Tolstoy started scribbling as a boy, and in his early diary, which he began at the age of eighteen and continued, with interruptions, throughout the remainder of his life, we may observe him serving an unconscious apprenticeship to the novelist's art of selection and analysis. In numerous entries dealing with his inner experiences as a youth, he reveals an intense interest in the suppressed motives of behaviour. And his fondness for classifying all manner of human attributes in the diary suggests his later talent for conquering the subconscious by an application of penetrating understanding.
Certainly the transition from the kind of analysis in his youthful diary to that in his first piece of fiction, "A History of Yesterday" (1851), was a natural and easy one to make. The beginning of the narrative concerns an evening spent with distant relatives. Then, on his way home, the hero animadverts amusingly on drivers and carriages. Finally, as he drops off to sleep, he speculates on the problem of dreams. All this Tolstoy apparently intended to subordinate to the design of a larger work. It was an unusual performance for a beginner and it is unlike anything in Russian literature up to that time. Though it is a fragment, it is entirely self-contained and may readily be regarded as a completed short story. To the technique of delving into motivation, found in his diary, he has added the spice of Laurence Sterne's analytical method in the 'Sentimental Journey', which Tolstoy had been reading and part of which he later translated as an exercise in style. Sterne's influence is obvious in Tolstoy's concentration on peculiar details, in the posturing and digressions, in the analysis of conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings of characters reacting to particular situations, and in the transformation of all the confused associations of thought that enter the hero's head as he falls asleep. The twenty-three-year-old Tolstoy revelled in his newly discovered powers of analysis, and it was a pity that he failed to go on with the work, but he never returned to this exuberant abandon in his fiction.
Perhaps one reason why Tolstoy did not continue "A History of Yesterday" is that shortly after starting it he set out on a long journey to the Caucasus with his brother Nicholas who was an army officer there. He had become dissatisfied with what he considered an idle and even debauched life on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana and in Moscow and Petersburg, and he believed that a radical change was essential. He remained in the Caucasus for more than two years, serving first as a volunteer, then as a cadet, in an artillery battery, and he distinguished himself in fighting bravely against the fierce hill tribes.
Along with his rugged army existence and the usual soldierly carousing, Tolstoy also led a life of the mind and literature. He read much, thought hard about various deep subjects, as his diary attests, and wrote a great deal. In fact, much of his initial literary period is closely associated with the Caucasus, for it was there that he finished his first published work, the autobio-graphical short novel 'Childhood' (1852), began its sequel, 'Boyhood', wrote his short story "The Raid" ( 1852), and later three others which were based on his Caucasian experiences, and started several more tales and articles.
On July 3, 1852, the young Tolstoy wrote N. A. Nekrasov, distinguished poet and editor of the Contemporary, Russia's leading progressive magazine: "My request will cost you such little effort that I am sure you will not refuse to grant it. Look over this manuscript, and if it is not suitable for printing, return it to me. If you appraise it otherwise, tell me what it is worth in your opinion and print it in your magazine. I agree in advance to any cutting you may find necessary, but I desire that it be printed without additions or changes in the text." The future author of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina' then went on to add in his letter that the manuscript in question was the first part of a novel under the general title of "Four Epochs of Growth," and that the appearance of the latter parts would depend upon the success of the first; The letter concluded on a flattering note, no doubt prompted by his anxiety over the worth and soundness of his first sustained effort to write fiction: "I am convinced that an experienced and well-intentioned editor, especially in Russia, by virtue of his position as a constant intermediary between author and reader, can always indicate in advance the success of a work and the public reaction. Therefore, I await your answer with impatience. It will encourage me to continue a favourite occupation or oblige me to cease at the very beginning."
With this letter Tolstoy sent the manuscript of 'Childhood'. The young author's painful uncertainty is understandable — he had not yet published a line. But very early in the morning, or late at night after a day of hunting, carousing, or activity with the battery, he worked away at 'Childhood'. Occasionally, in his enthusiasm over a chapter, he would read it to his talented brother Nicholas, but he nearly always regretted these premature hearings.
It is instructive to follow the entries on 'Childhood', in Tolstoy's diary, during the period of writing, for they reveal the stern artistic demands he made upon himself even at the very outset of his literary career. Time and again he noted in the diary that the writing of the novel was going badly and the rewriting worse:
"Without regret, I must destroy all unclear places, prolix, irrelevant, in a word, everything unsatisfactory, even though they may be fine in themselves."
