In addition to the short story, Tolstoy also devoted a substantial amount of creative effort, after War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', to that longer type of fiction which he had attempted in his earlier period - the short novel. Though they vary a great deal in length, no one of them could properly be regarded as either a short story or a novel. For like the earlier short novels, each involves a number of characters and a frame of reference too extensive for the concentrated focus of the short story but not extensive enough for the expansive structure of the full-length novel. Among these eight remaining short novels are several of his most remarkable creations in fiction.
An objective approach to the human condition may be discerned in the early short novels, but in the later ones Tolstoy's own moral presence, combined with a subjective spiritual element, is frequently felt, although he is careful, in the best of them, to embody his personal views in impeccable artistic form. The different emphasis is largely a consequence of Tolstoy's sharply altered outlook on life - all the later short novels were written after his searing spiritual experience of 1880-81. During these remaining years the art of fiction, with some few exceptions, became a medium for conveying his search for truth and for urging individual self-perfection, opposition to violence in any form, and man's duty to live by the moral law. Even certain of the ascetic rules of his new faith, which he tried to live up to, find reflection in his tales - the need to abandon private property, to achieve self-sufficiency through physical labor in the matter of one's essential wants, to be chaste, and to subscribe to vegetarianism and abstinence from liquor and tobacco.
However sincere was Tolstoy's reluctance to practice his art after his spiritual conversion, he could never get himself to deny an instinct that was central to his being. If the elaborate theory of artistic creation in 'What Is Art?' was in essence an aesthetic expression of his new philosophy, designed in part to justify the future fiction he felt an inner compulsion to write, the results frequently indicate that the literary artist in him transcended the moral and religious preacher. For despite the mass of religious, philosophical, and moral books and articles he wrote during this last period, he produced a surprising body of belles-lettres. And much more fiction might have been turned out if it had not been for a special circumstance. In 1891 Tolstoy publicly renounced the copyrights of all he had written after 1881, the time of his spiritual conversion. This decision became one of the principal reasons for the prolonged and tragic struggle that developed between him and his wife, who had taken upon herself the publication of his works. Every new artistic effort of her husband could cause a renewal of the family quarrel, for she invariably pleaded for the right of first publication for the sake of financial gain, the very thing he was trying to avoid. This unhappy situation made him hesitate to write fiction at all. Some stories that he began he failed to complete for years, and if finished, he would conceal them from his wife or hold up their publication for a long time. Several of his finest tales did not appear until the posthumous edition of his unpublished works in 1911. It is reasonably certain that he avoided finishing several stories and one play because of his reluctance to add to the quarrels with his wife over publication rights.
This situation makes it extremely difficult to date exactly the writing of some of his later short novels, especially those Tolstoy worked on for several years or kept hidden from his wife. And since four of the eight tales were first printed posthumously, publication dates have no certain relation to actual composition. Therefore it seems best to consider these stories chronologically according to the year or years in which they were written, and when that data is not accurately ascertainable, according to the year in which Tolstoy finished the writing of each story, dates which are available in every case.
If in several of the short novels under consideration Tolstoy attempts, as a supreme rationalist, to identify the principle of life with reason, it is the irrational human conscience that brings about the conversion of his heroes through experiences essentially mystical in nature. Though in such narratives Tolstoy is usually concerned with bringing the actions and thoughts of his characters into harmony with his new beliefs, he rarely ceases to be the literary artist in matters of language, form, and content.
The fear of death, a problem with which Tolstoy had long been pre-occupied, lies behind the mystical experiences of the main characters in 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' (finished 1886; published 1886) and 'Master and Man' (finished 1895; published 1895), two of his greatest masterpieces in the genre of the short novel. The public hailed 'The Death of Ivan Ilych', for it was the first substantial artistic work that he had written since 'Anna Karenina' nine years before. At last it seemed that the celebrated author had returned to the art that had won him international fame.
