During Tolstoy's first literary period, before he embarked on 'War And Peace', he experimented with a fictional form longer than the short story yet considerably shorter than a full-length novel. The Russians have a felicitous word for this genre, 'povest', which is defined in their dictionaries as:
"A literary work of a narrative nature, in size less than a novel."
We employ several designations for it: "long short story," "novelette," "short novel," and, quite improperly, "novella." With some arbitrariness I have chosen the term "short novel" for such works, for it seems most adequately to suggest their form and content as well as the fact that in these tales Tolstoy was consciously preparing himself to undertake the full-length novel.
'Two Hussars', 'A Landlord's Morning', 'Family Happiness', 'Polikushka', and 'The Cossacks' are Tolstoy's only short novels during these early years, with the possible exception of 'Childhood', 'Boyhood', and 'Youth'. The latter three, however, are interrelated narratives and, taken together — the form in which they are so frequently published — must be regarded as a full-length novel. These five short novels, in addition to the seventeen pieces already discussed in the preceding chapter, constitute all the completed fiction that Tolstoy wrote between 1851 and 1863, his first literary period.
Though Tolstoy excelled in the short-story form from the beginning of his writing career, its artistic restrictions were alien to the natural bent of his expansive genius. Hence his early efforts in the short novel, often brilliantly realized, represent a transition to the more artistically congenial, spacious, and complex world of 'War And Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'. Specifically, he began to reveal more care for settings, greater psychological density, and the ability to cope with a larger number of characters in intricate human relations.
In 'Two Hussars '(1856), the earliest of this group of short novels and Tolstoy's first piece of fiction based on a theme outside his personal experience, one is immediately aware, in comparison with his previous writing, of maturing artistic powers. The juxtaposition of two generations reflecting alternating contrasts in the personalities and adventures of father and son became a favourite fictional device which Tolstoy later used in his long novels on a much more elaborate scale. Count Fyodor Turbin, a handsome, fire-eating young hussar, appears for one night in a provincial town and throws its society into turmoil by his fearlessness, drinking, and wild escapades, and before departing he seduces a pretty young widow. Yet no one is shocked by his behaviour, for his daring, generosity, and noble nature win the admiration of all.
Twenty years later another young hussar officer, the son of Count Fyodor Turbin, who has been killed in a duel, arrives with his troops in the same provincial town. By chance he is quartered in the widow's house and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her pretty daughter. The son, a calculating, materialistic prig, is entirely unlike his lovable scapegrace of a father.
The contrast between them, as well as between the two generations they represent, is deliberate. In the son, Tolstoy is condemning his own generation in favor of an older one for which he had a familiar nostalgic hankering. But in so doing, the portrayal of the son is much less convincing than that of his father, an artistic fault which Tolstoy seemed to recognize. For in his diary he noted a friend's remark that the son is described without love, and he commented in his notebook at this time:
"The first condition of an author's popularity, that is, the way to make himself loved, is the love with which he treats all his characters."
It was a mistake he rarely made later. He learned, in observing the human condition, that man does not go through the wringer of life and emerge all white.
"Every man," he declared in 'Resurrection', "carries in himself the germ of every human quality, but sometimes it is one quality that manifests itself and sometimes another."
Actually, Tolstoy was greatly attracted, in real life as well as in fiction, to strong, bold, intense personalities like that of the father in 'Two Hussars' or Eroshka in 'The Cossacks', and he willingly forgives their violent actions and moral lapses when committed out of an excess of their passionate nature. Some of the scenes in 'Two Hussars' are extremely well handled, such as the party at the gypsies and the poetic dreams of the widow's charming daughter Lisa as she stands at the window in the moonlight, an early preview of the famous scene of Natasha in 'War And Peace' when she contemplates from her bedroom window the moonlit beauty of a perfect spring night.
In 'A Landlord's Morning' and 'Polikushka', Tolstoy for the first time is mainly concerned with peasants, a class that played a role, but not a dominant one, in his later fiction. And in 'A Landlord's Morning' (l856) he also returns to events of his personal life, which had furnished themes for so many of his early tales. His initial intention, which he abandoned, was to write a full-length novel about a landowner's experiences with his peasants, and the present short novel appears to be the self-contained opening section of this project. At the beginning of it, the nineteen-year-old Nekhlyudov writes his aunt that he has given up his studies at the university in order to devote himself to the affairs of his estate and especially to trying to remedy the pitiable and impoverished conditions of his hundreds of peasants. He explains, in a spirit of high idealism, that it is his sacred duty to care for their welfare, and that to guide his endeavors he has written down rules of conduct for himself.