He cautioned himself to adhere to the rule that no addition, however talented, could improve a work as much as a deletion, and the four complete drafts of 'Childhood' testify to his unswerving devotion to this injunction. He alternated between moods of deep satisfaction and utter despair, in which he began to doubt that he possessed any ability. "Have I talent comparable to that of recent Russian writers?" he asked himself in the diary and promptly answered: "Positively no." On the other hand, there were precious moments when he read over a particularly successful passage and then he imagined that genius must have prompted his pen:
"I reread the chapter 'Grief,' and while so doing wept from my very heart."
Almost two months passed before Tolstoy received Nekrasov's reply, where he jotted down in his diary: "It drove me silly with joy." The famous editor had agreed to print 'Childhood' in his periodical, and he added in the letter:
"Not knowing the continuation, I cannot say definitely, but it seems to me that the author has talent. In any case, the author's bent and the simplicity and realism of the contents constitute the production's unquestionable worth."
He concluded with a request for the continuation and a plea that the author reveal his name. (Tolstoy had signed the manuscript solely with the initials of his first name and patronymic — "L.N.").
When Tolstoy reminded the editor in a subsequent letter that he had received no payment, Nekrasov coolly informed him that it was his practice not to offer an honorarium for an author's first work, but that he would pay him the best rates for any further manuscripts submitted. However, the wily Nekrasov took the precaution to soften this disappointment by adding that he had by now read the proof, believed it to be even better than when he had first read it in manuscript, and that he had absolutely no doubts about the author's talent.
Tolstoy received a published copy of 'Childhood' at the end of October, but the beginner's pleasure at seeing his first work in print was not unmixed with annoyance over mutilations of both the censor and the editor. He hurried off a sharp note to Nekrasov, in which he scolded him for changing the title to 'The Story of My Childhood'. Of what concern to anybody, he asked, was the story of my childhood? And he ridiculed a number of changes that had been made in the text against his express wish. In reading the published version, he declared, he underwent the feeling of a father who saw his child's hair hacked by an inexperienced barber. But he concluded his letter on a more cheerful note, accepting Nekrasov's generous financial offer for future works, and promising to send him another story when he had it ready.
Shortly after reading 'Childhood' in print, Tolstoy went to a neighbouring post to hunt with fellow officers. In a hut where they stopped to rest he came across an issue of 'National Notes' which contained a highly appreciative review of his short novel. He eagerly read and reread the account, dwelling greedily on every note of praise. The reviewer's final judgment must have made his heart jump:
"If this is the first production of L. N., then one ought to congratulate Russian literature on the appearance of a new and remarkable talent."
Tears of joy filled the eyes of the impressionable young author, and he experienced a special thrill from the thought that the comrades sitting around him were not aware of the fact that it was he who was being lauded in such lofty terms.
This review and the news he soon received from relatives in Moscow and Petersburg, who were in on the secret of his authorship, concerning the enthusiastic reception of 'Childhood' quickly dissipated Tolstoy's vexation over the editor's disfiguring of his brain child. On all sides readers raved about the novel and were curious to learn the author's real name. It was said that Panaev, co-editor of the 'Contemporary', was avoided by friends because he insisted upon cornering them on the street and reading extracts from the new work. Turgenev, already quite famous by that time, wrote Nekrasov urging him to encourage the unknown author and convey to him his greetings and praise. And Dostoevsky, in exile in far-off Siberia, wrote a friend to ask who was the mysterious L. N. whose recent work had so excited him. Hardly any young writer had knocked his head so violently against the stars of success with a first production as Tolstoy had done with 'Childhood'.
Though 'Childhood' is in the tradition of classical Russian realism begun by Pushkin, one can detect curious traces of foreign influences in the work. As in the case of "A History of Yesterday" certain aspects of the 'Sentimental Journey', especially Sterne's love of humanity and pervasive sensibility, as well as tricks of style, are clearly reflected in 'Childhood'. In fact, in the several drafts of the work one can detect the care with which Tolstoy tried to eliminate the more obvious traces of this influence, but the final version still owes much to Sterne. Further, it is very likely that the Bibliotheque de mon oncle' of the Swiss writer, R. Topfer, may have inspired Tolstoy to write about childhood, although no direct traces of borrowing from this work are observable.
