Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  Ivan, to my mind, is a more interesting character. He is highly intelligent, prudent, determined to make his way in the world and ambitious. At the age of twenty-four he has already made something of a name for himself by the brilliant articles he has contributed to the reviews. Dostoevsky describes him as practical, and intellectually superior to the mass of needy and unfortunate students who hang about newspaper offices. He, too, hates his father. The sensual old wretch is murdered by Smerdyakov for the three thousand roubles he had hidden away to give Grushenka if she could be induced to go to bed with him, and Dmitri, who had often threatened to kill his father, is accused of the crime, tried and convicted. It was in accordance with Dostoevsky’s plan that he should be, but in order to effect this he was obliged to make the various persons concerned behave in a manner that outrages probability. On the eve of the trial, Smerdyakov goes to Ivan and confesses that it was he who had committed the crime and returns him the money he had stolen. He makes it plain to Ivan that he had murdered the old man on his (Ivan’s) instigation, and with his connivance. Ivan goes all to pieces, just as Raskolnikov does after murdering the old pawnbroker. But Raskolnikov was wildly neurotic, half-starved and destitute. Ivan was not. His first impulse is to go at once to the public prosecutor and tell him the facts, but he decides to wait and do so at the trial. Why? So far as I can see, only because Dostoevsky saw that then the confession would come with more thrilling effect. Then comes the very curious scene, to which I have already referred, in which Ivan has an hallucination in which his double, in the form of a shabby gentleman in reduced circumstances, confronts him with his worse self, with its baseness and insincerity. There is a furious knocking at the door. It is Alyosha. He comes in and tells Ivan that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. The situation is critical. Dmitri’s fate is in the balance. It is true that Ivan was distraught, but he was not demented. From what we know of his character, we would have expected him at such a moment to have the strength to pull himself together and act with common sense. The natural thing, the obvious thing, was for the two of them to go there and then to the defending counsel, tell him of Smerdyakov’s confession and suicide and give him the three thousand roubles he had stolen. With these materials the defending counsel, who, we are told, was an uncommonly able man, would surely have thrown enough doubt in the jury’s minds to cause them to hesitate to bring in a verdict of guilty. Alyosha puts cold compresses on Ivan’s head and tucks him up in bed. I have mentioned before that, for all his goodness, the gentle creature was strangely ineffectual. He was never more so than on this occasion.

  Nor is an explanation given of Smerdyakov’s suicide. He has been shown to be the most calculating, callous, clear-headed and self-confident of Karamazov’s four sons. He had made his plans beforehand. With great presence of mind, he seized the opportunity that a lucky chance presented to him, and killed the old man. He had a reputation for complete honesty and no one could have suspected him of stealing the money. The evidence pointed to Dmitri. So far as I can see, there was no reason for Smerdyakov to hang himself, except to give Dostoevsky the occasion to end a chapter with a highly dramatic announcement. Dostoevsky was a sensational, not a realistic, writer, and so felt himself justified in using methods which the latter is bound to eschew.

  After Dmitri has been found guilty, he makes a statement in which he proclaims his innocence and ends it with the words: ‘I accept the torture of accusation, and my public shame. I want to suffer, and by suffering I shall purify myself.’ Dostoevsky had a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual value of suffering, and thought that by the willing acceptance of it one atoned for one’s sins, and so reached happiness. From this the surprising inference seems to emerge that, since sin gives rise to suffering and suffering leads to happiness, sin is necessary and profitable. but was Dostoevsky right in thinking that suffering cleanses and refines the character? There is no evidence in The House of the Dead that it had any such effect on his fellow convicts, and it certainly had none on him: as I have said, he emerged from prison the same man as he entered it. So far as physical suffering is concerned, my experience is that long and painful illness makes people querulous, egotistic, intolerant, petty and jealous. Far from making them better, it makes them worse. Of course I know that there are some, and I have known one or two myself, who in a long and distressing illness, from which recovery was impossible, have shown courage, unselfishness, patience and resignation; but they had those qualities before. The occasion revealed them. There is spiritual suffering too. No one can have lived long in the world of letters without having known men who had enjoyed success and then, for one reason or another, lost it. It made them sullen, bitter, spiteful and envious. I can think of only one case in which this misfortune, accompanied as it is by humiliations which only those who have witnessed them know, has been borne with courage, dignity and good humour. The man of whom I speak no doubt had those qualities before, but the mask of frivolity he wore prevented one from discerning them. Suffering is part of our human lot, but that does not make it any the less evil.

  Though one may deplore Dostoevsky’s prolixity, a fault he was well aware of, but could not, or would not, correct; though one may wish he had seen fit to avoid the improbabilities – improbabilites of character, improbabilities of incident – which cannot but disconcert the attentive reader; though one may think some of his ideas erroneous, The Brothers Karamazov remains a stupendous book. It has a theme of profound significance. Many critics have said that this was the quest of God; I, for my part, should have said it was the problem of evil. It is in the section called ‘Pro and Contra’, which Dostoevsky rightly considered the culminating point of his novel, that it is dealt with. ‘Pro and Contra’ consists of a long monologue which Ivan delivers to the sweet Alyosha. To the human intelligence the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good seems incompatible with the existence of evil. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head. Ivan tells Alyosha a horrible story. A little serf boy, a child of eight, threw a stone and by accident lamed his master’s favourite dog. His master, owner of great estates, had the child stripped naked and made to run; and as he ran he set his pack of hounds on him and he is torn to pieces before his mother’s eyes. Ivan is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world God created. He insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God either is evil or does not exist. Dostoevsky never wrote with greater power than in this piece; but having written it, he was afraid of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to what with all his heart he wished to believe, namely, that the world, for all its evil, is beautiful because it is the creation of God. He hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.

