Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tolstoy and Chekov

Tolstoy was a passionate rationalist and rationaliser.

No sooner had he completed six years of work on War and Peace than he began work on a primer of Russian grammar designed to make acquiring literacy more possible for the newly emancipated peasants, simplifying and rationalising the teaching of a language as he went.

He adopted a similar approach to Christianity. Out went the miracles, the Trinity and the Church leaving Jesus a radical pacifist, close to the earth, living a simple life and hostile to organised religion, radically close to Tolstoy's own self-image!

The passion had its shadow side. He could drop a cause or strand of work as quickly as he had adopted it. A raid by the secret police on his estate (whilst he was away) so outraged his dignity as a nobleman that he abandoned for a number of years his experiment in schooling for the peasantry (which was the secret police's target)!

Implicit in this is that Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. That his identification with the peasants' simple life was accomplished in tailored smocks (carefully fashioned in Moscow) is but one (and a simple) example.

Yesterday at a day on Tolstoy and Chekov by Rosamund Bartlett, biographer of both, that was brilliantly executed, she said that Tolstoy was a man you could admire but Chekov was one you could love and that I think captures it exactly. There was an episode she related when Tolstoy went to visit the ailing Chekov in hospital no doubt with the best of intentions but ended up haranguing him so forcefully that it brought on another haemorrhage! I had a vivid image of being stuck in a lift with Tolstoy where he would challenge your use of this mechanical contrivance and upbraid you for it all the time forgetting that he was in the lift himself! Meanwhile, being stuck in a lift with Chekov, you felt, would be an unalloyed pleasure!

However, Tolstoy was an undoubtedly highly principled and courageous man who continuously challenged an oppressive state both in word and deed. For example in the 1890s, while the government fiddled in the face of widespread famine, Tolstoy was setting up soup kitchens and feeding people, raising money, attacking the government into action and persuading his friends, including Chekov, to muck in and help!

And a deeply influential one, you only have to ponder his influence on Gandhi to see this. However, not a prophet honoured in his own country, the centenary of his death was a muted affair in Russia (in 2010). An anarchist, a supporter of minorities, a non-believer in violence and in the Orthodox church is not one likely to endear himself to Mr Putin even if he is Russia's most famous writer (internationally)! It did not endear him to the Communists either who were happy to have him as a proto-revolutionary and a great writer but 'religious' 'anti-authoritarian' 'agrarian'...no thanks...and relentlessly persecuted the Tolstoyan communes that sought to bring his ideas to life.

The opportunity to share and contrast Tolstoy and Chekov was a good one. Tolstoy was a typical Russian writer in telling you what you ought to think and do. Chekov (especially at the time) an atypical one in showing you what people believed in and did but without telling you want to think. He invites you to have compassion on people who inhabit (as we all do) worlds of varied shades of grey (and of colour) rather than the black and white of certainty. It makes him (for me at least) enormously attractive.

In one part he reminds me of my beloved George Eliot: for the compassion but also for being a person who having put aside his explicit faith, drilled into him in childhood, retained, in the bones and texture of his seeing, a recognition of its importance. Something about it matters even if this is not its objective truth...

Like all good talks about literature, it left you tight in your traps waiting to spring back into the works themselves, with new ways of seeing, new possibilities of understanding.


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