But in most respects this first short novel is a highly original work. Tolstoy once remarked:
"When I wrote 'Childhood' it seemed that no one before me had so felt and depicted all the charms and poetry of childhood."
And this is an admirable brief description of the work, which is simply the story of a child's life up to the age of about fourteen. What especially impresses the reader is Tolstoy's wonderful skill in evoking childhood memories and associations that all have forgotten or only dimly remember, but which, when recalled with feeling, seem infallibly true and altogether delightful. If he criticized Pushkin's historical novel, 'The Captain's Daughter', because the interest in events predominates over the interest in feeling, it was precisely in the feelings of his characters that Tolstoy was primarily interested, and in the psychological reasons why they feel as they do. In the introductory statement to 'Childhood', he warns his readers that they must be understanding in order to appreciate his book, for he writes it from the heart, not from the head.
Of course, there is a great deal of Tolstoy's own childhood in this work, especially in the thoughts and feelings expressed by the central character, Nicholas. More so perhaps than that of any major novelist, Tolstoy's fiction is unusually autobiographical. This is no reflection upon his imagination or powers of invention, which were very considerable. But the life he transposed into art was largely his own life of recorded experience and observation, rendered infinitely effective artistically by penetrating analysis and by his subtle choice of significant psychological detail. In short, the convincing, unexaggerated realism of his fiction is rooted in autobiography. His novels seem so amazingly true to life because they are true. On the other hand, although Tolstoy is obviously drawing upon memories of his own childhood in this work, there is a great deal of sheer invention in it. For example, Nicholas remembers his mother very well and poignantly recalls his feelings at the time of her death, which is exquisitely described, but Tolstoy's mother died before he was two years old. And the gambling father of the story has nothing in common with Tolstoy's father.
There is even less of the autobiographical in the sequels 'Boyhood' (1854) and 'Youth' (1857). In them, however, the poetic and evocative atmosphere of 'Childhood' is not so much in evidence, and elements of intellection and psychological analysis are more dominant. Yet in these three connected short novels one savours the happy ease and self-sufficiency of large gentry families. Their intimate understanding of one another is curiously transformed into an intimate understanding between Tolstoy and the reader, a pleasurable familiarity that is carried over in his handling of the many similar families portrayed in the great novels of the future. How memorable are some of the scenes in 'Childhood', 'Boyhood', and 'Youth', in which the commonplace experiences of the young are made to seem "strange" by the witchery of art and hence endlessly attractive to the reader, such as Nicholas' thoughts when he is forced to kneel in the corner and is convinced that his tutor has forgotten him; or the youthful Irtenev who lashes his bare back with a rope in order to harden himself, and then — remembering that death may come at any moment — neglects his lessons for three days on end and lies in bed enjoying a novel and eating honey cakes which he had bought with his last remaining coins; or how Nicholas, threatened with a whipping by the hated tutor, St. Jerome, indulges in compensatory daydreaming, imagines that he has enlisted in the Hussars, is wounded, achieves glory, and then asks as his only boon from a grateful sovereign that he be allowed to kill his loathsome tutor. Finally, there are the many brilliant portraits — the kindly first tutor, Karl Ivanych, the wonderful mad man of God, Grisha, the lovable servant, Natalya Savishna, and many others. No objective detail escapes the author, and no inner meditation, however fugitive, seems beyond his grasp.
Many of the characteristic qualities of Tolstoy's mature art are already apparent in these early works. The customary initial period of imitation and immature fumbling is avoided. All the ineffable charm of childhood, boyhood, and youth is recaptured with compelling authenticity, and we live over again in these pages our own youthful joys and sorrows, dreams and hopes. With little faltering and no false moves, Tolstoy mounted at the first try the immortal steed of great art.
Though Tolstoy was not yet certain that he wished to settle on the career of writing, the initial success of 'Childhood' encouraged him to seek new material for his pen. He found plenty of it in his Caucasian surroundings and absorbing army life; and not a few of the officers and soldiers he got to know well became the heroes and villains of his Caucasian short stories. In addition there were spectacular scenery, beautiful native girls, and the inimitable Cossack settlers in the village where his battery was stationed. Tolstoy now set out to treat realistically the themes of war and Caucasian life which only some twenty to thirty years before had been so romantically written about in exotic tales in verse and prose by his predecessors Pushkin, Marlinsky, and Lermontov.