This short novel, which is an account of the spiritual conversion of a judge, an ordinary, unthinking, vulgar man, in the face of the terrible fear of approaching death, is a problem story in which Tolstoy does not so much preach as communicate experience. In it he not only reverts to the wonderful realism of his early fiction, but adds an emphasis new and startling in the development of Russian literature. Although Gorky is often credited with freeing nineteenth-century Russian realism from its genteel tradition of inoffensiveness, a tradition not unlike that of English Victorian fiction, Tolstoy preceded him in this respect in 'The Death of Ivan Ilych', where he dwells with unsparing detail on the physical horrors of disease and death. But the story is also filled with those psychologically realistic and perceptive touches made familiar to us by earlier novels - Peter Ivanovich's efforts, at a solemn moment, to suppress the rebellious metal springs of the pouf on which he sits at Ivan Ilych's funeral; the subtle indications of the mourners' insincerity, suggested by their concentration on unrelated trivia; the indirect hints of the dissimulation and hypocrisy of Ivan Ilych's grieving wife and colleagues, who barely disguise their secret concern over the advantages or disadvantages that will accrue to them because of his death. Yet we somehow know that Ivan Ilych would have behaved in similar fashion in the event of the decease of his wife or of one of his partners in the law.
Ivan Ilych's life, remarks Tolstoy, had been most simple and ordinary and therefore most terrible. He is very strict in the fulfilment of his legal duties, and he considers his duty to be what is so considered by those in authority. As a magistrate, he particularly enjoys power, and in his examinations of those on trial, his main concern is to eliminate all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspects of the case, in short, to eliminate every vestige of human sympathy or pity. His heartlessness is neatly and ironically revealed during his illness, when he hopefully asks the examining physician:
"We sick people probably often put inappropriate questions. But tell me, in general, is this complaint dangerous, or not?"
The doctor looked at him sternly over his spectacles with one eye, as if to say:
"Prisoner, if you will not keep to the questions put to you, I shall be obliged to have you removed from the court."
During his long wasting illness, Ivan Ilych tries at times to justify his life which he always imagined had been a good one. But when he feels the end approaching, in mortal despair he realizes that he has been living a lie and indulging in utter self-deception. These clarifying moments come to him with particular poignancy upon beholding the sincere grief of his young son over his sufferings and when he submits to the cheerful, self-sacrificing ministrations of his simple peasant servant Gerasim. He had discovered sympathy and pity where he had never expected to find them. Thus prepared, shortly before his death an inner light mystically illumines the clouded understanding of Ivan Ilych. He suddenly perceives that man's essential life belongs to the spirit, a realm of feeling where well-being is achieved in the loving community of people. In truth, death for Ivan Ilych ultimately becomes an awakening. He asks forgiveness of his family for his sins and welcomes death, transported by the inner light of faith, renunciation, and love.
In 'Master and Man' the same theme is treated with equal effectiveness in a totally different setting of peasants and merchants, and the story is told in a style that falls between Tolstoy's earlier method of saturated realism and his post-conversion manner of simple unadorned narrative designed to appeal to the mass reader. Here and elsewhere we sense that his aim is to relate facts with as much warmth and persuasiveness as possible and hence the prose he creates is magnificent. It has been said that whenever he wrote a sentence which seemed too elegant, he hastened to disarrange it so that it did not appear to be polished. He appreciated only what was left after he had rejected all conventions and only what could live without artifice. When obliged to choose, he always preferred rudimentary expressions to the most ingenious and refined. There is no grandeur, he remarked in 'War and Peace', where there is no simplicity, no truth. And his immediate followers in Russian fiction, such as Chekhov, Gorky, and Bunin, strove to avoid what might be described as a polished style.
When Tolstoy finished 'Master and Man', he sent the manuscript to a close friend whose critical judgment he valued, with the comment:
"It is so long since I've written anything artistic that I truly do not know whether it ought to be printed. I wrote it with great satisfaction...."