  The problem of evil still awaits solution, and Ivan Karamazov’s indictment has not yet been answered.


  Tolstoy and War and Peace


  The last three chapters have dealt with novels which, in one way or another, stand apart. They are atypical. Now I come to one which, for all its complication, by its form and content takes its place in the main line of fiction, which, as I said on a previous page, began with the pastoral romance of Daphnis and Chloë. War and Peace is surely the greatest of all novels. It could only have been written by a man of high intelligence and of powerful imagination, a man with wide experience of the world and a penetrating insight into human nature. No novel with so grand a sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with so vast an array of characters, was ever written before; nor, I surmise, will ever be written again. Novels as great will perhaps be written, but none quite like it. With the mechanisation of life, with the State assuming ever greater power over the lives of men, with the uniformity of education, the extinction of class distin
ctions and the diminution of individual wealth, with the equal opportunities which will be offered to all (if such is the world of the future), men will still be born unequal. Some will be born with the peculiar gift that makes them become novelists, but the world they will know, with men and manners so conditioned, is more likely to produce a Jane Austen to write Pride and Prejudice than a Tolstoy to write War and Peace. It has been justly called an epic. I can think of no other work of fiction in prose that can with truth be so described. Strakhov, a friend of Tolstoy’s and an able critic, put his opinion in a few energetic sentences: ‘A complete picture of human life. A complete picture of the Russia of that day. A complete picture of what may be called the history and struggle of people. A complete picture of everything in which people find their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation. That is War and Peace.’


  Tolstoy was born in a class that has not often produced writers of eminence. He was the son of Count Nicholas Tolstoy and of Princess Marya Volkonska, an heiress; and he was born, the youngest but one of their five children, at his mother’s ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana. His parents died when he was a child. He was educated first by private tutors, then at the University of Kazan, and later at that of Petersburg. He was a poor student, and took a degree at neither. His aristocratic connections enabled him to enter society, and first at Kazan, then at Petersburg and Moscow, he engaged in the fashionable diversions of his set. He was small and in appearance unprepossessing. ‘I knew very well that I was not good-looking,’ he wrote. ‘There were moments when I was overcome with despair: I imagined that there could be no happiness on earth for one with such a broad nose, such thick lips and such small grey eyes as mine; and I asked God to perform a miracle, and make me handsome, and all I then had and everything I might have in the future I would have given for a handsome face.’ He did not know that his homely face revealed a spiritual strength which was wonderfully attractive. He could not see the look of his eyes which gave charm to his expression. He dressed smartly (hoping like poor Stendhal that modish clothes would make up for his ugliness,) and he was unbecomingly conscious of his rank. A fellow-student at Kazan wrote of him as follows: ‘I kept clear of the Count, who from our first meeting repelled me by his assumption of coldness, his bristly hair, and the piercing expression of his half closed eyes. I had never met a young man with such a strange, and to me incomprehensible, air of importance and self-satisfaction … He hardly replied to my greetings, as if wishing to intimate that we were far from being equals …’

  In 1851 Tolstoy was twenty-three. He had been spending some months in Moscow. His brother Nikolai, who was an artilleryman, arrived there on leave from the Caucasus, and when it was up and he had to return, Tolstoy decided to accompany him. After some months he was persuaded to enter the army and, as a cadet, engaged in the raids Russian troops made now and then on the rebellious mountain tribes. He seems to have judged his brother officers without indulgence. ‘At first,’ he wrote, ‘many things in this society shocked me, but I have accustomed myself to them without, however, attaching myself to these gentlemen. I have formed a happy mean in which there is neither pride nor familiarity,’ A supercilious young man! He was very sturdy, and could walk a whole day or spend twelve hours in the saddle without fatigue. A heavy drinker and a reckless, though unlucky, gambler, on one occasion, to pay a gambling debt, he had to sell the house on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana which was part of his inheritance. His sexual desires were violent, and he contracted syphilis. Except for this misadventure, his life in the army was very much like that of numberless young officers in all countries who are of good birth and have money. Dissipation is the natural outlet of their exuberant vitality, and they indulge in it the more readily since they think, perhaps rightly, that it adds to their prestige among their fellows. According to Tolstoy’s diaries, after a night of debauchery, a night with cards or women, or in a carousal with gipsies, which if we may judge from novels is, or was, the usual but somewhat naïve Russian way of having a good time, he suffered pangs of remorse; he did not, however, fail to repeat the performance when the opportunity offered.

