Kalpana Sahni’s selection of reminiscences on Tolstoy translated for the first time into English, brings to life the 19th century literary scene in Russia. This book is an attempt to show the many-sided personality of Tolstoy through the memoirs of his relatives, friends, acquaintances and contemporaries. Tolstoy’s 150th birth anniversary coincided with the publication of hitherto unpublished material on him, in the USSR. The most invaluable documents were the memoirs of his wife, which according to her will could not be published until fifty years after her death. The finally appeared in print recently. Tolstoy’s complex personality. He was an aristocrat by birth but took up the cause of the downtrodden. He always wore the traditional peasant blouse, wearing a sheepskin coat only to go outdoors. He dressed this way so that the common people would treat him as an equal. He preached self-perfection and non-violence, but his experience proved otherwise and his later writings contradict these earlier ideas. Although we might disagree with his moral views he was a writer steeped in reality and therefore is relevant even to-day for his criticism of social injustice.
It was said of Tolstoy ‘We have two Czars, Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy. Who is the stronger of the two? Nicholas II is powerless against Tolstoy and cannot make him tremble on his throne, whereas Tolstoy is forever shaking the throne of Nicholas II and his dynasty.’
Tolstoy wrote of a time which was a turning point in Russia’s cultural· history. The post Napoleonic era saw the emergence of Russian Nationalism and the first attempts at overthrowing autocracy and a move towards a democratic system. In a brief introduction, the editor makes many interesting points about the public spirit of Russian writers and the public debate on the writer in the role of the objective consciousness. This makes the reader see beyond the immediate value of Tolstoy’s works—to the broader framework within which an author seeks to be recognized.
At this point, every literate soldier knew Pushkin’s poems by heart, and his ‘Ode to Liberty’ became an example for other nascent democratic writers. The Government ruthlessly suppressed the literature of protest and humiliated many illustrious writers. Yet hand-written copies continued to ignite the spark of revolutionary criticism. The death of each writer became a major political rallying point. This tradition continues in Russia today. The pieces selected by Sahni relate to this historical background and show how Tolstoy, the literary giant remains unmatched in his social involvement in the crusade for a just and new society.
Tolstoy writes in his preface to Sevastopol in May (1855) ‘My novellettes hero, whom I love with all my heart, whom I have tried to depict in all his beauty and who always was, is and will be beautiful—is truth’. Truth for Tolstoy meant the individual’s place and role in society, both good and bad. The writer was always moving ahead, trying to comprehend the changing reality, dissatisfied with what he found and looking for the best possibly way to express it.
The opening pieces of this collection are taken from the biography of Tolstoy’s wife Sofia and cover the period 18441901. The last decade remains incomplete. They were only recently published in Novy, Mir, No. 8, 1978, entitled ‘As 1 remember’. Sofia (whose family was described in War and Peace as the Rostov family) shows the bond, both personal and literary, between the husband and wife. She creates vivid pictures of the life at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate. She writes ‘I was stunned by the simplicity of life. Until my own silverware, given as dowry arrived, simple steel forks and old dented spoons were in use …’
She writes that ‘during the first days of their marriage, a lot of different people came to greet them; the manor serfs, peasants, school children, which she saw an indication of Tolstoy’s involvement with village life in all its aspects-school, the famine, and the Decembrist movement. One begins to see the influence of Tolstoy’s background on his attitudes and his personal behaviour.
While Tolstoy wrote, Sofia helped him by copying, maintaining proofs, translating and making up phrases and stories for the Primer and four readers and the Circle of Reading, during that time. As a wife, she writes about the ups-and-downs of an extraordinary life, which she describes as ‘restricted’ on the one hand and on the other as being ‘in a world of thought, creativity and abstract occupations.’ She records Tolstoy’s comment ‘the poet takes away the best from life and puts it in his work. That is why his work is beautiful but his life, bad.’ For Tolstoy, in the process of his work the view of human nature changed from ‘a small familiar circle of one’s own close people whereas now millions had become brothers.’