Actually, Tolstoy feared, at the age of sixty-seven, that his creative powers were slipping, and the prompt response of his friend:
"My God! how splendid, priceless it is . . ." quite reassured him.
Extensive concentration on the blizzard in 'Master and Man' recalls the famous description in "The Snow Storm," a short story written almost forty years earlier, but it must be said that the effort of his old age is in no sense artistically inferior to that of his youth. "The Snow Storm" is centered almost exclusively on closely observed nature and incident. In 'Master and Man', nature is employed as the background of a profound story that emerges from Tolstoy's feelings and from his mature understanding of life and death, and the sustained beauty of the construction ennobles its great theme.
The merchant Vasily's relentless ambition to accumulate money is contrasted with the harsh lot of his kindly peasant worker, Nikita, whose existence of endless toil and service is hardly sweetened by the knowledge that his master regularly cheats him. The contrast tragically deepens when master and man are threatened with freezing to death as they lose their way at night in a raging blizzard - Vasily had insisted on braving the storm in his sleigh in order to anticipate competitors in the sale of a woodlot. Finally, hopelessly marooned in the bitter cold and swirling snow, they can go no further. Nikita wraps himself up in his threadbare coat and waits. Death does not particularly worry him. In dying, he thinks, he will be in God's power and will not be ill-used by Him. It is a pity to give up what one is accustomed to, he tells himself, but he will get used to new things.
Meanwhile, the warmly clad master, worrying about missing out on the woodlot deal and thinking only of his growing fortune, mounts the unharnessed horse in an attempt to go on alone. But in the darkness and the storm he travels in a circle and comes back to the sleigh. Nikita, slowly freezing, begs him to give the money owing to him to his son and then asks his master's forgiveness. At this point the master, as in the case of the hero of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych', experiences an inner spiritual illumination. He lies on the body of his worker, wrapping around him the flaps of his huge fur coat. And as the warmth gradually revives Nikita, the master finds inexpressible joy and contentment in discovering the true life of brotherly contact with a fellow man. The next morning, when peasants dig them out of the snow, the worker is alive and the master dead.
The merchant's mystical experience at the end that brings about the victory of unselfishness over death seems entirely genuine and convincing. 'Master and Man' embodies Tolstoy's ideal of religious art that has a universal appeal more successfully than other tales which he expressly designed for this purpose. Here truth is achieved by spiritual conviction rather than by the intellectual conviction that brings about the conversion of Tolstoy's hero in his novel 'Resurrection' - a patent artistic error.
During the last half of his life Tolstoy was much concerned with sexual problems, both in terms of his personal behaviour and as they related to certain tenets of his new faith. His diary reveals that before his marriage he indulged in the loose living not uncommon among young men of the gentry class. After his marriage, though not immune to extramarital temptations of the flesh, he appears to have been faithful to his wife. In his later years, however, he looked back with disgust and a guilty conscience on the excesses of his youth, and because of the moral demands of his new beliefs he grew deeply troubled over what he regarded as the sexual immorality of society. These concerns inspired two of his most powerful short novels, 'The Devil' (written 1889; published posthumously l911) and 'The Kreutzer Sonata' (finished 1889; published 1891), some-times referred to as his "sexual stories." Each has an autobiographical basis which is particularly in evidence in 'The Devil'.
Shortly before his marriage in 1862 to a girl barely half his age, Tolstoy, with that incredible integrity so characteristic of him, allowed her to read his diary. There she found entries, among others of a similar nature, of his relations with a young married peasant woman, Aksinya, who lived in his village of Yasnaya Polyana. One entry reads:
"Today, in the big old wood, I'm a fool, a brute. Her bronzed flush and her eyes.... I'm in love as never before in my life."
