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Two Tolstoy Stories

Harvard Diary

By Robert Coles | July-August 1987

Tolstoy’s admirers and critics have many times pointed out the significance of his religious crisis for his fiction. Nothing he wrote afterwards would approach the grandeur of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Some push the matter further, telling us that novels written by moralists such as Tolstoy in the last three decades of his life never really work because their didactic intentions (the wish to convert the reader to one or another point of view) inevitably undermine “art.”

Of course Tolstoy is being held, in this regard, to the highest standards. Those two novels, arguably, in their sum, offer fiction of a quality never before or after equaled. Even had Tolstoy’s later life been calm and untouched by moral and psychological tempest, he might not have been able to give us a third story that would be a fit companion in stature to those giant novels. Moreover, what we love about them is the visionary side, as it connects with the particulars of various incidents and events. That is, Tolstoy’s religious sensibility was at work long before he had his well-known “crisis,” and that sensibility informs both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In any event, as we think of the religiously agitated Tolstoy, who even dismissed his earlier work (those two novels!), we understandably feel “art” a victim of a writer’s “life” – thereby heightening yet again a certain distance demanded between the two by any number of literary essayists. To be sure, “art” will naturally draw upon or respond to the “life,” we acknowledge – but it has to have its own protected territory.

Yet, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was written in his late 50s, in the midst of his religious crisis and Master and Man appeared in 1895, when he was in his late 60s and, by his own inflammatory statements in the essay “What is Art,” at a passionate remove from the aesthetic point of view with respect to literature which any number of his critics uphold as a matter of course. In that essay he insists that art ought to provide a moral life – become, functionally, rhetoric or propaganda, some readers understandably conclude. Still, from a turbulent and aging mind and from a pen explicitly dedicated to ethical instruction came two stories which are themselves full of turbulence, and do indeed instruct – and yet, also, possess in abundance the traditional requirements of “art”: the beauty and guile and indirection and openness to interpretation which a more aesthetic criticism demands.

When I was an intern I worked with a distinguished cardiologist whose patients, not rarely, were similarly prominent men and women. I recall even now one such individual, a lawyer who had been a judge, then had resigned to return to the law. He was dying of an especially painful and fast-moving cancer, lodged in his esophagus and moving assertively to other parts of his body. One morning, taking his blood for tests I knew to be of no real use to him or any of us (doctors and their need to show their continuing effectiveness and authority, if not magical powers!), I heard him say what I was thinking: “I will soon be dead, so why bother?” I was grabbing hard for responsive words, with no success, when he changed the subject abruptly with another question: “Have you ever read that?” His head pointed in the direction of his bedside table, on which, beside a box of Kleenex and a dish meant to receive his spit and vomitus (there was plenty of the latter), I spotted a book: a selection of Tolstoy’s stories. I said yes, I’d read some. He asked if I’d read The Death of Ivan Ilych. Yes, I had. What did I think of it? Oh, it was a great story – the usual banal words meant to signal a willingness to tarry only so long over an essentially passing moment or short-lived exchange. But the patient had another intention in mind – or maybe, had surrendered to other demands at work in this universe. When I had finished with the tourniquet and syringe and needle, he leaned over, picked up the book, opened it to the Ivan Ilych story, read me a few lines, and then, all of a sudden, burst into tears.

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