Two Tolstoys, Two Novellas

January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the holiday I read two of Tolstoy’s novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and it’s amazing that one writer could produce two books that are so different only a few years apart. How does this happen?

First off, if you haven’t read them, Ilyich traces through the comfortable life and agonizing decay and death of a middlingly successful bourgeois. Toward the end there’s some message-y stuff about what it means to live a good life, but mostly the book is just a bracing description of a fall from comfort. Kreutzer, on the other hand, is a lurid lecture, where a man on a train tells the story of how he grew disillusioned in his materialist marriage and insanely jealous of his wife and her sexual flirtations with a violinist. (Note how Kreutzer uses a kind of old-fashioned device, the murder confession, like something from Poe.)

They really could not be further apart. Ilyich is like a reflective history and Kreutzer is a purely moralizing lecture via a grisly tale of murder. Ilyich is literature, and Kreutzer is pulp. (Grisly pulp has a tendency to be pretty heavy-handed moralizing in disguise, I think.) How — how? — could the same writer produce both?

I think the answer is in Tolstoy himself, who was his whole life torn between sensual indulgences (concentrated in his youth) and moral-spiritual seeking (concentrated in his old age). As Nabokov put it, these two deep aspects (an oxymoron, I know) of Tolstoy’s character could show luminously in the same book, say in Anna Karenina. Here’s Nabokov (Google Books link):

It is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist – it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas. What one would like to do, would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper – far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.

But these two novellas, Ilyich and Kreutzer, pretty well split these two Tolstoys like a prism. Or really, it’s like when Superman was split into good and evil selves in Superman III. Kreutzer is long on moralizing and low on artistry — the framing of the lecture as a murder confession is crude, and the writing is all framed in heavy-handed abstractions rather than living breathing details. I’ve bolded the abstractions I spotted in a representative passage:

We did not then comprehend that this love and hatred were one and the same animal passion, only with opposite poles. It would have been horrible to live in this way if we had realized our situation; but we did not realize it and did not see it. In this lies the salvation, as well as the punishment, of a man — that, when he is living irregularly, he may blind himself so as not to see the wretchedness of his situation.

And Ilyich ends with a pretty benign bit of “what matters in life?” philosophizing, but at its best, the way it captures conversations, and gestures, and states of mind, is breathtaking. Here’s a scene of mourning foiled by the furniture in the room:

As he sat down on the ottoman Pyotr Ivanovich recalled how, in decorating the room, Ivan Ilyich had consulted him about this pink cretonne with the green leaves. The whole room was crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, and as the widow stepped past the table to seat herself on the sofa, she entangled the lace of her black shawl in a bit of carving. Pyotr Ivanovich rose slightly to untangle it, and as he did the springs of the ottoman, freed of pressure, surged and gave him a little shove.

Everything is vivid — the pink cretonne, the widow’s black lace, the springiness of the ottoman. The composition of a quiet scene with these bright and noisy domestic details is absolutely masterly. This is Tolstoy the artist.

You look at these books on, say, Goodreads (here’s Kreutzer and here’s Ilyich), and they’ve got similar ratings despite being on totally different planes and having totally different relationships to fiction and imagination. That’s the danger of reputation or canon or authority. A Tolstoy book is not simply a Tolstoy book. You have to sit down read the books, and understand their what and why and how. The problem is, when you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can never know if you’ll find something substantial or something easily fussed over.

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