Tolstoy admits in the diary that his feeling for Aksinya, by whom he had a son, was like that of a husband. Though he struggled against this passion, entries about Aksinya continue up to two years before his marriage, at which time he broke off the liaison. Tormented by her knowledge of this affair, his wife, in fits of jealous anger, more than once berated him. In fact, Aksinya, like Stepanida in 'The Devil', was by chance among several villagers who were once employed to clean in the Tolstoy household, and a servant pointed her out to the young wife as "that woman."
In 'The Devil', the passionate love affair of Irtenev and Stepanida, a young married peasant woman on his estate, duplicates the relations between Tolstoy and Aksinya, so closely indeed that Tolstoy felt it wise to conceal the manuscript from his wife. Though the ultimate consequences of Irtenev's guilty passion go beyond the Aksinya-Tolstoy relationship, these also have a curious autobiographical foundation. Marriage fails to quell Irtenev's illicit desires, and in a desperate effort to protect himself he confesses the affair to his uncle and asks him to accompany him on walks in case he meets Stepanida and is tempted. When Tolstoy had been married eight years, he was irresistibly attracted by still another handsome peasant girl, a servant in his house. Despite his sincere struggle to resist, he found himself one day making an assignation. On his way to keep it, his young son called from the window of his room to remind him of a Greek lesson he had promised, and this broke the spell of Tolstoy's desire - an incident that parallels one in 'The Devil' where a servant interrupts Irtenev with a request from his wife when he is on his way to a rendezvous with Stepanida. And like Irtenev, Tolstoy tells a family tutor of his passion and begs his company on walks in order to save him from temptation should he meet the girl. This device, and the fact that Tolstoy soon arranged for his temptress to leave the estate, saved him.
Irtenev, however, despite marriage and fierce battles with his conscience, is unable to overcome his lustful desire for Stepanida, which in one sense may be considered a triumph of art over reality. The psychological analysis of Irtenev's obsession and of all the factors that lead him inevitably to his doom is an impressive and masterly performance.
Dissatisfied with the first ending, in which Irtenev kills himself, Tolstoy wrote a second in which the maddened lover, convinced after his hopeless struggle to tear Stepanida out of his life that she is a devil who has possessed him, murders her. Though opinions will naturally differ on their relative effectiveness, the second conclusion seems to satisfy better the demands of art as well as the ambivalence which has so profoundly wrenched the personality of Irtenev in its final stages of development.
As in 'The Death of lvan Ilych', the emancipated realism of 'The Kreutzer Sonata' shocked readers and also held them spell-bound. Never before in Russian literature had sex, marriage, and the physical foundations of it been discussed so frankly. The initial idea for this short novel came from Tolstoy's friend, the actor V. N. Andreev-Burlak, who gave him an account of meeting a stranger on a train who told him the whole story of his wife's unfaithfulness. Tolstoy began his tale of "sexual love," as he called it, in 1887. The next year, a performance in his home by talented musicians of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata before a gathering that included Andreev-Burlak and the famous painter Repin suggested a new direction for the story that Tolstoy was working on. Music, it has been pointed out, often powerfully affected him, as it did on this occasion, and he promptly offered to write a story based on the sonata if the actor would agree to read it publicly in the presence of a canvas of Repin inspired by the music. Tolstoy alone fulfilled the agreement. In the course of writing 'The Kreutzer Sonata', however, it took on a deep personal significance for him.
"The contents of what I wrote," he told a friend, "were as new to me as to those who read them. In this connection an ideal remote from my activity was revealed to me so that I at first became horrified and did not believe it, but then I grew convinced, repented, and rejoiced in what was to me and others a happy impulse."
The new ideal that had appealed to Tolstoy, for the expression of which his distraught hero Pozdnyshev in 'The Kreutzer Sonata' became the mouthpiece, was the necessity of absolute chastity not only for unmarried, but even for married people. Though Tolstoy had previously advocated marriage as the only normal and moral outlet for sexual satisfaction, by 1888 his new faith, perhaps supported by his own mounting marital difficulties, caused him to repudiate his former beliefs in this respect. He declared to a disciple:
"Man survives earthquakes, epidemics, terrible illnesses, and every kind of spiritual suffering, but always the most poignant tragedy was, is, and ever will be the tragedy of the bedroom."
