Tolstoy's Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)
0111201595-Tolstoy.jpg Leo Tolstoy (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Appearing on the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Count Lev Tolstoy’s birth, this collection of his correspondence includes but a small fraction of his total output of letters. Tolstoy was a prolific writer; his novels are epic in scope, and so also is his correspondence. Of the ninety volumes in the great Soviet edition of his complete works, completed only in 1958, thirty-two are devoted to his letters, along with the necessary annotation. In the complete collection there are over eight thousand five hundred letters, and even this number is incomplete, for many more have been lost, and others have recently been discovered. To read them all would be a task for only the most devoted of scholars. Even the number here might prove formidable to the general reader. This collection does, however, provide an excellent overview of the epistolary output of the great Russian writer, letting the reader see him over an eighty-two year span, in all his changing moods and poses, growing from a dissolute young aristocrat suffering frequent pangs of remorse, to the rather preachy and autocratic old man of immense fame and prestige and equally immense ego, dispensing encouragement to his followers and advice to admirers, while haranguing his wife and children and trying to run their lives. The man revealed here was certainly not without his faults, but—even though the letters specifically devoted to literary topics are few—one gains from these letters an insight into the private mind of one of the world’s greatest novelists.

This collection is all the more important in that it is the first comprehensive publication of Tolstoy’s letters in English. Two previous publications are out of print, and were, even in their day, inadequate. R. F. Christian, the editor of this work, has begun with the job of translating the letters, selecting those he finds representative of the various aspects of Tolstoy—literary, social, and personal—and then commenting on the letters in a Preface, Introduction to each time period, and notes on the personages and the references in the individual letters. Christian, head of the Department of Russian at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, is a noted Tolstoy scholar, having previously published a study of War and Peace, and a critical introduction to Tolstoy. His translations are exceptionally fine, not only accurate, but capturing stylistic traits, sentence rhythm, and the unfolding of thoughts as captured in syntax.

A number of letters were written in French, German, and even English, and Christian has chosen to leave untranslated those letters in French or German addressed to non-Russian speakers of these languages (Russians often corresponded among themselves in French, the language of international culture)—a practice which may frustrate nonlinguists, but which does give a fair sampling of his command of those languages. While considerable care is devoted to scrupulous editorial practice, (the indication of doubtful readings or illegible words, words inserted in other languages, and the like) it is handled so smoothly that reading is not disturbed, and the text, while scholarly, is also eminently readable and enjoyable by a layman. As to the selection of letters, there will invariably be disagreements; from so copious a store, the sheer magnitude of the task is formidable. Inevitably, there is a disproportion of available material. In the early years, before Tolstoy’s fame, there were fewer letters, and of these, fewer were carefully preserved. As his fame grew, more attention was paid to saving letters, even to making copies, and of course his correspondence grew to vast proportions, ranging worldwide. Tolstoy was in later years not only the great novelist, but the center of a philosophical-religious movement, with disciples eager for words from the master. In this period, many of the letters do tend to overlap in content, so that the greater volume of available material does not in itself imply a greater volume of necessary inclusions. These differences are reflected basically in the division of this work into two volumes. The first, up to 1879, contains many letters to friends and family, discussion of his own novels and other literary works, and discussion of current social and political problems, as well as religious themes. The second volume is far broader in range. Here is the Tolstoy of worldwide fame, writing public appeals protesting injustice, supporting oppressed minorities, propounding his idiosyncratic views, at the same time as the personal letters, above all to his wife and sons, reveal the disintegration of Tolstoy’s private life.

Tolstoy did not, as a rule, compose his letters with an eye to their literary quality; in this respect they must disappoint those who know only his novels, and those who are devoted to the letter as an art form. In many cases, especially early in his career, he was not writing with any view to the eventual publication of his letters, although later one does see, above all in his public utterances, an eye to posterity. Thus Volume I of this collection tends to be more evenly cast in a private and personal tone, whereas Volume II is less personal, more in the character of a document, losing the spontaneity and perhaps less directly revealing. The self-consciously great prophet here promotes the simple life, nonviolence, vegetarianism, moral and spiritual regeneration, abstinence from sex, and a whole host of related ideas.

It is remarkable, however, the degree to which the whole panorama of the correspondence represented in this collection does reveal a basic unity in the character and development of Tolstoy, in spite of the various periods into which his life is generally divided by biographers. This is true especially in relation to the much discussed crisis period of the 1880’s and his so-called conversion. Tolstoy’s views were by no means consistent. Perhaps the very passion of his quest for ultimate answers and solutions to the problems of life and values kept him restlessly moving on. At any given moment, his assertions tend to be absolute and autocratic; the posture of preacher, or teacher, or moral despot was a congenial one from his earliest years. But it is the questing itself, rather than the particular answers at which he happens to have arrived at any given point in his search that is fundamental. In the early years one perceives a conflict within his own consciousness; as years pass, his assertion of his positions becomes more intense, and the impatience with those—especially his family—who do not share his views can perhaps be traced to his passionate concern to resolve his inner conflicts by the establishment of a dogmatic response.

Between each of the sections into which Christian has divided the letters one finds obvious resemblances, foretastes and echoes of problems, ideas, and attitudes; thus between the earliest and latest sections of the correspondence one sees the unfolding of a remarkable character—not a particularly pleasant one (especially to those closest to him) but a character as fascinating as those works of fiction which Tolstoy himself constructed. While it may be disconcerting, or even amusing, to observe the great man’s foibles and inconsistencies—his insistence that Shakespeare was crude, immoral, vulgar, and senseless, or that Goethe’s Faust was the “trashiest of the trash”—the encounter with the organic unfolding of his nature cannot but be a fascinating experiences.

The letters are approximately evenly divided between...

(The entire section is 3084 words.)