At the age of nineteen, Tolstoy also left the university to live on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in order to fulfil a new humanitarian "purpose in life" — to improve the lot of his many serfs, over whom he was then absolute master. And he too, like Nekhlyudov, wrote out rules of conduct. In doing good for the peasantry he was convinced that he would find real happiness.
Unfortunately, we have no definite information about Tolstoy's activities in this first attempt to reform his fellow men. Several years later a diary note on the plan of the proposed novel suggests what his intentions had been in this experiment, and the consequences that followed:
"The hero searches for the realization of an ideal of happiness and justice in a country existence. Not finding it, he becomes disillusioned and wishes to search for his ideal in family life. His friend introduces him to the thought that happiness does not consist of an ideal but may be found in continued vital work that has for its purpose the happiness of others."
It may be assumed that Tolstoy's course of action paralleled that of his hero in 'A Landlord's Morning' Nekhlyudov, who refuses to regard the poverty of his peasants as an unavoidable evil, abolishes corporal punishment and provides schooling and medical aid for them. Like a ministering angel, he visits their wretched, filthy hovels, described by Tolstoy with that saturation of precise detail which became a hallmark of his realism. In simple-hearted fashion, Nekhlyudov pours out his willingness to devote his life to their happiness. But his first fine rapture does not last long. Despite all his efforts, the peasants remain poor, shirk education, and do not improve morally. Somehow his plans all come to nothing. The peasants are endlessly suspicious and regard his offers of aid as just another trick on the part of the master to get more work out of them. Perplexed in the extreme and sadly disillusioned, he finally abandons his experiment.
If the young Tolstoy's similar efforts at Yasnaya Polyana were equally feckless, he was probably not above subjecting his motives to the kind of acute self-criticism which we find in the tale in the response of Nekhlyudov's aunt to her nephew's undertaking. One does not believe in arguments and rules but only in experience, she writes, and experience tells her that his plans are childish.
"You always wished to appear original," she declares, "but your originality is really nothing but excessive self-esteem."
Turgenev, in a letter to a friend, argues that 'A Landlord's Morning' conveys the unpleasant impression that all efforts of landowners to improve conditions of the peasantry lead to nothing. The real moral of the work, however, is that so long as serfdom exists the master will be unable to better the lot of his peasants, despite disinterested endeavours to do so. Tolstoy clearly recognized this fact, and one may perceive a connection between 'A Landlord's Morning' and his attempt, in the course of the year it was published (1856), to free his own serfs. But they rejected the offer, which was carefully contrived to protect his interests in the land, perhaps because he once again failed to take into consideration the innate hostility for the master that centuries of serfdom had implanted in the peasantry. Rather bitterly he commented in his diary:
"Two powerful men are joined with a sharp chain; it hurts both of them, and when one of them moves, he involuntarily cuts the other, and neither has room to work."
'A Landlord's Morning' gives effective artistic expression to this profound antagonism and at the same time illuminates with striking clarity the lived. nature of the Russian peasant and the unbelievably shocking conditions under which he Though 'Polikushka' (1863) was published after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, it is concerned, like 'A Landlord's Morning', with peasant existence before they obtained their freedom. But here the emphasis is quite different. There is no autobiographical element, no personal thesis to develop. Tolstoy's concentration is entirely upon telling a gripping story of peasant life, and he does it with infinite art. The result is a masterpiece in the genre of the short novel.
Tolstoy's maturing artistic powers are much in evidence in this tale. The wretched peasant Polikushka, who drinks too much, is a liar, and finds it hard to keep his "pickers and feelers" off the loose property of anyone, joyfully dreams of justifying his mistress' faith in him by safely fulfilling her commission to bring the package of money from town. His terrible despair over the collapse of his hopes because of the accidental loss of the money on the way home is compounded by the realization that no one will ever believe him if he tells the truth. To kill himself seems the only way out of his impossible dilemma.
Tolstoy adds convincingness to this tragic incident by placing it in a setting of remarkably described peasant existence: the subtly handled relations of the mistress of the estate to her steward and his to the peasants of the village; the superb picture of the superstitious terror of these simple people over Polikushka's suicide; old Dutlov's similar fear that the found money, which had been given to him by his mistress, is the evil money of the devil; and the splendid, almost Dostoevskian scene in the tavern where old Dutlov, who uses the "evil money" to buy up a substitute for his nephew conscripted into the army, bows down before the "hired" recruit, who has offended him, and asks his forgiveness.
Though Tolstoy's superb sense of reality often leads him to indicate a disillusioning truth or at least a disappointing truth, in this superbly ironic ending he avoids the position of the habitual cynic who can be as false to reality as the habitual idealist. If Dutlov had lost his mistress' money and Polikushka had found it, he would most likely have squandered it. The cynical writer might well have had Dutlov do the same, but instead he uses it for a worthy purpose - to save his son from the army in order that the young man might aid his needy family. The irony cuts deep here and simply because Tolstoy's understanding of reality is so just.