Scattered through 'The Kreutzer Sonata' are various autobiographical echoes, such as Pozdnyshev's account of his loss of innocence when a mere boy, his ideas on premarital sexual relations and his youthful indulgence in them; turning over his diary, containing a record of his liaisons with women, to his bride-to-be; her disgust with the intimacies of the honeymoon; and later quarrels that developed between husband and wife over sex and the rearing of their children.
Though Tolstoy's original story of "sexual love" acquired some of the characteristics of a treatise on celibacy and chastity, his extraordinary artistic sense prevented it from turning into a mere didactic tract. Despite the half-mad behaviour of Pozdnyshev nothing could be more realistically and psychologically compelling than the narrative of his moral and spiritual struggle against former personal convictions and the conventional taboos of society. The detailed account of the moves and countermoves and of all the reasons for them which step by step drive him on to kill his wife, and the description of the murder itself, are positively gripping. The story is an amazing example of Tolstoy's ability to elucidate a moral ideal of his own through the medium of artistic narrative.
What some critics, who identify Tolstoy's views with those of his hero, fail to grasp is that Pozdnyshev's absolutist position on chastity, which if realized would end the human race, never remained more than an ideal for Tolstoy, a counsel of unattainable perfection in what he knew was an imperfect world. Constant striving for perfection was the only goal he had in mind. Nor did he entertain the illusion, as some imagined, that he of all people could achieve this ideal of chastity. Though cynical reviewers of 'The Kreutzer Sonata' suggested that the author was getting old and that the grapes had turned sour, years later, when Tolstoy was nearly seventy, he told his translator, Aylmer Maude:
"I was myself a husband last night, but that is no reason for abandoning the struggle. God may grant me not to be so again."
At first, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' was denied publication in Russia, but manuscript copies and a lithograph version were circulated widely and commanded a high price as contraband literature. Its appearance in print did not take place until 1891, and then only through the efforts of Tolstoy's wife, who made a personal plea to Emperor Alexander III to be allowed to include it in the thirteenth volume of her husband's works which she was editing.
'The Kreutzer Sonata' caused more immediate public furore than any of Tolstoy's published works. A follower told him that friends on meeting, instead of saying "How do you do?" generally asked: "Have you read 'The Kreutzer Sonata'?" The work has hotly debated everywhere and Tolstoy was deluged with letters, most of them disapproving. Some regarded it as an autobiographical account, as though Tolstoy had murdered his wife. Many accused him of preaching immorality and debauching the minds of the young. Priests gave sermons denouncing Tolstoy; a high government official urged the emperor to punish him; and the work was banned in the mails by the United States postal authorities.
In general, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' fared badly at the hands of contemporary critics, largely because of its extreme views. However, the opinion of future critics was correctly anticipated at the time by Chekhov, a most perceptive and objective judge in literary matters. Though Chekhov, a practicing physician as well as a famous writer, took Tolstoy to task for his ignorance about doctors and scientists and for his erroneous statements in the work on syphilis, foundling hospitals, and women's aversion to sex, he declared of 'The Kreutzer Sonata' that of all that was being written in Russia and abroad,
"it is hardly possible to find anything of equal importance in conception and beauty of execution. Apart from its artistic merits which are in places amazing, we should be grateful for the story alone, for it stimulates thought extremely."
