Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  In writing this essay I have quoted largely from Aylmer Maude’s Life of Tolstoy, and I have used his translation of A Confession. Maude had the advantage of knowing Tolstoy and his family, and his narrative is very readable. It is unfortunate that he should have thought fit to tell more about himself and his opinions than most people can want to know. I am deeply indebted to Professor E. J. Simmons’s full, detailed and convincing biography. He gives many interesting facts which Aylmer Maude, presumably from discretion, omitted. It must long remain the standard biography in English.

  Professor Simmons has thus described Tolstoy’s day: ‘All the family assembled at breakfast, and the master’s quips and jokes rendered the conversation gay and lively. Finally he would get up with the words, “It’s time to work now,” and he would disappear into his study, usually carrying a glass of strong tea with him. No one dared disturb him. When he emerged in the early afternoon it was to take his exercise, usually a walk or ride. At five he returned for dinner, ate voraciously, and when he had satisfied his hunger he would amuse all present by vivid accounts of any experience he had had on his walk. After dinner he retired to his study to read, and at eight would join the family and any visitors in the living-room for tea. Often there was music, reading aloud or games for the children.’

  It was a busy, useful and contented life, and there seemed no reason why it should not run in the pleasant groove for many years to come, with Sonya bearing children, looking after them and the house, helping her husband in his work, and with Tolstoy riding and shooting, superintending his estates and writing books. He was approaching his fiftieth year. That is a dangerous period for men. Youth is past and, looking back, they are apt to ask themselves what their life amounts to; looking forward, with old age looming ahead, they are apt to find the prospect chilling. And there was one fear that had haunted Tolstoy all his life – the fear of death. Death comes to all men, and most are sensible enough, except in moments of peril or grave illness, not to think of it. This is how in A Confession he describes his state of mind at that time: ‘Five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity recurred oftener and oftener and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to? I felt that what I had been standing on had broken down and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and I had nothing else to live on. My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep, and I could not help doing these things, but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable.

  ‘And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children, and a large estate which without much effort on my part improved and increased … I was praised by people, and without much self-deception could consider that my name was famous … I enjoyed a strength of mind and body such as I have seldom met among men of my kind: physically I could keep pace with the peasants at mowing, and mentally I could work for eight to ten hours at a stretch without experiencing any ill results from such exertion.

  ‘My mental condition presented itself to me in this way: My life is a stupid and spiteful joke that someone has played on me.’

  The drunkenness of youth had left him with a bad hangover. When still a boy, he had ceased to believe in God, but his loss of faith left him unhappy and dissatisfied, for he had no theory that enabled him to solve the riddle of life. He asked himself: ‘Why do I live and how ought I to live?’ He found no answer. Now he came once more to believe in God, but, strangely enough for a man of so emotional a temper, by a process of reasoning. ‘If I exist,’ he wrote, ‘there must be some cause of it, and a cause of causes. And that first cause of all is what men call God.’ For a while Tolstoy clung to the Russian Orthodox Church, but he was repelled by the fact that the lives of its learned men did not tally with their principles, and he found it impossible to believe all they required him to believe. He was prepared to accept only what was true in a plain and literal sense. He began to draw near to the believers among the poor and simple and unlettered; and the more he looked into their lives, the more convinced he became that, notwithstanding the darkness of their superstition, they had a real faith which was necessary to them and, alone, by giving their life a meaning, made it possible for them to live.

  It was years before he arrived at the final determination of his views, and they were years of anguish, meditation and study. It is difficult to summarise these views briefly, and I attempt to do so only with hesitation.

  He came to believe that the truth was to be found only in the words of Jesus. He rejected as evident absurdities, and an insult to the human intelligence, the creeds in which the tenets of Christianity are set forth. He rejected the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He rejected the sacraments, since they were based on nothing in Christ’s teaching and served only to obscure the truth. For a time he did not believe in life after death, but later, when he came to think that the Self was part of the Infinite, it seemed inconceivable to him that it should cease with the death of the body. In the end, shortly before his death, he declared that he did not believe in a God who created the world, but in One who lived in the consciousness of men. Such a god, one would have thought, is no less a figment of the imagination than the centaur or the unicorn. Tolstoy believed that the essence of Christ’s teaching lay in the precept ‘Resist not evil’; the commandment ‘Swear not at all’, he decided, applied not only to common expletives, but to oaths of any kind, those taken in the witness box or by soldiers being sworn in; while the charge ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you’, forbade men to fight their country’s enemies or to defend themselves when attacked. But to adopt opinions with Tolstoy was to act: if he had come to the conclusion that the substance of Christianity was love, humility, self-denial and the returning of good for evil, it was incumbent upon him, he felt, to renounce the pleasures of life, to humble himself, to suffer and be merciful.

