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recorded in “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth;” in the abnegation and shame of the husband in “Anna Karenina,” when he wishes to forgive his wife's paramour; in the goodness of the muzhik to the loathsome sick man in “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch ;” in the pitying patience of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky with Anatol Kuragin in “ War and Peace,” where amidst his own anguish he realizes that the man next him under the surgeon's knife is the wretch who robbed him of the innocent love of his betrothed; in the devotion of the master, even to the mergence of conscious identity, to the servant in Master and Man;" — and at no time does it justify our first sceptical shrinking. It is as far as possible from the dramatic tours de force in Hugoesque fiction; it is not a conclusion that is urged or an effect that is solicited: it is the motive to which all beauty of action refers itself; it is human nature, - and it is as frankly treated as if there could be no question of it.
This love — the wish to do good and to be good, which is at the bottom of all our hearts, however we try to exclude it or deny it — is always contrasting itself in Tolstoy's work with passion, and proving the latter mortal and temporal in itself, and enduring only in its union with love. In most other novelists, passion is treated as if it were something important in itself, — as if its intensity were a merit and its abandon were a virtue, – its fruition Paradise, its defeat perdition. But in Tolstoy, almost for the first time, we are shown that passion is merely a condition; and that it has almost nothing to do with bappiness. Other novelists represent lovers as forced by their passion to an ecstasy of selfish joy, or an ecstasy of selfish misery; but he shows us that they are only the more bound by it to the rest of the world. It is in fact, so far as it eventuates in marriage, the beginning of subjection to humanity, and nothing in it concerns the lovers alone.
It is not the less but the more mystical for this; and Tolstoy does full justice to all its mystical beauty, its mystical power. Its power upon Natasha, — that pure, good, wise girl,
– whom it suddenly blinds and bewilders till she must be saved from ruin in spite of herself, and almost by violence; and upon Anna Karenina, — that loving mother, true friend, and obedient wife, - are illustrated with a vividness which I know not where to match. Dolly's wretchedness with her faithless husband, Kitty's happiness in the constancy of Levin, are neither unalloyed; and in all the instances and examples of passion, we are aware of the author's sense of its merely provisional character. This appears perhaps most impressively in the scenes of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky's long dying, where Natasha, when restored and forgiven for her aberration, becomes as little to him at last as if she had succeeded in giving herself to Anatol Kuragin. The theory of such matters is, that the passion which unites them in life must bring them closer still in death; but we are shown that it is not so.
Passion, we have to learn from the great master, who here as everywhere humbles himself to the truth, has in it life and death; but of itself it is something only as a condition precedent to these: without it neither can be; but it is lost in their importance, and is strictly subordinate to their laws. It has never been more charmingly and reverently studied in its beautiful and noble phases than it is in Tolstoy's fiction; though he has always dealt with it so sincerely, so seriously. As to its obscure and ugly and selfish phases, he is so far above all others who have written of it, that he alone seems truly to have divined it, or portrayed it as experience knows it. He never tries to lift it out of nature in either case, but leaves it more visibly and palpably a part of the lowest as well as the highest humanity.
He is apt to study both aspects of it in relation to death ; so apt that I had almost said he is fond of doing it. He often does this in “War and Peace;” and in “Anna Karenina” the unity of passion and death might be said to be the principle and argument of the story. In “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch” the unworthy passion of the marriage is a part of the spiritual squalor in which the wretched worldling goes down to his grave. In the “ Kreuzer Sonata" it is the very essence of the murder; and in the “Powers of Darkness” it is the spring of the blackest evil. I suppose that one thing which has made Tolstoy most distasteful to man-made society is, that in all sins from passion he holds men chiefly accountable. It is their luxury which is so much to blame for the perversion. I can recall, at the moment, only one woman -- the Princess Helena
- in whom he censures the same evils; and even in her he lets you feel that her evil is almost passive, and such as manmade society chiefly forced upon her. Tolstoy has always done justice to women's nature; he has nowhere mocked or satirized them without some touch of pity or extenuation: and he brings Anna Karenina through her passion to her death, with that tender lenity for her sex which recognizes womanhood as indestructibly pure and good.
He comes nearer unriddling life for us than any other writer. He persuades us that it cannot possibly give us any personal happiness; that there is no room for the selfish joy of any one except as it displaces the joy of some other, but that for unselfish joy there is infinite place and occasion. With the same key he unlocks the mystery of death; and he imagines so strenuously that death is neither more nor less than a transport of self-surrender, that he convinces the reason where there can be no proof. The reader will not have forgotten how in those last moments of earth which he has depicted, it is this utter giving up which is made to appear the first moment of heaven.
Nothing in his mastery is so wonderful as his power upon us in the scenes of the borderland where his vision seems to pierce the confines of another world.
