The Big Read Blog (Archive)


Washington, DC

Cabinet card of Count Leo Tolstoy by Sass, Moscow. Photo from Library of Congress Collection, George Kennan Papers.

Working on some research for the blog this morning, I was surprised to discover that Leo Tolstoy's late-in-life spirituality greatly influenced both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Tolstoy's hard-won conversion also had a profound effect on his relationship to his own writing, and---as fellow Big Read author Cynthia Ozick points out in this interview excerpt---the great writer, in some ways, died as lonely a death as his fictional nobleman Ivan Ilyich.

If you read, for instance, [Tolstoy's] long essay, "What is Art?" you are astonished to see that he repudiated his whole life in literature. He just wanted to have nothing to do with it. Literature was bad; it was a kind of idolatry. It departed from this pure soul that he was seeking to inhabit, or be inhabited by, or to emulate. Isn't that astonishing to see that he regretted having written War and Peace and Anna Karenina and all these great masterworks? Is there another writer who has in such degree, and with such passion, repudiated his whole life before? And he's done it again and again. First he repudiates his wild life as a youth, then he becomes a literary master and he repudiates that. 

What was the final repudiation? He repudiated normality, you might say. There's a wonderful story by Tolstoy called "Happy Families." (It's one of its English language titles; I think there are others as well.) And this story is about a normal marriage where the young wife  has ideals about what marriage can possibly be, and gradually and steadily, all the stars in her eyes become embers. And the marriage ends, as most marriages do, sensibly, companionably, and normally. And so he wrote this knowing exactly what a good marriage was, and this is a kind of sanity. . . . [W]hat we think of Tolstoy is that he is a master of the way life really is, and the way it works, and this story is really emblematic of that. And to think that he could have seen that and known it and created it in stories, and then repudiated that. 

So he went from repudiation to repudiation, thinking that each stage was a sublime improvement on the one before. His wife saw through it all. We don't know as readers whose side to take. I think we, most of as readers, want to take his wife's side, because she saw that it was the literature that mattered, and we think the same. You can see his point of view, always aspiring, beyond the quotidian.  . . . And then consider his death, surrounded by disciples, that's I think precisely the right word. They were disciples with his wife, looking in at the window at the railroad station where he died, and not being permitted to enter by him. And that amazing moment where they put up a curtain or some barrier, so they're shut out even from looking in at him. Is this the same soul who celebrated normal marriage in a story called "Family Happiness"?

Visit The Big Read website to learn more about Leo Tolstoy and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

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