Remembering Leo Tolstoy

His name rarely comes up anymore when discussing literary heavyweights, but it would be hard to discount the contributions Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy gave this world.  Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an editor for The Atlantic digs into the magazine’s archives (they go back 153 years) and pulls out a profile of Tolstoy from 1891, by Isabel Hapgood — one that foreshadowed his death on November 7, 1910.

The profile, long as it is, is a fairly remarkable read as much for the historical record, as it’s striking modernity.  Here is Hapgood’s opening salvo:

During our acquaintance in Moscow, in the winter, with the family of Count Lyeff Nikoláievitch Tolstóy, the famous novelist, the countess had said to us: “You must come and visit us at Yásnaya Polyána next summer. You should see Russian country life, and you will see it with us. Our house is not elegant, but you will find it plain, clean, and comfortable.”

Such an invitation was not to be resisted. When summer came, the family wrote to say that they would meet us at the nearest station, where no carriages were to be had by casual travelers, if we would notify them of our arrival. But the weather had been too bad for country visits, and we were afraid to give Fate a hint of our intentions by announcing our movements; moreover, all the trains seemed to reach that station at a very late hour of the night. We decided to make our appearance from another quarter, in our own conveyance, on a fair day, and long before any meal. If it should prove inconvenient for the family to receive us, they would not be occasioned even momentary awkwardness, and our retreat would be secured. We had seen enough of the charmingly easy Russian hospitality to feel sure of our ground otherwise.

Accordingly we set out for Túla on a June day that was dazzling with sunshine and heat, after the autumnal chill of the recent rains. As we progressed southward from Moscow the country was more varied than north of it, with ever-changing vistas of gently sloping hills and verdant valleys, well cultivated and dotted with thatched cottages which stood flatter on the ground here than where wood is more plentiful.

Hapgood, in 1891 mind you, has crafted a first-person narrative profile of Count Leo Tolstoy, complete with asides, notes, wry commentary and snide parentheticals.

Here she is discussing Tolstoy with a Russian peasant she met on the street:

“How had they affected him? Why, he had learned to love all the world better. He knew that if he had a bit of bread he must share it with his neighbor, even if he did find it hard work to support his wife and four small children. Had such a need arisen? Yes; and he had given his children’s bread to others.” (He pretended not to hear when I inquired why he had not given his own share of the bread.) “Was he a more honest man than before? Oh, yes, yes, indeed! He would not take a kopék from any one unless he were justly entitled to it.”

“And Count Tolstóy! A fine man, that! The Emperor had conferred upon him the right to release prisoners from the jail,—had I noticed the big jail, on the left hand, as we drove out of town?” (I took the liberty to doubt this legend, in strict privacy.) “Túla was a very bad place; there were many prisoners. Men went to the bad there from the lack of something to do.” (This man was a philosopher, it seemed.)

So he ran on enthusiastically, twisting round in his seat, letting his horse do as it would, and talking in that soft, gentle, charming way to which a dozen adjectives would fail to do justice, and which appears to be the heritage of almost every Russian, high or low. It was an uncomfortable attitude for us, because it left us nowhere to put our smiles, and we would not for the world have had him suspect that he amused us.

But the gem of his discourse dropped from his lips when I asked him what, in his opinion, would be the result if Count Tolstóy could reconstruct the world on his plan.

“Why, naturally,” he replied, “if all men were equal, I should not be driving you, for example. I should have my own horse and cow and property, and I should do no work!”

I must say that, on reflection, I was not surprised that he should have reached this rather astonishing conclusion. I have no doubt that all of his kind—and it is not a stupid kind, by any means—think the same. I tried to tell him about America, where we are all equals in theory (I omitted “theory”), and yet where some of us still “drive other people,” figuratively speaking.

This is a mind boggling great essay, both for it’s content and language dexterity.  [via @Open Culture]

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