All four of Russia's most celebrated novelists, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, began their literary careers with the short story and each has contributed one or more tales that would find honoured places in any comprehensive anthology of the country's best examples of the genre. Tolstoy continued to write short stories throughout his long life, but several of his earliest efforts are particularly important, not only for their intrinsic worth and charm, but also for an understanding of the inception and development of a narrative art which found its fullest expression in the great novels. Here we observe him eager for literary fame, agonizing over the fear of failure and then boyishly jubilant over success, yet always boldly experimenting with form and content.
Each of the Caucasian stories ("The Raid," "The Wood-Felling, " and "Meeting a Moscow Acquaintance in the Detachment"), written or conceived during his two-year stay in that region, is an outgrowth of personal experience in fighting with the Russian forces against the hill tribes, or of some adventure on his furloughs. "A Billiard-Marker's Notes," despite its setting, also properly falls into the Caucasian group in the sense that it was inspired by a disastrous gambling experience Tolstoy had with a billiard-marker in Tiflis, where he had gone in 1851 to take an army examination. It is an excellent illustration of how Tolstoy can turn a rather attenuated autobiographical experience into an independent, powerful, and poignant study of moral degeneration. It is also possible that some of his own spiritual distress over loose living at this time entered into the story.
Within the limitations of the short-story form, the principal characterizations of the military figures in the Caucasian tales are studies in some depth, and the significant action is nearly always narrated with a realism quite fresh for that time. In this military environment it was almost inevitable that the youthful Tolstoy, with his restless questing mind, should reveal an interest in such abstract questions as: What constitutes bravery? ("The Raid"), or: Into what categories should soldiers be classified? ("The Wood-Felling"). Yet these concerns are never allowed to obtrude on the essential unity of the stories. And the subject that was to dominate so much of his thinking in later years — the rightness or wrongness of war — is also touched upon. In fact, in "The Raid," and to a certain extent in "The Wood-Felling," there is more than a suggestion of his later ruthless analysis of conventional thinking about military glory. But he was not yet blind to the heroism of the simple plain soldier or officer, and his accounts of incidents in this connection in "The Raid" provide the main attraction of the tale.
After more than two years in the Caucasus, Tolstoy grew weary of his life there and eventually managed to obtain a transfer to an artillery brigade in active service on the Danube, where the Russians were fighting the Turks. (He had by now obtained a commission in the army.) Not long before he left, perhaps in one of those periods of disillusion not infrequent in his youth, he wrote in his diary:
"Literature is rubbish and I should like to set down here rules and a plan of estate-management."
Contemporary literature was declining, he decided, because authors were producing too many light books for the sake of commercial gain. But a bit later he also noted in his diary:
"Literary success that satisfies one's own self is obtained only by working at every aspect of a subject. But the subject must be a lofty one if the labour is always to be pleasant"
The trip home in January, 1854, to Yasnaya Polyana where he spent his furlough was uneventful save for a fierce blizzard that inspired his memorable story, "The Snow Storm," which was written the following year. The sole theme is the storm, but it is so vividly realized that it takes on the human attributes of an intensely imagined character. Like Chekhov's celebrated long story, 'The Steppe', which also features a storm, the tale is really a tone poem of the elements. The repeated motifs of snow and wind have almost the quality of the incremental repetition of a folk ballad. So acute is the sensuous perception of bitter cold that the reader imaginatively experiences the sensation. The striking contrast of freezing weather and the traveller's dream of a hot summer day, drawn from an incident in Tolstoy's childhood, is a most effective device.
Not long after Tolstoy joined the active army on the Danube in March, 1854, England and France came in on the side of the Turks and the struggle turned into the Crimean War. A wave of patriotism swept Russia when the allies besieged Sevastopol the first invasion of the country since the time of Napoleon.
Nor was Tolstoy immune to this feeling, whatever doubts may have occurred to him about the futility of war during his Caucasian experiences. And as in the Caucasus, the muse once again vied with Mars for his devotion. He had already sent off the manuscript of 'Boyhood' to the publisher, and now he continued to peck away at 'The Cossacks', 'The Novel of a Russian Landowner', and 'Youth', the sequel to 'Boyhood'. We get a characteristic picture of the young lieutenant sitting during his off-duty hours in a bombproof shelter of the dangerously exposed Fourth Bastion of the besieged city's defenses, writing away at his first Sevastopol piece. Shells burst outside, bullets whistled over the parapet, and Tolstoy would occasionally look up from his writing to catch the macabre front-line humour of soldiers playing "Noses" or hear their quips as they entered or left the shelter.