'Walk In The Light While There Is Light' (finished 1890; published 1893) and 'Father Sergius' (finished 1898; published posthumously 1911) are short novels that bear a direct relation to the short moral and religious stories and legends that Tolstoy wrote not long after his spiritual conversion. That is, they are much longer and more complex efforts to employ fiction to teach and illustrate the dogmas of Tolstoy's new faith. The purpose of the first is stated in its separate Introduction, entitled "A Talk Among Leisured People," in which a group of Tolstoy's own social class discuss the futility of their existence. Some insist that they abandon their property, labor as the common people do, and try to lead godly lives; others oppose this remedy as utterly impractical. The intention of the Introduction is not unlike the illustrative biblical quotations with which Tolstoy often began the short moral tales already mentioned and discussed. The Introduction in this case, however, conjures up an imaginary scene, with some basis in fact, in which Tolstoy vainly pleads with his wife and family to give up their estate and genteel manner of life, live like peasants by the sweat of their brows, and by service and love for others come closer to God. The story that follows relentlessly exemplifies this teaching.
'Walk In The Light While There Is Light' is a tale of early Christian times during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. It takes years and many bitter experiences before the rich man's son Julius comes to accept the Christian way of life advocated by his childhood friend Pamphilius. Both seek happiness, Julius in a conventional upper class pagan existence of careerism, dissipation, and indulgence in sex, Pamphilius by living simply, according to the teachings of Christ, in a small, industrious, but persecuted Christian community, believing that the welfare of all men lies in union with one another, a union attained not by violence, but by love. Though Tolstoy is obviously determined to offer an exposition of his own philosophy of life in the extensive discussions that take place between Julius and Pamphilius, he nevertheless argues both sides of the issue rather objectively and with unusual dialectical skill. As a matter of fact, the clear statement of Julius' position, fortified by arguments of the astute physician in the story on the attractions and superiority of the pagan way of life, quite unintentionally suggests some of the reasons why Tolstoy could never take the final step - as he earnestly wished to do - of leaving his home and family and going off somewhere to live like Pamphilius. Nevertheless, 'Walk in the Light While There Is Light' is credited with influencing some Tolstoyan disciples to set up communes in which they would live according to the principles and practices of the Christian community described in the story, a development for which Tolstoy had no sympathy.
Later, in fact, Tolstoy frankly admitted that in this work he had subordinated artistic veracity to a form of tendentious teaching.
"I never hear it mentioned," he told Aylmer Maude, "without feeling ashamed of myself. It is thoroughly inartistic.... In the story the Christians are all good and the pagans all bad, whereas in real life we know that they would have shaded off into one another as in the case of our own sectarians and Orthodox peasants."
He is right. Such self-criticism is not infrequent in Tolstoy and is a hallmark of his greatness as a literary artist. For all his condemnation of the story, it has a number of fine passages and scenes that make it worth reading.
Though at the end of 'Father Sergius' Tolstoy seems bent on pointing a moral implicit in his own faith, in general he avoids direct preaching in this short novel. The result is an absorbing study of spiritual pride which in a curious way is involved with carnal desire. Even if Tolstoy had wished to publish the work in his lifetime, its hard-hitting attacks on the shams and mercenary practices of the Church and the cynical behavior of the crown would probably have made it impossible.
The characterization of the complex Father Sergius is wholly convincing, both in the behaviour pattern of his life and in the psychological justification of his actions and feelings. The dominant drives of pride and self-esteem in his nature help to explain why this brilliant young officer, well on the way to a major success in the service, suddenly decided to become a monk when he learns that the beautiful woman to whom he is engaged had been the mistress of the emperor. Because of his pride he had desired to look down on all those who considered themselves his superiors, and now at this devasting moment of failure in his career he thought that as a monk he could show contempt for everything that had formerly seemed important to him. Added to this he possessed a sincere religious feeling which, he felt, could also be a means of achieving the success he had forsaken in military service.
Though Father Sergius enjoys periods of religious exaltation in the early stages of his career in the Church, he fails to attain a state of mind and spirit free from the demands of vanity and the flesh In despair he appeals for advice to a wise abbot under whom he first served. This good man points out that he humiliates himself not for the sake of God, but for his pride, and he recommends that Father Sergius go to a Tambov monastery and there try to humble his pride by living as a hermit in a cave.