He comes again and again to it, as if this exercise of his seership had for him the same fascination that we feel in it: the closing hours of Prince Andrei, the last sorrowful instants of Anna Karenina, the triumphal abnegation of the philistine Ivan Ilyitch, the illusions and disillusions of the dying soldier in “Scenes of the Siege of Sebastopol," the transport of the sordid merchant giving his life for his servant's in “Master and Man," - all these, with perhaps others that fail to occur to me, are quali. fied by the same conviction, imparting itself so strongly that it is like a proven fact.
Of a man who can be so great in the treatment of great things, we can ask ourselves only after a certain reflection whether he is as great as some lesser men in some lesser things ; and I have a certain diffidence in inquiring whether Tolstoy is a humorist. But I incline to think that he is, though the humor of his facts seeks him rather than he it. One who feels life so keenly cannot help feeling its grotesqueness through its perversions, or help smiling at it, with whatever pang in his heart. I should say that his books rather abounded in characters helplessly comic. Oblonsky in “Anna Karenina,” the futile and amiably unworthy husband of Dolly, is delicious; and in “ War and Peace,” old Count Rostof, perpetually insolvent, is pathetically ridiculous, -- as Levin in the first novel often is, and Pierre Bezukhoï often is in the second. His irony, without harshness or unkindness, often pursues human nature in its vain twistings and turnings, with effects equally fresh and true; as where Nikolai Rostof, flying before the French, whom he had just been trying his worst to kill, finds it incredible that they should be seeking to harm one whom he knew to be so kind and good as himself. In Polikushka, where the two muzhiks watching by the peasant's dead body try to shrink into themselves when some polite people come in, and to make themselves small because they are aware of smelling of the barn-yard, there is the play of such humor as we find only now and then in the supreme humorists. As for pathos, the supposed corollary of humor, I felt that I had scarcely known what it might be till I read Tolstoy. In literature, so far as I know it, there is nothing to match with the passage describing Anna Karenina's stolen visit to her little son after she has deserted her husband.
I touch this instance and that, in illustration of one thing and another: but I feel after all as if I had touched almost nothing in Tolstoy, so much remains untouched; though I am aware that I should have some such feeling if I multiplied the instances indefinitely. Much is said of the love of nature in writers, who are supposed to love it as they catalogue or celebrate its facts ; but in Tolstoy's work the nature is there just as the human nature is : simple, naked, unconscious. There is the sky that is really over our heads; there is the green earth, the open air; the seasons come and go : it is all actual, palpable, — and the joy of it as uncontrived apparently as the story which it envirous, and which gives no more the sense of invention than the history of some veritable passage of human events. In “War and Peace” the fortunes of the fictitious personages are treated in precisely the same spirit, and in the same manner, as the fortunes of the real personages : Bezukhoï and Napoleon are alike real.
Of methods in Tolstoy, then, there can scarcely be any talk. He has apparently no method: he has no purpose but to get what he thinks, simply and clearly before us. Of style there seems as little to say; though here, since I know him only in translation, I cannot speak confidently. He may have a very marked style in Russian; but if this was so, I do not see how it could be kept out of the versions. In any case, it is only when you come to ask yourself what it is, that you realize its absence. His books are full of Tolstoy, — his conviction, his experience, – and yet he does not impart his personal quality to the diction as other masters do. It would indeed be as hard to imitate the literature as the life of Tolstoy, which will probably find only a millennial succession.
(From " A Hazard of New Fortunes.") In the uprooting and transplanting of their home that followed, Mrs. March often trembled before distant problems and possible contingencies, but she was never troubled by present difficulties. She kept up with tireless energy; and in the moments of dejection and misgiving which harassed her husband she remained dauntless, and put heart into him when he had lost it altogether.
She arranged to leave the children in the house with the servants, while she went on with March to look up a dwelling of some sort in New York. It made him sick to think of it; and when it came to the point, he would rather have given up the whole enterprise. She had to nerve him to it, to represent more than once that now they had no choice but to make this experiment. Every detail of parting was anguish to him. He got consolation out of the notion of letting the house furnished for the winter; that implied their return to it; but it cost him pangs of the keenest misery to advertise it; and when a tenant was actually found, it was all he could do to give him the lease. He tried his wife's love and patience as a man must to whom the future is easy in the mass, but terrible as it translates itself piecemeal into the present. He experienced remorse in the presence of inanimate things he was going to leave as if they had sensibly reproached him, and an anticipative homesickness that seemed to stop his heart. Again and again his wife had to make him reflect that his depression was not prophetic. She convinced him of what he already knew; and persuaded him against his knowledge that he could be keeping an eye out for something to take hold of in Boston if they could not stand New York. She ended by telling him that it was too bad to make her comfort him in a trial that was really so much more a trial to her. She had to support him in a last access of despair on their way to the Albany depot the morning they started to New York; but when the final details had been dealt with, the tickets bought, the trunks checked, and the hand-bags hung up in their car, and the future had massed itself again at a safe distance and was seven hours and two hundred miles away, his spirits began to rise and hers to sink. He would have been willing to celebrate the taste, the
Copyrighted, 1889, by W. D. Howells. Used by permission of Harper & Bros.