The War between the Diaries

John Bayley

  • Tolstoy’s Diaries translated by R.F. Christian
    Athlone, 755 pp, £45.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 485 11276 0
  • The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy translated by Cathy Porter
    Cape, 1043 pp, £30.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 224 02270 9

Tolstoy was much preoccupied with questions of identity. His brutally penetrating intelligence, as well as the instinctive self-confidence of an aristocrat, were always running incredulously up against the fact of existence, and the certainty of non-existence. What and who was he at different moments of the day? One of his earliest attempts at writing is a history of 24 hours, a record of his various selves during that period. His early diaries have the same feel to them. This is not like the stream of consciousness, but something far more urgent, emotional and volatile. ‘My God! Where am I? Where am I going? And what am I now?’ That is almost exactly like Natasha’s exclamation at the death of Prince Andrew, which the translators weaken by paraphrase, finding its literalness too disconcerting. It should be: ‘Where is he and who is he now?’

Who is he now? Tolstoy’s sense of identity was so strong that it would obviously survive death. But because so strong it was also so fearful and so tormented – joyous too, but never taking itself for granted for a moment. Solipsism is an index of immortality. Tolstoy’s intellectual realisation that he was going to die, dramatised in A Confession but vividly present in the pages of his earliest diary, engaged all his life in the most literal of struggles with the conviction that nothing of the sort could possibly happen. It is the first of the paradoxes of his life and writing, and the one that underlies all the rest. The Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov, his most perceptive critic, dryly remarked that Tolstoy struggled against solipsism all his life, because he didn’t know what to do with ‘this impertinent thing’, but that eventually he gave in to it, as one does give in to the thing in one’s life that really matters. At the age of 29 he was already writing: ‘Thoughts of approaching death torment me. I look at myself in the mirror for days on end.’ The last entry in the diary, not long before pneumonia caused him to lose consciousness, runs: ‘Here is my plan. Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra. And all is for the good of others and above all for me.’

Above all for me. The magnificent obsession conjures into positive and nightmare being – as if it were the witch Babi-Yaga rushing through the forests in her hut on fowls’ legs – what is for most people the normal neutral background of life. Tolstoy’s sense of himself was so strong that it must be the most important thing in the world, to which he incessantly called everyone else’s attention. So strong, too, that it communicates itself to the rest of us. That ‘who is he now?’ underlies every word he wrote and every character he created. Stiva and Vronsky, and the mare Frou-Frou, and the horse Kholstomer in the short story, are possessed of the same inner life, that presence of interior being which Tolstoy can suggest like no other writer. So ‘who is he now?’ seems the one question worth asking when somebody dies. He must still have being, for nothing makes sense otherwise.

Tolstoy, aged 28, was travelling in Switzerland when he jotted in his habitual telegraphic manner the query about where he was and what he was. It is perhaps significant that he had just had an encounter, later described in his story ‘Lucerne’, with an itinerant singer whom he had invited into his hotel for a drink. The waiters sneered at the man and put the couple in a room by themselves, away from the hotel guests. Earlier, Tolstoy had been incensed by the fact that the public had listened to the singing, but then turned away without giving the performer any money. The singer himself proved to be ‘a commonplace, pathetic person’. But the incident shows how Tolstoy’s sense of himself, almost mystical later on that evening as he looked out of his hotel-room window on ‘darkness, broken clouds, and light’, was particularly responsive to encounters of this sort. Towards the end of Anna Karenina Levin has a similar encounter with a peasant, which suddenly reveals all that matters to him. Solipsism, unexpectedly, is both intensified by other people and intensely responsive to them. Tolstoy’s social instincts were always generous and immediate, but what mattered to the artist and writer was the encounter itself, and its effect on the ego. There are highly memorable ones in War and Peace: Prince Andrew on the retreat to Moscow, for example, meeting the two little girls in the garden who are stealing plums, and Pierre’s encounter with the party of Russian soldiers after the battle of Borodino.

His diaries have been well used by every biographer, but a proper English version has not appeared before, and Professor Christian has done an excellent job on this selection of them, as he did a few years ago on Tolstoy’s letters. The second volume, from 1895 to 1910, when the man has become an adjunct of the legend, is mostly rather boring except to Tolstoy addicts. The most striking thing, to the reader who is familiar with his life and works, but who now reads the diaries consecutively for the first time, is the way in which his ambition to be a great writer had always come first. Though biography gives the impression of him blundering around, and trying first this and then that, the diaries unobtrusively emphasise the overpowering will to be a great writer, a ‘general of literature’, and the efforts to write in all situations. They only really begin when Tolstoy goes as a cadet to the Caucasus in 1851. This was a sudden impulse – his elder brother Nikolai, who was already an officer in the Army, was returning there. All his life Tolstoy enjoyed making sudden decisions, like the one at the end of his life when he left home and died at Astapovo railway station, but the idea of going to the Caucasus was one that any other ambitious young Russian writer might have had. Since Pushkin and Lermontov it had been the prime place to seek romantic experience and copy.

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