  In 1854 the Crimean War broke out, and at the siege of Sevastopol Tolstoy was in charge of a battery. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for ‘distinguished bravery and courage’ at the battle at the Chernaya River. In 1856, when peace was signed, he resigned his commission. During his military service Tolstoy wrote a number of sketches and stories, and a romanticised account of his childhood and early youth; they were published in a magazine and aroused highly favourable notice, so that when he returned to Petersburg he was warmly welcomed. He did not like the people he met there. Nor did they like him. Though convinced of his own sincerity, he could never bring himself to believe in the sincerity of others, and had no hesitation in telling them so. He had no patience with received opinions. He was irritable, brutally contradictory, and arrogantly indifferent to other people’s feelings. Turgenev has said that he never met anything more disconcerting than Tolstoy’s inquisitorial look, which, accompanied by a few biting words, could goad a man to fury. He took criticism very badly, and when he accidentally read a letter in which there was a slighting reference to himself, he immediately sent a challenge to the writer, and his friends had difficulty in preventing him from fighting a ridiculous duel.

  Just then there was a wave of liberalism in Russia. The emancipation of the serfs was the pressing question of the day, and Tolstoy, after spending some months in the capital, returned to Yasnaya Polyana to put before the peasants on his estates a plan to grant them their freedom; but they suspected there was a catch in it and refused. After a time he went abroad and, on his return, started a school for their children. His methods were revolutionary. The pupils had the right not to go to school and, even when in school, not to listen to their teacher. There was complete absence of discipline, and no one was ever punished. Tolstoy taught, spending the whole day with them, and in the evening joined in their games, told them stories and sang songs with them till late into the night.

  About this time he had an affair with the wife of one of his serfs, and a son was born. It was something more than a passing fancy, and in his diary he wrote: ‘I’m in love as never before.’ In later years the bastard, Timothy by name, served as coachman to one of Tolstoy’s younger sons. The biographers have found it quaint that Tolstoy’s father also had an illegitimate son who also served as coachman to a member of the family. To me it points to a certain moral obtuseness. I should have thought that Tolstoy, with his troublesome conscience, with his earnest desire to raise the serfs from their degraded state, to educate them and teach them to be clean, decent and self-respecting, would have done at least something for the boy. Turgenev too had an illegitimate child, a daughter, but he took care of her, had governesses to teach her and was deeply concerned with her welfare. Did it cause Tolstoy no embarrassment when he saw the peasant who was his natural son on the box of his legitimate son’s carriage?

  One of the peculiarities of Tolstoy’s temper was that he could embark on a new undertaking with all the enthusiasm in the world, but sooner or later grew bored with it. He somewhat lacked the solid virtue of perseverance. So, after conducting the school for two years, finding the results of his activity disappointing, he closed it. He was tired, dissatisfied with himself, and in poor health. He wrote later that he might have despaired had there not been one side of life which lay still unexplored and which promised happiness. This was marriage.

  He decided to make the experiment. After considering a number of eligible young women and discarding them for one reason or another, he married Sonya, a girl of eighteen and the second daughter of a Dr. Bers, who was a fashionable physician in Moscow and an old friend of his family’s. Tolstoy was thirty-four. The couple settled down at Yasnaya Polyana. During the first eleven years of their marriage the Countess had eight children, and during the next fifteen five more. Tolstoy liked horses and rode well, and he was passionately fond of
shooting. He improved his property and bought new estates east of the Volga, so that in the end he owned some sixteen thousand acres. His life followed a familiar pattern. There were in Russia scores of noblemen who gambled, got drunk and wenched in their youth, who married and had a flock of children, who settled down on their estates, looked after their property, rode and shot; and there were not a few who shared Tolstoy’s liberal principles and, distressed at the ignorance of the peasants, sought to ameliorate their lot. The only thing that distinguished him from all of them was that during this time he wrote two of the world’s greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.


  Sonya Tolstoy as a young woman seems to have been attractive. She had a graceful figure, fine eyes, a rather fleshy nose and dark lustrous hair. She had vitality, high spirits and a beautiful speaking voice. Tolstoy had long kept a diary in which he recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, his prayers and self-reproachings, but also the faults, sexual and otherwise, of which he was guilty. On their engagement, in his desire to conceal nothing from his future wife, he gave her his diary to read. She was deeply shocked, but after a sleepless night, passed in tears, returned it and forgave. She forgave; she did not forget. They were both violently emotional and had what is known as a lot of character. This generally means that the person thus endowed has some very unpleasant traits. The Countess was exacting, possessive and jealous; Tolstoy was harsh, dogmatic and intolerant. He insisted on her nursing her children, which she was glad to do; but when, on the birth of one of them, her breasts were so sore that she had to give the child to a wet nurse, he was unreasonably angry with her. They quarrelled now and then, but made it up. They were very much in love with one another and, on the whole, their marriage for many years was a happy one. Tolstoy worked hard, and wrote assiduously. His handwriting was often difficult to read, but the Countess, who copied his manuscripts as each portion was written, grew very skilful in deciphering it, and was even able to guess the meaning of his hasty jottings and incomplete sentences. She is said to have copied War and Peace seven times.

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