Purists might well reject Tolstoy's three Sevastopol "sketches," as they are sometimes erroneously called, as fiction. On the other hand, one could hardly regard them as articles of a talented war correspondent. Whatever else they may be they are art of the highest quality, in the same sense that Dostoevsky's 'House of the Dead' is art and not simply a reporter's write-up of his life in a Siberian prison. If these pieces are mostly accounts of what Tolstoy observed and experienced at Sevastopol, he renders them immeasurably effective by employing artistic devices of fiction — setting, careful selection of precise detail in description, dialogue, development of characters through analysis of human motivation and feelings, and in the third narrative, possibly also in the second, there is as much plot as one finds in most of his indubitable short stories.
"Sevastopol in December 1854" skilfully recaptures the spirit of the early days of the siege in a series of brilliant genre pictures of the city and swiftly limned portraits of its typical inhabitants and defenders. The chief characteristics of the strength of the Russian, Tolstoy points out in his description of the fighting men at the Fourth Bastion, are his simplicity and obstinacy. This moving but realistically frank account of the self-sacrificing heroism of the defenders and their determination to repulse the invaders raised the flagging hopes of a nation sick with the carnage and suffering of Sevastopol. A new dimension had been added to the young Tolstoy's literary popularity in Russia. A month after the publication of the piece, he entered in his diary:
"Have now reached a period of real temptation through vanity. I could gain much in life if I wished to write without conviction."
"Sevastopol in May 1855," however, is emphatic proof of the firm manner in which Tolstoy turned his back on this temptation. For as the bloody siege wore on he began to understand more clearly not only the horrible futility of it, but also the base human motives and practices of men who created war and then fattened on such human folly. This altered attitude is clearly reflected in this second Sevastopol piece in ironic passages, satirical touches, and in forthright criticism of those officers whose "patriotism" is translated into terms of personal gain. Purely literary effects are not neglected, especially in the striking description of the night action. Nevertheless, Tolstoy plainly wished it to be known, as though ashamed of idealizing some aspects of war in the first Sevastopol account, that he would no longer compromise with truth, and he announced the fact in ringing terms at the end of "Sevastopol in May" in a famous sentence which may be regarded as his credo for the rest of his long life as a writer and thinker:
"The hero of my tale — whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful — is Truth."
In a letter to Nekrasov, editor of the 'Contemporary', which accompanied the manuscript of the second Sevastopol piece, Tolstoy wrote:
"Although I'm convinced that it is incomparably better than the first, I'm certain that it will not be liked."
This was an understatement. The angry chairman of the Censor's Commission denounced the manuscript because of its "ridicule of our brave officers, the brave defenders of Sevastopol." He agreed to its printing only after he had entirely altered the tone of the narrative by changes and deletions. Then, when the editor refused to publish it, the censor insisted, for he realized that he had virtually transformed the piece into a propaganda document for the government. The editor, however, would not place Tolstoy's name on "Sevastopol in May" when it appeared in print.
The chagrined Nekrasov wrote Tolstoy of his indignation over what had happened:
"Your work, of course, will not be lost . . . it will always remain as proof of a strength that was able to speak such profound and sober truth in circumstances amid which few men would have retained it.... You are right to value that side of your gifts most of all. Truth — in the form you have introduced it into our literature — is something entirely new among us. I do not know another writer of today who so compels the reader to love him and sympathize heartily with him as he to whom I now write. And I only fear lest time, the nastiness of life, and the deafness and dumbness that surround us, should do to you what it has done to most of us, and kill the energy without which there can be no writer — none at least such as Russia needs."
Sevastopol was abandoned by the Russians in August, 1855, and Tolstoy was happy to be sent as a courier to Petersburg in November. It was there, in the course of the next month, that he wrote "Sevastopol in August 1855." Now, in this third narrative, on the fall of the besieged city, he is very much the storyteller. Well-developed characters, especially the Kozeltsov brothers, add an increment of unity to a loosely constructed plot. In the studied objectivity, and particularly in the leisurely, panoramic method of narration, and in the manner in which plot is sacrificed to accumulating detail, one may detect the influence of Thackeray, whom the young Tolstoy had been eagerly reading and admiring over this period. Though the lyric passages of the first Sevastopol piece are not duplicated, some of the didacticism of the second is present in the arraignment of peculation in commissary matters, a practice that deeply troubled Tolstoy and one which, when he refused to subscribe to it, got him into serious difficulties with his fellow officers. But the whole narrative is suffused with a tragic note of despair over the abandonment of the city where so many thousands had perished and which heroic soldiers were still ready to defend. The treatment of war and the characterizations of military figures in the three Sevastopol pieces anticipate Tolstoy's artistic achievements in these respects in 'War and Peace'.
