Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  His health gave way. During the next ten years he had several illnesses, one so serious that he nearly died of it. Gorky, who knew him during this period, describes him as very lean, small and grey, but with eyes keener than ever and a glance more piercing. His face was deeply lined, and he had a long, unkempt white beard. He was an old man. He was eighty. A year passed, and another. He was eighty-two. He was failing rapidly, and it was evident that he had only a few more months to live. They were embittered by sordid quarrels. Chertkov, who apparently did not altogether share Tolstoy’s notion that property was immoral, had built himself at considerable cost a large house near Yasnaya Polyana, and though Tolstoy deplored the expenditure of money, the propinquity naturally facilitated intercourse between the two men. He now pressed Tolstoy to carry into effect his desire that on his death all his works should go into the public domain. The Countess was outraged that she should be deprived of control over the novels that Tolstoy had handed over to her twenty-five years before. The enmity that had long existed between Chertkov and herself burst into open warfare. The children, with the exception of Alexandra, Tolstoy’s youngest daughter, who was completely under Chertkov’s domination, sided with their mother; they had no wish to lead the sort of life their father wanted them to lead and, though he had divided his estates among them, saw no reason why they should be deprived of the large income his writings brought in. So far as I know, none of them had been brought up to earn his own living. But notwithstanding the pressure his family brought upon him, Tolstoy made a will in which he bequeathed all his works to the public and declared that the manuscripts extant at the time of his death should be handed to Chertkov, so that he might make them freely accessible to all who might want to publish them. But this apparently was not legal, and Chertkov urged Tolstoy to have another will drawn up. Witnesses were smuggled into the house so that the Countess should not know what was going on, and Tolstoy copied the document in his own handwriting behind the locked doors of his study. In this will the copyrights were given to his daughter Alexandra, whom Chertkov had suggested as a nominee, for, as he wrote with some understatement: ‘I feel certain that Tolstoy’s wife and children would not like to see someone not a member of the family made the official legatee.’ As the will deprived them of their chief means of subsistence that is credible. But this will again did not satisfy Chertkov, and he drew up another himself, which Tolstoy copied, sitting on the stump of a tree in the forest near Chertkov’s house. This left Chertkov in full control of the manuscripts.

  The most important of these were Tolstoy’s later diaries. Both husband and wife had long been in the habit of keeping diaries, and it was an understood thing that each should have access to the other’s. It was an unfortunate arrangement, since the complaints each made of the other, when read over, gave rise to bitter recriminations. The earlier diaries were in Sonya’s hands, but those of the last ten years Tolstoy had delivered to Chertkov. She was determined to get them, partly because they could eventually be published at a profit, but especially because Tolstoy had been very frank in his account of their disagreements and she did not want these passages to be made public. She sent a message to Chertkov demanding their return. He refused. Upon this she threatened to poison or drown herself if they were not given back, and Tolstoy, shattered by the scene she made, took them away from Chertkov; but instead of letting Sonya have them, he put them in the bank. Chertkov wrote him a letter on which Tolstoy in his diary commented as follows: ‘I have received a letter from Chertkov full of reproaches and accusations. They tear me to pieces. Sometimes the idea occurs to me to go far away from them all.’

  From an early age, Tolstoy from time to time had had the desire to leave the world, with its turmoil and trouble, and retire to some place where he could devote himself in solitude to self-perfection; and, like many another author, he lent his own longing to the two characters in his novels, Pierre in War and Peace and Levin in Anna Karenina, for whom he had a peculiar predilection. The circumstances of his life at this time combined to give this desire almost the force of an obsession. His wife, his children, tormented him. He was harassed by the disapproval of his friends, who felt that he should at last carry his principles into complete effect. Many of them were pained because he did not practise what he preached. Every day he received wounding letters, accusing him of hypocrisy. One eager disciple wrote to beg him to abandon his estate, give his property to his relations and the poor, leave himself without a kopek, and go as a mendicant from town to town. Tolstoy wrote in reply: ‘Your letter has profoundly moved me. What you advise has been my sacred dream, but up to this time I have been unable to do it. There are many reasons … but the chief reason is that my doing this must not affect others.’ As we know, people often thrust into the background of their unconscious the real reason for their conduct, and in this case I think the real reason why Tolstoy did not act as both his conscience and his followers urged him to do was simply that he didn’t quite enough want to do it. There is a point in the writer’s psychology that I have never seen mentioned, though it must be obvious to anyone who has studied the lives of authors. Every creative writer’s work is, to some extent at least, a sublimation of instincts, desires, day-dreams, call them what you like, which for one cause or another he had repressed, and by giving them literary expression he is freed of the compulsion to give them the further release of action. But it is not a complete satisfaction. He is left with a feeling of inadequacy. That is the source of the man of letters’ glorification of the man of action, and the unwilling, envious admiration with which he regards him. It is possible that Tolstoy would have found in himself the strength to do what he sincerely thought right, for of his sincerity there can be no doubt, if he had not by writing his books blunted the edge of his determination.