What appears to be a turning point in his struggle with doubts and desires of the flesh occurs when an attractive loose woman, seeking excitement and pleasures, comes to his cave and tries to seduce him. Tolstoy describes the scene with all the power of his former realism. Overwhelmed by passion and lust, Father Sergius, in a last desperate effort to mortify the flesh, chops off his finger. Shaken by her gruesome experience, the woman leaves and later enters a nunnery.
After this incident, sick people, attracted by the hermit's religious strength of will, come to Father Sergius with pleas that he heal them. In his pride he attempts to do this and soon believes in his healing powers and enjoys his growing fame as a holy hermit. Though he has moments when he realizes that he does these things more for men than for God, he submits to the desire of the monastery officials, who lucratively exploit his reputation, that he make a kind of business out of performing miraculous cures. But after succumbing to the blandishments of a feeble-minded girl who is brought to his cell for treatment, Father Sergius, horrified by his sin, flees the monastery dressed as a peasant.
Only at this point in his hero's tribulations does Tolstoy appear to interfere. For the mystical experience Father Sergius now undergoes, unlike those in 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' and 'Master and Man', seems more contrived than the outcome of a natural welling up of spiritual forces under the compulsion of some extraordinary human happening. An angel appears to him in a dream and directs him to seek out a woman, a relation of his whom he remembers as kind and selfless, always doing for others despite the intolerable hard lot in life that fate has accorded her. In his brief stay he learns from her self-sacrificing existence that she lives for God although she imagines that she lives for men, whereas he had been living for men on the pretext of living for God. Father Sergius leaves her to become a humble religious pilgrim. He has at last eradicated his pride. By attaching less importance to the opinions of the world of men, he feels more the presence of God within him.
Tolstoy found little leisure for fiction during the last few years of his life when much of his time was taken up by a multiplicity of cares connected with his new faith and by a steady stream of visitors from all over the world. In the light of such distractions from his art, it is interesting to come across an entry in his diary for July 17, 1896, which charmingly describes a walk he had just taken in the fields where he had observed a thistle broken by the plow but still alive, the flower in the centre a vivid red. And he adds:
"It reminded me of Hadji Murad. I want to write. Life asserts itself to the very end, and here in the midst of this whole field it has somehow asserted itself."
This passage contains the substance of the more elaborate and beautifully poetic beginning of his short novel 'Hadji Murad' (finished 1904; published posthumously 1911), which in turn had been inspired by his seeing in the field the broken thistle with the live flower. A little more than a month later he drafted a sketch of the story, but he did not finish writing it until 1904 when he was seventy-six. It is one of his finest masterpieces.
In 'Hadji Murad' Tolstoy, as an old man, returns to the memories of his youth in the Caucasus. Once in Tiflis in 1851, where he had gone to take an examination for a commission in the army, he met this half-wild Caucasian chieftain and wrote his brother Sergei of Hadji's surrender to the Russians:
"He was the leading daredevil and 'brave' of all Circassia, but has been led to commit a mean action."
In breaking with Shamil, who as head of all the hill tribes in the region had declared a Mohammedan holy war against the colonizing Russians, Hadji offered to lead his own followers against the enemy in return for Russian aid in buying the freedom of his family held as hostages by Shamil.
In preparing himself to write this story, Tolstoy refreshed his memory by reading everything he could get his hands on concerning the Caucasus, its people, and their struggle against the Russians. At moments he felt that he was wasting his time on "a mere work of art," but once, when parts of it were being read to guests at Yasnaya Polyana, he kept popping in and out of the room to listen, while urging them to cease bothering with such rubbish. "If that is so," one of the listeners demanded, "why did you write it?" And Tolstoy replied:
"But it is not yet finished. You came into my kitchen and no wonder it stinks with the smell of cooking."
Far from being "rubbish," 'Hadji Murad' is perhaps his most perfect example of that "good universal art" which Tolstoy, in 'What Is Art?', had acclaimed as the highest form of fiction next to "good universal religious" literature.