  Sonya Tolstoy, a pious member of the Orthodox Church, insisted on her children having religious instruction, and in every way did her duty according to her lights. She was not a woman of great spirituality; indeed, what with having so many children, nursing them herself, seeing that they were properly educated and running a great household, she had little time for it. She neither understood nor sympathised with her husband’s altered outlook, but she accepted it tolerantly enough. When, however, this change of heart resulted in a change of behaviour, she was displeased, and did not hesitate to show it. Now that he thought it was his duty to consume as little as possible of the work of others, he heated his own stove, fetched water and attended to his clothes himself. With the idea of earning his bread with his own hands, he got a shoemaker to teach him to make boots. At Yasnaya Polyana he worked with the peasants, ploughing, carting hay and cutting wood; the Countess disapproved, for it seemed to her that from morning till evening he was doing unprofitable work which even among the peasants was done by young people.

  ‘Of course you will say,’ she wrote to him, ‘that to live so accords with your convictions and that you enjoy it. That is another matter and I can only say: enjoy yourself! But all the same I am annoyed that such mental strength should be lost at log-splitting, lighting samovars and making boots – which are all excellent as a rest or a change of occupation; but not as a special employment.’ Here she was talking good sense. It was a stupidity on Tolstoy’s part to suppose that manual labour is in any way nobler than mental labour. Nor is it more fatiguing. Every author knows that after writing for a few hours he is physically exhausted. There is nothing particularly commendable in work. One works in order to enjoy leisure. It is only stupid p
eople who work because, when not working, they don’t know what to do with themselves. But even if Tolstoy thought that to write novels for idle people to read was wrong, one would have thought he could have found a more intelligent employment than to make boots, which he made badly and which the people to whom he gave them could not wear. He took to dressing like a peasant, and became dirty and untidy. There is a story of how he came into dinner one day after loading manure, and the stench he brought with him was such that the windows had to be opened. He gave up shooting, to which he had been passionately addicted and, so that animals should not be killed for the table, became a vegetarian. For many years he had been a very moderate drinker; but now he became a total abstainer, and in the end, at the cost of a bitter struggle, left off smoking.

  By this time the children were growing up, and for the sake of their education, and because Tanya, the eldest daughter, would be coming out, the Countess insisted that the family should go to Moscow in the winter. Tolstoy disliked city life, but yielded to his wife’s determination. In Moscow he was appalled by the contrast he saw between the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor. ‘I felt awful, and shall not cease to feel,’ he wrote, ‘that as long as I have superfluous food and some have none, and I have two coats and someone else has none, I share in a constantly repeated crime,’ It was in vain for people to tell him, as they continued to do, that there always had been rich and poor, and always would be; he felt it was not right; and after visiting a night lodging-house for the destitute, and seeing its horrors, he was ashamed to go home and sit down to a five-course dinner served by two men-servants in dress-clothes, white ties and white gloves. He tried giving money to the down-and-outs who appealed to him in their need, but came to the conclusion that the money they had wheedled out of him did more harm than good. ‘Money is an evil,’ he said. ‘And therefore he who gives money does evil.’ From this it was a short step to the conviction that property was immoral and to possess it sinful.

  For such a man as Tolstoy the next step was obvious: he decided to rid himself of everything he owned; but here he came into violent conflict with his wife, who had no wish to beggar herself or to leave her children penniless. She threatened to appeal to the courts to have him declared incompetent to manage his affairs, and after heaven only knows how much acrimonious argument he offered to turn his property over to her. This she refused, and in the end he divided it among her and the children. On more than one occasion during the year this dispute lasted he left home to live among the peasants, but before he had gone far was drawn back by the pain he was causing his wife. He continued to live at Yasnaya Polyana and, though mortified by the luxury, luxury on a very modest scale, that surrounded him, none the less profited by it. The friction continued. He disapproved of the conventional education the Countess was giving their children, and he could not forgive her for having prevented him from disposing of his property as he wished.

  In this brief sketch of Tolstoy’s life I have been constrained to omit much that is of interest, and I must deal even more summarily with the thirty years that followed his conversion. He became a public figure, recognised as the greatest writer in Russia, and with an immense reputation throughout the world as a novelist, a teacher and a moralist. Colonies were founded by people who wished to lead their lives according to his views. They came to grief when they tried to put his principles into practice, and the story of their misadventures is both instructive and comic. Owing to Tolstoy’s suspicious nature, his harsh argumentativeness, his intolerance and his unconcealed conviction that if others disagreed with him it was from unworthy motives, he retained few friends; but, with his increasing fame, a host of students, pilgrims visiting the holy places of Russia, journalists, sightseers, admirers and disciples, rich and poor, nobles and commoners, came to Yasnaya Polyana.