  He was a born writer, and it was his instinct to put matters in the most effective and interesting way he could. I suggest that in his didactic works, to make his points more telling, he let his pen run away with him, and put his theories in a more uncompromising fashion than he would have done if he had stopped to think what consequences they entailed. On one occasion he did allow that compromise, inadmissible in theory, was inevitable in practice. But there, surely, he gave his whole position away; for if compromise is inevitable in practice, which means only that the practice is impracticable, then something must be wrong with the theory. But, unfortunately for Tolstoy, the friends, the disciples, who came to Yasnaya Polyana in adoring droves could not reconcile themselves to the notion that their idol should condescend to compromise. There is, indeed, something brutal in the persistence with which they pressed the old man to sacrifice himself to their sense of dramatic propriety. He was the prisoner of his message. His writings and the effect they had on so many, for not a few a disastrous effect, since some were exiled and others went to jail, the devotion, the love he inspired, the reverence in which he was held, had forced him into a position from which there was only one way out. He could not bring himself to take it.

  For when, at length, he left home on the disastrous but celebrated journey which ended in his death, it was not because he had at last decided to take the step which his conscience and the representations of his followers urged him to take, but to get away from his wife. The immediate cause of his action was fortuitous. He had gone to bed and, after a while, heard Sonya rummaging among the papers in his study. The secrecy with which he had made his will preyed upon his mind, and it may be that he thought then that she had somehow learned of its existence and was looking for it. When she had gone, he got up, took some manuscripts, packed a few clothes and, having roused the doctor who had for some time been living in the house, told him that he was leaving home. Alexandra was awakened, the coachman hauled out of bed, the horses were harnessed, and he drove, accompanied by the doctor, to the station. It was five in the morning. The train was crowded, and he had to stand on the open platform at the end of the carriage in the cold and rain. He stopped first at Shamardin, where his sister was
a nun at the convent, and there Alexandra joined him. She brought news that the Countess, on finding that Tolstoy was gone, had tried to commit suicide. She had done this more than once before, but as she took little pains to keep her intention to herself, the attempts resulted not in tragedy, but in fuss and bother. Alexandra pressed him to move on, in case her mother discovered where he was and followed him. They set out for Rostov-on-Don. He had caught cold, and was far from well; in the train he grew so ill that the doctor decided they must stop at the next station. This was at a place called Astapovo. The station-master, hearing who the sick man was, put his house at his disposal.

  Next day Tolstoy telegraphed for Chertkov, and Alexandra sent for her eldest brother and asked him to bring a doctor from Moscow. But Tolstoy was too great a figure for his movements to remain unknown, and within twenty-four hours a newspaper-man told the Countess where he was. With those of her children who were at home, she hastened to Astapovo, but he was so ill by then that it was thought better not to tell him of her arrival, and she was not allowed to enter the house. The news of his illness created world-wide concern. During the week it lasted, the station at Astapovo was thronged by representatives of the Government, police officers, railway officials, pressmen, photographers and many others. They lived in railway carriages, side-tracked for their accommodation, and the local telegraph office could hardly cope with the work put on it. Tolstoy was dying in a blaze of publicity. More doctors arrived, till at last there were five to attend him. He was often delirious, but in his lucid moments worried about Sonya, whom he still believed to be at home and unaware of his whereabouts. He knew he was going to die. He had feared death; he feared it no longer. ‘This is the end,’ he said, ‘and it doesn’t matter.’ He grew worse. In his delirium he continued to cry out: ‘To escape! To escape!’ At last Sonya was admitted into the room. He was unconscious. She fell to her knees and kissed his hand; he sighed, but gave no sign that he knew she had come. A few minutes after six in the morning, on Sunday, November 7, 1910, he died.

  (5)

  Tolstoy began to write War and Peace when he was thirty-six. That is a very good age at which to set about writing a master-piece. By then an author has presumably acquired an adequate knowledge of the technique of his craft, he has gained a wide experience of life, he is still in full possession of his intellectual vigour and his creative power is at its height. The period Tolstoy chose to deal with was that of the Napoleonic wars, and the climax is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the burning of Moscow and the retreat and destruction of his armies. When he started upon his novel, it was with the notion of writing a tale of family life among the gentry, and the historical incidents were to serve merely as a background. The persons of the story were to undergo a number of experiences which would profoundly affect them spiritually, and in the end, after much suffering, they would enjoy a quiet and happy life. It was only in the course of writing that Tolstoy placed more and more emphasis on the titanic struggle between the opposing powers, and conceived what is somewhat grandly called a philosophy of history. Some time ago, Mr. Isaiah Berlin published a most interesting and instructive little book, called The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he showed that Tolstoy’s ideas on the subject I must now briefly deal with were inspired by those of Joseph de Maistre, an eminent diplomatist, in a work entitled Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. That is not to discredit Tolstoy. It is no more than novelist’s business to originate ideas than it is to invent the persons who serve as his models. Ideas are there, just as are human beings, their environment of town and country, the incidents of their lives, and in fact everything that concerns them, for him to make use of for his private purpose, which is to create a work of art. Having read Mr. Berlin’s book, I felt constrained to read Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. The ideas which Tolstoy set forth with some elaboration in the second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, de Maistre expounded in three pages, and the gist of them is contained in a phrase: C’est l’opinion qui perd les batailles, et c’est l’opinion qui les gagne.’ Tolstoy had seen war in the Caucasus and at Sevastopol, and his own experience enabled him to give vivid descriptions of the various battles in which sundry characters in his novel were engaged. What he had observed concorded very well with the views of de Maistre. But the piece he wrote is long-winded and somewhat involved, and I think one gets a better notion of his opinions from scattered remarks in the course of the narrative and from Prince Andrew’s reflections. In passing, I may interject that this is the most suitable way in which a novelist can deliver his ideas.

