or censored. Excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, 1901.
Died (of pneumonia and resulting heart failure) at Astapovo railway station, 20 November 1910.
Essays and Related Prose
Ispoved’, 1884; edited by A.D.P.Briggs, 1994; as A Confession, translated anonymously, 1885, and by Jane Kentish, in A Confession and Other Religious Writings, 1987
V chem moia vera, 1884; as My Religion, translated by Huntington Smith, 1885; as What I Believe, translated by Constantine Popoff, 1885
In Pursuit of Happiness, translated by Aline Delano, 1887
O zhizni, 1888; as Life, translated by Isabel F.Hapgood, 1888; as On Life, translated by Mabel and Agnes Cook, 1902
Tsarstvo Bozhie vnutri vas, 2 vols., 1893–94; as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, translated by Constance Garnett, 2 vols., 1894
Chto takoe iskusstvo?, 1898; as What Is Art?, translated by Charles Johnston, 1898, and Aylmer Maude, 1930
Tak chtozhe nam delat’?, 1902; as What to Do?, translated by Isabel F.Hapgood, 1887; uncensored edition, 1888
Essays and Letters, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1903
Ne mogu molchat’, 1908; translated as “I Cannot Be Silent,” in I Cannot Be Silent: Selection from Tolstoy’s Non-Fiction, edited by W.Gareth Jones, 1989
On Life and Essays on Religion, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1934
The Kingdom of God, and Peace Essays, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1936
Recollections and Essays, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1937
Essays from Tula, translated by Evgeny Lamport, 1948
Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?, and Other Writings, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1975
Tolstoy on Education: Tolstoy’s Educational Writings, 1861–62, edited by Alan Pinch and Michael Armstrong, translated by Pinch, 1982
The Lion and the Honeycomb: The Religious Writings, edited by A. N.Wilson, translated by Robert Chandler, 1987
Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, translated by Aylmer Maude and Ronald Sampson, 1988
The Gospel According to Tolstoy, translated by David Patterson, 1992
Other writings: many novels (including Voina i mir [War and Peace], 1863–69; Anna Karenina, 1875–77; Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilyich], 1886), plays, stories, and works on religious issues.
Collected works editions: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, edited by V. Chertkov and others, 90 vols., 1928–58; Oxford Centenary Edition, edited by Aylmer Maude, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, 21 vols., 1928–37; Sobranie sochinenii, edited by S.A.Makashina, 12 vols., 1980–87.
Egan, David R., and Melinda A.Egan, Leo Tolstoy: An Annotated Bibliography of English Language Sources to 1978, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1979
Sheliapina, N.G., and others, Bibliografiya literatury o L.N. Tolstom, Moscow: Isd-vo
Vses. knizhnoi palaty, vol. 1, 1960; Moscow: Kniga, vols. 2–5, 1965–90
Christian, R.F., Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969
Eikhenbaum, Boris, The Young Tolstoi, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1972 (original Russian edition, 1922)
Gustafson, Richard F., Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986
Lavrin, Janko, Tolstoy: An Approach, London: Methuen, 1944; New York: Macmillan, 1946
Maude, Aylmer, The Life of Tolstoy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 (original edition, 1908–10)
Simmons, E.J., Leo Tolstoy, Boston: Little Brown, 1946; London: Lehmann, 1949
Steiner, George, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, London: Faber, 1980; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985 (original edition, 1959)
Troyat, Henri, Tolstoy, New York: Harmony, and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980 (original French edition, 1965)
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