Apart from remembered scenery and certain Russian soldier types, there is little else that Tolstoy draws upon from his youthful tales of army life in the Caucasus. In those early stories characters often see events through Tolstoy's eyes; in 'Hadji Murad' his approach, for the most part, is quite objective, and the narrative structure is entirely different - a series of apparently separate scenes, but intricately connected, and narrated with studied simplicity and a minimum of literary adornment.
'Hadji Murad' is vividly portrayed, a brave person of great presence and dignity but at the same time shrewd and treacherous, a product of the virtues and faults of his savage environment. Hadji's confrontations with Tiflis high society are described with humor and irony. As a natural man he has nothing but contempt for the civilized artificiality of these aristocrats and government and military officials. And in the scene where Hadji's terms are presented to Emperor Nicholas I, Tolstoy amusingly satirizes the ruler, his bureaucrats, and court life in general. On the other hand, he invokes a poignant pathos in telling of the death in battle of a simple peasant soldier, whose old, hard-working mother, when she hears the news, weeps "for as long as she could spare the time," whereas his young wife, already pregnant by a shopman, remains indifferent to her husband's demise. The final tragic scene of the story, in which Hadji and several of his retainers, having escaped from the Russians, fight to the death scores of pursuers who surround them, is narrated with all the stark simplicity and precise detail of a great artist.
Entirely different in content, and somewhat in narrative method, 'The Forged Coupon' finished 1905; published posthumously 1911), which Tolstoy may well have begun or at least planned much earlier, is the last short novel he wrote. The complexity of its construction is unique for him in this genre, yet he handles it with superb skill. The motif running through the whole story is the evil-begetting power of evil which he had made such brilliant use of earlier in his remarkable play, 'The Power of Darkness'. In 'The Forged Coupon', however, this motif is employed with a very different emphasis and purpose. An initial evil deed motivates a whole succession of evils, but these in turn are related to a series of good actions which eventually help to bring about the salvation of all the sinners concerned. In not a few of the situations, salvation is effected through the medium of Tolstoyan moral precepts.
The plan of the story requires a large number of characters. Though their varied activities are neatly tied together in rapidly shifting scenes which resemble a building-block type of structure, there is necessarily little characterization in depth, a fault perhaps inevitable in a short novel that contains more than enough material for a full-length novel. Tolstoy seems determined to expose all the crassness, meanness, and criminal tendencies of representatives of several layers of society - peasants, workers, shopkeepers, policemen, jailers, clergymen, magistrates, landowners, and government bureaucrats.
The central character and by far the most fully delineated is the peasant Stepan, whose murders are described with a macabre realism almost Dostoevskian in its intensity. This impression is especially marked in the account of his slaying Maria Semenova who lives by the Golden Rule and dies with pity for her murderer. Thereafter, her image haunts Stepan, and under its spell he goes through a mystical experience that compels him to surrender to the police and confess his crimes. In prison he is deeply influenced by a man whose religious teachings have a distinct Tolstoyan content. The spiritually and morally rehabilitated Stepan then becomes involved in activities which directly or indirectly help to alter the lives of a number of evildoers in 'The Forged Coupon'.
If the conversions of some of these sinners seem at times more artificial than natural, Tolstoy offers the compensation of presenting a fascinating and varied picture of the Russia in which they live. And it has all the authenticity and verisimilitude of the consummate realism of the world-famous novels that he wrote many years earlier. In short, his powers of observation lost none of their acuteness in old age, nor did he lose the artistic urge to exercise them in enduring fiction. At the age of seventy-seven, only a few years before his death and while he was still probably working away at 'The Forged Coupon', he contemplated embarking on a huge novel that would have amounted to nothing less than a continuation of 'War and Peace'. And he regretfully jotted down in his diary:
"'Ars longa, vita brevis'. Sometimes I am sorry. There is so much I wish to say."