  Tolstoy’s idea was that owing to fortuitous circumstances, unknown forces, errors of judgment, unforeseen accidents, there could be no such thing as an exact science of war, and so there could be no such thing as military genius. It was not, as commonly supposed, great men who affected the course of history, but an obscure force that ran through the nations and drove them unconsciously to victory or defeat. The leader of an advance was in the position of a horse harnessed to a coach and started full-tilt downhill – at a certain point the horse ceases to know whether he is dragging the coach or the coach is forcing him on. It was not by his strategy or his big battalions that Napoleon won his battles, for his orders were not obeyed, since either the situation had changed or they were not delivered in time; but because the enemy was seized with a conviction that the battle was lost and so abandoned the field. The result depended on a thousand incalculable chances, any one of which might prove decisive in an instant. ‘So far as their own free will was concerned, Napoleon and Alexander contributed no more by their actions to the accomplishment of such and such an event than the private soldier who was compelled to fight for them as a recruit or a conscript.’ ‘Those who are known as great men are really labels in history, they give their name to events, often without having so much connection with the facts as a label has.’ For Tolstoy they were no more than figure-heads, who were carried on by a momentum they could neither resist nor control. There is surely some confusion here. I do not see how he reconciles his conviction of the ‘predestined and irresistible necessity’ of occurrences with the ‘caprices of chance’; for when fate comes in at the door, chance flies out of the window.

  It is hard to resist the impression that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was, in part at least, occasioned by his wish to depreciate Napoleon. He seldom appears in person in the course of War and Peace, but when he does, he is made to seem petty, gullible, silly and ridiculous. Tolstoy calls him ‘that infinitesimal tool in history, who at no time, not even in exile, showed any manly dignity’. Tolstoy is outraged that even the Russians should look upon him as a great man. He had not even a good seat on a horse. Here, I think, it is well to pause. The French Revolution gave rise to scores of young men who were as ambitious, as clever, as resolute and as unscrupulous as the son of the Corsican lawyer; and one cannot but ask oneself how it happened that this particular young man, of insignificant appearance, with a foreign accent, without money or influence, managed so to make his way in the world that after winning battle after battle he made himself dictator of France, and brought half Europe under his sway. If you see a bridge-player win an international tournament, you may ascribe it to luck or to the excellence of his partner; but if, no matter who his partner is, he goes on winning tournaments through a number of years, it is surely simpler to allow that he has a peculiar aptitude for the game, and outstanding gifts, than to claim that his triumphs are the result of the immense, irresistible pressure of antecedent and contingent events. I should have thought a great general needed that same combination of qualities, knowledge, flair, boldness, the intelligence to calculate chances and the intuition that enables him to judge his adversaries’ mentality, as are needed by the great bridge-player. Of course Napoleon was aided by the circumstances of his time, but it is only prejudice that can deny that he had the genius to take advantage of them.

  All this, however, does not affect the power and interest of War and Peace. The narrative carries you along
with the impetuous rush of the Rhône at Geneva as it hurries to meet the placid waters of Lake Leman. There are said to be something like five hundred characters. They stand firmly on their feet. This is a wonderful achievement. The interest is not concentrated, as in most novels, on two or three person, or even on a single group, but on the members of four families belonging to the aristocracy, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins and the Bezukhovs. The novel, as the title indicates, deals with war and peace, and that is the sharply contrasted background against which their fates are presented. One of the difficulties a novelist has to cope with when his theme requires him to deal with events violently diverse, with more groups than one, is to make the transition from one set of events to another, from one group to another, so plausible that the reader accepts it with docility. If the author succeeds in doing this, the reader finds he has been told what he needs to be told about one set of circumstances, one set of persons, and is ready to be told about other circumstances, other persons, whereof for a time he had heard nothing. On the whole, Tolstoy has managed to perform this difficult feat so skilfully that you seem to be following a single thread of narration.

  Like writers of fiction in general, he framed his characters on persons he knew, or knew of, but it appears that he did not merely use them as models for his imagination to work upon, but drew faithful portraits of them. The thriftless Count Rostov is a portrait of his grandfather, Nicholas Rostov of his father, and the pathetic, charming, ugly Princess Mary of his mother. It has sometimes been thought that in the two men, Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, Tolstoy had himself in mind; and if this is so, it is perhaps not fantastical to suggest that, conscious of the contradictions in himself, in thus creating two contrasted individuals on the one model of himself he sought to clarify and understand his own character.

 
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