Back in Petersburg, Tolstoy, now sick of war, sent in his resignation from the army. While waiting for an official acceptance, he enjoyed the social life of the capital and his reputation as a literary hero established by the popularity of the Sevastopol pieces. Under the eager sponsorship of the older Turgenev, Petersburg's literary leader at that time, the twenty-seven-year-old Tolstoy was soon presented to many important authors, and publishers and magazine editors competed for his writings. The liberal wing of the progressive 'Contemporary', which he had previously favoured, sought his support against the emerging radical group connected with this important magazine. But Tolstoy preferred to do his own thinking and was a bit contemptuous of principles or opinions which he himself had not advanced. Turgenev's letter to P. A. Annenkov hits off the curious prickly charm of the young literary hero:
"Imagine, for more than two weeks now Tolstoy has been living with me, and what I would not give to see you both together! You cannot picture to yourself what a dear and remarkable man he is, although I have nicknamed him the 'troglodyte,' because of his savage ardour and buffalo-like obstinacy."
Tolstoy disliked the radicals of the 'Contemporary' and condemned the liberals for what he thought was the insincerity of men who failed to practice what they preached. He soon quarrelled with Turgenev and ended by offending the leadership of the 'Contemporary', whose growing emphasis upon social significance in literature disturbed him.
During 1856 Tolstoy continued his literary efforts, publishing two short stories already mentioned, "Meeting a Moscow Acquaintance in the Detachment" and "The Snow Storm," a large fragment of a novel, 'A Landlord's Morning', and the fine short novel, 'Two Hussars'. He also made much progress on longer works, especially 'Youth', which was published the next year, and in 1856 his first collection, 'Army Tales', appeared, and 'Childhood' and 'Boyhood' in a single edition. Now for the first time, however, critical reaction to his fiction was cool, even hostile, perhaps a reflection of the changing attitude of liberal Petersburg critics whom he had annoyed and who found in these tales no political or social significance that would respond to the progressive spirit of the age. Meanwhile Tolstoy was evincing a desire to strike out on new literary paths far removed from the popular demand. He entered in his diary:
"How I long to have done with magazines in order to write in the way I'm now beginning to think about art: awfully lofty and pure."
At the end of 1856 Tolstoy at last received his discharge from the army and in January of the next year he set out on his first trip to Western Europe, a journey that he had long been anticipating. All the excitement of touring in strange countries absorbed his intense nature and left little time for developing his thoughts about the new direction which his literary art must take. Then, before a fashionable hotel at Lucerne, occurred the incident of the little itinerant singer whose songs the wealthy tourists appreciated but absent-mindedly neglected to reward. In a very short time the outraged Tolstoy dashed off that powerful homily in fiction — "Lucerne." It is hardly an example of the new art he was thinking about, but it does mark a significant shift of focus from the objective realism of his war tales to what might be described as subjective realism with a moralistic emphasis. Here he deliberately employs his art to illuminate and condemn the materialistic civilization of the West by comparing the shallowness and human insensitivity of its sophisticated members with the natural man represented by the little street singer. In this fictionalized moralistic tract the voice of Rousseau rings loud and clear in Tolstoy's effort to oppose nature, morality, and art to political laws and organized government. "Lucerne" is a signpost pointing the direction of much of his future thought.
Although "Albert," which was also written abroad, may have been an effort along the lines of the "awfully lofty and pure" art which Tolstoy had mentioned in his diary, it is infected, in a negative sense, with the moralizing of "Lucerne." In any event, he was concerned with the question of art which he firmly believed must be based upon moral truths that went deeper than the "convictions" of the politically and socially minded contributors to the 'Contemporary' and "Albert" was intended to convey this belief. For the story, which may have been connected with Tolstoy's experiences with a talented but drunken violinist whom he had befriended, is essentially a protest against society's inability to understand and protect real art. The trouble is that the morally sick musician seems more in need of a doctor than the encouragement of a heedless public incapable of appreciating virtuoso performances on the violin. The tale is saved, however, by the fine lyrical description of the effect of superb music on a listener, a scene obviously inspired by Tolstoy's own powerful reaction to music.