No wonder that Turgenev, who at this time had little reason to be well disposed toward his irascible friend Tolstoy, wrote the poet Fet that after reading 'Polikushka' he
"marvelled at the strength of his [Tolstoy's] huge talent.But he has used up too much material, and it is a pity he drowned the son. It makes it too terrible. But there are pages that are truly wonderful. It makes a cold shudder run down even my back, and you know my back has grown thick and course. He is a master, a master!"
Tolstoy had indeed become a master. Without being tendentious, 'Polikushka' exposes the hard features of peasant life. The tone of refined humor that aimed to ridicule the false and insincere in art appeared for the first time in his fiction. On this same high level of performance, he continued to write about the peasant and his relation to the landowner in brilliant sections of 'War And Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'.
'Family Happiness' (1859) is a most interesting example of the manner in which Tolstoy transposes the facts of real life into the substance of art. It will be remembered that in his plan for a novel about a Russian landowner, of which 'A Landlord's Morning' is all he completed, the hero, after his disillusionment in reforming his peasants, seeks a new ideal in family life. Tolstoy himself long pursued this ideal of family happiness, and during 1856-57 he actively sought the realization of it in courting pretty Valerya Arseneva, much younger than himself, who lived on an estate not far from Yasnaya Polyana. Somewhat like Sergei Mihkailych in 'Family Happiness', Tolstoy had easy access to the young lady's house as the guardian of her brother. And again like the hero of the short novel, he employed an imaginary second-self to explain his feelings to Valerya, urged her to practice his favourite piano pieces, and grew wrathy over her fondness for high society.
Although Tolstoy allowed himself to become deeply committed to Valerya, in the end, unlike Sergei Mikhailych in the story, he shrank from marriage with her because he lost faith in it as an ideal of happiness.
"I never loved her with real love," he wrote a family friend. "I was carried away by the reprehensible desire to inspire love. This gave me a delight I had never before experienced.... I have behaved very badly."
No doubt a felt need to justify his shabby conduct and purge his mind of the whole episode drove Tolstoy to write 'Family Happiness', in which he tries to indicate that if he and Valerya had married, their different views of what made for happiness in such a relationship would have led to unhappiness for both. But he transforms the experience of real life, in the first part of the tale, into a charming, poetic narrative of the dawning love of a sensitive seventeen-year-old girl for a man twice her age, a contemporary of her father, and also her guardian. All we know of Tolstoy's relationship with Valerya comes from his letters and diary entries. In his short novel the challenge of art compels Tolstoy to tell the story of the love of Masha and her guardian as it is seen through the eyes of this young girl. It is a delicate psychological study in depth, a worthy forerunner of the moving love stories of his great novels. We observe how the mysterious chemistry of love gradually and insensibly alters the nature of the youthful, inexperienced Masha and reveals to her
"a whole new world of joys in the present, without changing anything in my life, without adding anything except himself to each impression of my mind. All that had surrounded me from childhood without saying anything to me suddenly came to life. The mere sight of him made everything begin to speak and press for admittance to my heart, filling it with happiness."
Yet it is interesting to see how Tolstoy, as always, qualifies the idealizing poetry of his heroine by the sober truth of fact. A few days before her marriage Masha takes the sacrament, and her thoughts are suffused by the elation of lofty religious feelings. She ecstatically wonders how much more they will be elated by actual marriage with the man she loves. However, after the ceremony is performed she is described as
"only frightened and disappointed: all was over but nothing extraordinary, nothing worthy of the sacrament I had received had taken place in myself."
The radiant poetic atmosphere of the first part of the story is dissipated in the second part by the familiar stresses and strains of married life. Masha eventually grows impatient with the uneventfulness of country existence with her husband and craves the movement and excitement of high society in the city. Although he has lived this kind of social life himself and is aware of its shallowness, he bows to the wishes of his young wife. Her social success and eager willingness to sacrifice to it the values he prized most in her soon bring about an estrangement in their relations. At this point Tolstoy may be accused of introducing into his story a didactic puritanical element. Quite clearly he wished to suggest that the disparity in years, experience, and tastes inevitably erode the family happiness of Masha and her husband, just as they would have done if he had married Valerya. The conclusion of the story, however, saves the situation by a solution that does not appear to be false either to the reality of things or to the demands of art. Tormented by the conviction that she has lost his love, Masha at last confronts her husband with an anguished plea for an explanation. They sit on the veranda of her old house, and here the reluctant husband, prompted by tender memories of their first ecstasies and the antiphonal responses of nature as gentle summer rain clouds shadow the setting sun, offers a clarification. She accuses him of not continuing to love her as at the beginning of their marriage and of failing to exercise his authority and greater experience to save her from the mistakes she made in pursuing the illusion of social success. She had to learn this by her own experience, he tells her, and if their early passionate love has vanished, this was inevitable anyway. It can now be replaced, he adds, by another kind of love, a peaceful love.