  Sonya Tolstoy was, as I have said, jealous and possessive; she had always wanted to monopolise her husband, and she resented the invasion of her house by strangers. Her patience was sorely tried: ‘While describing and relating to people all his fine feelings, he has lived as always, loving sweet food, a bicycle, riding and lust.’ And on another occasion she wrote in her diary: ‘I cannot help complaining because all these things he practises for the happiness of people complicate life so much that it becomes more and more difficult for me to live … His sermons on love and the good have resulted in indifference to his family and the intrusion of all kinds of rabble into our circle.’

  Among the first persons to share Tolstoy’s views was a young man called Chertkov. He was wealthy, and had been a captain in the Guards, but, when he came to entertain a belief in the principle of non-resistance, he resigned his commission. He was an honest man, an idealist and an enthusiast, but of a domineering temper, with a singular capacity for enforcing his will on others; and Aylmer Maude states that everybody connected with him became his instrument, quarrelled with him or had to escape. An attachment sprang up between him and Tolstoy which lasted till the latter’s death, and he acquired an influence over him which bitterly incensed the Countess.

  While to most of Tolstoy’s few friends his views seemed extreme, Chertkov constantly urged him to go further and apply them more rigidly. Tolstoy had been so occupied with his spiritual development that he had neglected his estates, with the result that, though they were worth something like sixty thousand pounds, they brought in no more than five hundred a year. It was evidently not enough to keep the household going and educate a swarm of children. Sonya persuaded her husband to give her the publishing rights to everything he had written before 1881, and on borrowed money started a business of her own to publish books. It prospered so well that she was able to meet her commitments. But it was obviously incompatible with Tolstoy’s conviction that property was immoral to retain rights on his literary productions and, when Chertkov gained this ascendancy over him, he induced him to declare that everything he had written since 1881 was in the public domain and could be published by anyone. This was enough to enrage the Countess, but Tolstoy did more than that: he asked her to surrender her rights over the earlier books, including of course the very popular novels, and this she absolutely refused to do. Her livelihood, and that of her family, depended upon them. Disputes, acrimonious and protracted, ensued. Sonya and Chertkov gave him no peace. He was torn between conflicting claims, neither of which he felt it right to repudiate.

  (4)

  In 1896 Tolstoy was sixty-eight. He had been married for thirty-four years, most of his children were grown up, his second daughter was going to be married; and his wife, at the age of fifty-two, fell ignominiously in love with a man many years younger than herself, a composer called Tanayev. Tolstoy was shocked, ashamed and indignant. Here is a letter he wrote to her: ‘Your intimacy with Tanayev disgusts me and I cannot tolerate it calmly. If I go on living with you on these terms, I shall only be shortening and poisoning my life. For a year now I have not been living at all. You know this. I have told it you in exasperation and with prayers. Lately I have tried silence. I have tried everything and nothing is of use. The intimacy goes on and I can see that it may well go on like this to the end. I cannot stand it any longer. It is obvious that you cannot give it up, only one thing remains – to part. I have firmly made up my mind to do this. But I must consider the best way of doing it. I think the very best thing would be for me to go abroad. We shall think out what would be for the best. One thing is certain – we cannot go on like this.’

  But they did not part; they continued to make life intolerable to one another. The Countess pursued the composer with the fury of an ageing woman in love, and though at first he may have been flattered, he soon grew tired of a passion which he could not reciprocate and which made him ridiculous. She realised at last that he was avoiding her, and finally he put a public affront on her. She was deeply mortified, and shortly afterwards came to the conclusion that Tanayev was ‘thick-skinned and gross both in body and spirit.’ The undignified affair came to an end.

  The disag
reement between husband and wife was by then common knowledge, and it was a source of bitterness to Sonya that his disciples, now his only friends, sided with him and, because she prevented him from acting as they thought he should, regarded her with hostility. His conversion had brought him little happiness; it had lost him friends, created discord in his family, and caused dissension between his wife and himself. His followers reproached him because he continued to lead a life of ease, and, indeed, he felt himself to blame. He wrote in his diary: ‘So I, who am now entering upon my seventieth year, long with all the strength of my spirit for tranquility and solitude, and though not perfect accord, still something better than this crying disharmony between my life and my beliefs and conscience.’

 
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