In the case of the brief story "Three Deaths" there can be no doubt that Tolstoy wrote it to exemplify the moral truth of pure art. Without questioning the very concept of pure art, critics have differed on the effectiveness of its realization in this tale. In any event, the moral truth brought out in the contrast between harmony with creation in the death of the old peasant and the tree and disharmony in the death of the querulous invalid lady is altogether too pat and artistically unadorned to carry conviction.
When Tolstoy returned to Russia from abroad in the middle of 1857, he was chagrined to discover that his literary reputation had vanished. "Lucerne" and "Albert" puzzled both public and critics and, later, "Three Deaths" did not help the situation. It was whispered about that he had lost his grip, that the great literary promise of his early fiction had come to nought. And in the light of the social tendentiousness that now gripped literature, it was not surprising that in his next considerable effort, 'Family Happiness' (1859), a short novel inspired by an early love affair, he should once again disappoint readers and critics.
Perhaps a feeling that he was out of tune with contemporary demands in literature, in addition to an urge he had experienced abroad to find new outlets for his incredible energies, prompted Tolstoy to give up creative writing at this time and plunge into the exciting field of educational theory and practice. Over the next three years he ran his fascinating school for peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana and wrote extensively on educational matters.
Marriage in 1862 to Sophia Bers brought to an end Tolstoy's educational experiments and reawakened in him the urge to resume his creative writing. He completed a brilliant story of peasant life, 'Polikushka', and 'The Cossacks', an outstanding short novel, both of which were published in 1863. And that same year he wrote a short tale, "Strider: The Story of a Horse," which did not appear in print until years later. The idea for it may have been suggested by an incident that took place in l856, when Tolstoy visited Turgenev's estate. On one of their walks together the two writers passed before an old broken-down horse and Tolstoy, patting it affectionately, began to describe what he imagined the horse was thinking and feeling at that moment. The account was so vivid that the astonished and delighted host declared that Tolstoy must at one time have been a horse. In any event, his equine hero is modeled on a real horse, Kholstomer, quite celebrated in Russia for his enormous stride and speed. Tolstoy may have refused to publish the story at this time because it could easily have been construed as a contribution to the literature of social significance which he so much deplored. For the tale is really a satire, from the point of view of a horse, against the evils of modern society, especially the institution of property. The uncanny manner in which Tolstoy humanizes the horse by projecting himself into the consciousness of the poor old piebald gelding is remarkable and an artistic tour de force. In the end, after the sustained realism of the animal's horrible death, the horse emerges as a more useful and dignified creature than its human owners.
The curious little story, "The Porcelain Doll," was Tolstoy's share of a joint letter which he and his pregnant wife wrote to her sister in 1863. On the surface it appears to be a slight thing intended merely to amuse both his wife and his sister-in-law, but throughout this deftly turned miniature tale there are repeated hints of marital discontent. Tolstoy, a tremendously active and passionate man, deeply resented the frigidity of his young wife, particularly accentuated during her first pregnancy. She noted in her diary at this time:
"The role of the physical side of love plays a great part in him. And that is awful. For me, on the contrary, it means nothing."
The porcelain doll of the story is a symbol of his intense emotional frustration. However, his naive wife seems to have missed the point, for at the end of the letter she comments to her sister:
"He has invented this that I am porcelain, such a rascal! But what does it mean — God knows."
This revival of interest in creative writing at the time of his marriage supports the conviction that Tolstoy could no more give up literature than he could cease his search for truth; one was the essential medium for the expression of the other. At the low point of the chilly reaction of the critics to his fictional efforts in 1859, Tolstoy delivered an unusual address to the Moscow Society of Lovers of Russian Literature. He deplored the fact that the public and the critics had begun to think that the problem of all literature consists only in the denunciation of evil, in the debate and correction of it, in short, in the growth of a civic feeling in society. On the contrary, he concluded his remarks:
"There is another literature, reflecting eternal and universal human interests, the most precious, sincere consciousness of the people, a literature accessible to every people and to all times, a literature without which no single people, gifted with strength and richness, has ever developed."
An important step toward the creation of such a literature in Russia had been the fiction so far commented upon in this first period, to which must also be added a series of early short novels.