"Don't let us try to repeat life," he declares. "Don't let us make pretences to ourselves. Let us be thankful that there is an end of the old emotions and excitements. The excitement of searching is over for us; our quest is done, and happiness enough has fallen to our lot. Now we must stand aside and make room for him,"
he concludes, pointing to their infant son whom the nurse was carrying out to the veranda for their nightly blessing.
'The Cossacks' (1863), the last and longest of the pieces in this group was planned as the first part of a three-part novel which Tolstoy never completed, but the work as it stands has a beginning, middle, and end, and the inner unity of a well-rounded short novel. He began it in 1852 during his stay in the Caucasus as a cadet in the Russian army, but because of many interruptions he did not finish it until ten years later, shortly after his marriage in 1862. In fact, if he had not felt obliged to the publisher of it for an advance of a thousand roubles to pay off a gambling debt, it is possible that he might never have completed 'The Cossacks'.
As the subtitle, "A Tale of 1852," indicates, the story concerns events of that year. At that time, when not off on a campaign, Tolstoy was quartered in the Grebensk Cossack village of Starogladkov and lived more or less the life vividly described in 'The Cossacks'. Though it is unwise to push auto-biographical correspondences too far, certain obvious sources are worth pointing out. Tolstoy stayed in the house of the old Cossack, Epishka Sekhin, who is quite faithfully portrayed as the remarkable Daddy Eroshka in the tale. And in her way, the equally impressive Maryanka was modeled on the beautiful Starogladkov Cossack girl Solomonida, as impervious to Tolstoy's attentions as the heroine is to Olenin's. Both girls preferred a dashing young Cossack like Lukashka in the story, who killed Chechens, stole horses, got drunk, and at night climbed in the window of his sweetheart without thinking who he was or why he existed.
The ambivalence of Olenin, a struggle in him between the social and moral claims of the cultured society into which he had been born and the simple, amoral way of life of these Cossack children of nature, reflects in part Tolstoy's struggle during his more than two years of service in the Caucasus. Under the influence of his new surroundings, Olenin learns to condemn artificial civilization, yet he finds it difficult to accept wholeheartedly the views of Daddy Eroshka, who thinks all religion is a fraud and declares:
"God has made everything for the joy of man. There is no sin in any of it."
But Olenin definitely regards it as a sin when this old reprobate offers to provide a beauty for him.
"A sin?" he shouts. "Where's the sin? A sin to look at a nice girl? A sin to have some fun with her? Or is it a sin to love her? Is that so in your parts? . . . No, my dear fellow, it's not a sin, it's salvation! God made you and God made the girl too. He made it all; so it is no sin to look at a nice girl. That's what she was made for: to be loved and to give joy."
The natural beauty of Cossack existence transforms Olenin into a philosophical reasoner searching for personal happiness, a kind of Rousseauistic "natural man," a type that became a favorite of Tolstoy in later fiction. Under the impact of these people, unspoiled by civilization, Olenin envisages his personal pursuit of happiness in terms of self-sacrifice and love for others. But this romantic ideal is shattered by his passionate love for Maryanka, who is utterly inaccessible to him as a non-Cossack incapable of ever identifying himself with their emancipated life.
'The Cossacks' is the final work of Tolstoy's first literary period, and no doubt it is his finest during these twelve years. Turgenev did not hesitate to pronounce it "the best story that has been written in our language." Though there are artistic flaws in the portrait of Olenin, the principal Cossack characters, Eroshka, Lukashka, and Maryanka, are among the most memorable of Tolstoy's creations. With them, one experiences that baffling impression, which is the quintessence of his realism, that somehow these characters are telling their own stories without the author's intervention beyond that of acting as an occasional commentator. And that inner truth of a work of fiction, which must come from life itself, seems more fully developed in 'The Cossacks' than in any other tale of Tolstoy's first literary period.
The work helped to win back some of Tolstoy's popularity with the reading public, but the radical-democratic critics, sensing the implied condemnation of all modern society in 'The Cossacks', gave it only grudging praise. It is true that a number of the characters in Tolstoy's early tales come close to being merely emanations of himself, and only the best of them are psychologically alive. But whether he is treating war, family happiness, or exemplifying moral truths, in both subject matter and in his method of conquering reality by a fresh, uninhibited analysis of human thought and action, Tolstoy was moving artistically in the direction of the famous novels to come. He was ready, in 1863, for the long hard task that led to his greatest contribution to Russian literature — 'War And Peace'.