Tatyana, Tolstoy’s eldest daughter shared his interests and views. She helped in starting the publishing house ‘posrednik’ and undertook famine relief work in the 1890’s. She was kept under police surveillance for distributing her father’s banned works. After his death she collected, compiled and published many of his writings. The excerpt in this book entitled ‘Flashbacks’ is from her book Remembrances, published in 1976. She recalls her father saying: when a writer conceives a character it starts living its own life, independent of the author’s wishes. That’s why my Katyusha and Pushkin’s Tatyana act according to their own wishes. We can see how Tolstoy’s characterization had a life of its own, with him following the characters in their destiny wondering what would happen next. His niece who had been a part of the Tolstoy household V. Nagornaya, writes about Tolstoy’s characters, the majority of whom were taken from real life. Although names were not mentioned, those who were close to the writer correctly identified relatives and acquaintances through the characters in the novel. Her memoires are given in the selection entitled ‘Evolution of a Character.’
Alexeyev, the family tutor who was one of the first to come under Tolstoy’s influence, writes about a day in his life. He recalls Tolstoy’s views, on the public being the real critic of the writer and not the inveterate critics, who appreciate only the technicalities. The real critic’s task was to discover and show the ray of light that was in the work. Without it the work was nothing. Alexeyev writes that ‘for Tolstoy his writing was a mighty weapon to search and discover the true meaning of life.’ Leonid Pasternak, the father of Russian poet Boris Pasternak, who met Tolstoy in 1880, and became a close associate, writes on making the first illustration of Resurrection, and a series of portraits of Tolstoy and life at Yasnaya Polyana. Then there is a piece by V.N. Denydov, the first to have organized a public reading of Tolstoy’s banned play ‘The Power of Darkness’.
Kuzminskaya, his sister-in-law who had spent much of her time at the Tolstoy estate writes poignantly of his funeral. ‘Leo Nicholaevich had abandoned Yasnaya Polyana leaving behind a letter for his wife …. Just a vague memory of his works came to my mind. To abandon everything, to abandon luxury, this life which exposes us at each step. I can’t make up my mind to do it. Break up something and by doing so bring grief to others. I can’t. One should always do that where there is more of self denial’. Her personal account is objectified by A. Tsevtaeva, sister of the poetess, Marina T. Svetaeva: ‘Everyone is only talking about Tolstoy. In the street, strangers ask each other: have you heard anything? Conversation, news, criticism … and the third and final news. Leo Tolstoy is dead.’ She then describes how she along with all the young people ran away from home to his funeral.
Finally there is an extract on the creative incentives of Leo Tolstoy by Boris Eikhenbaum a leading literary critic who belonged to a very active group, ‘Opoyaz’. He was also one of the chief editors of the centenary edition of Tolstoy’s works in ninety volumes. This reflects the fact that a whole army of friends and relatives were always busy re-writing drafts.
These selections from the writings of his eldest daughter, friends, relations, artists and actors of his time, literary critics all combine to give us a many sided view of Tolstoy, the man who transformed his life and experiences into literary works that appeal not only to his own time, but to all those who are interested in something more than trivialities.
Students and staff at the Centre for Russian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University have made the translation. Although they are all Indians; the colloquial Russian idiom has been consistently maintained ‘and this gives an original flavour to the collection. Then again, when translating from Russian there is the peculiar problem of names (should it be Lev or the more familiar Leo) and the name endings which denote a particular relationship between two people, and this presents a daunting problem in translation. These are some of the problems which have been overcome in this selection as a result of the intimate knowledge not only of the language, but the social and cultural framework of the period. This book will be of interest not only to the Tolstoy scholar, but all those who have a taste for biography, literary criticism and the social history of a period of Russian cultural life that put the Russian novel in the centre of the world literary stage.
Nina Rao is Lecturer, Vocational College, Delhi University, Delhi.