Literary Daybook, June 10

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 10, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 10, 1930, Lawrence Wargrave murders Edward Seton.
-- "And Then There Were None" (1939)
by Agatha Christie

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1881, Leo Tolstoy donned his peasant coat and homemade bark shoes, gathered his walking staff and two bodyguards, and set out for the Optina Pustyn monastery, arriving with blistered feet and a decision to return by train. Tolstoy was 52 years old, a national hero for his two masterpieces -- "War and Peace" (1869) and "Anna Karenina" (1877) -- but already in the grip of the religious-political mania that would dominate his writing and trouble his life over its last three decades.

Tolstoy's "A Confession" was written shortly after his pilgrimage to Optina Pustyn. Even given the hyperbole, Tolstoy reveals himself to be doubtful of his accomplishments, troubled by guilt, and ready to be born again:

"I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder -- there was not a crime I did not commit ... Thus I lived for ten years."

Biographer A. N. Wilson may be right that "the progress from artist to sage or holy man, which, to western readers seems embarrassing or a bit of a bore, is a fairly common phenomenon among Russian writers," but Tolstoy went at it with typical excess. Intellectually, this meant a series of books and pamphlets on religious, social and aesthetic issues. On this last topic, Tolstoy's brand of fundamentalism led him to the view that his novels were worthless, as were the writings of Dante and Shakespeare -- he famously told his friend Chekhov that his plays were as bad as Shakespeare's.

In practical terms, all this meant a return to Sermon-on-the Mount values and the simplicity of peasant living -- thus making your own shoes, wearing peasant garb, giving up alcohol, sex, tobacco and meat, refusing to serve in the military or vote, etc. Though many in Russia and around the world regarded Tolstoy as a moral leader and prophet, his wife and children were less enthusiastic. In the end, the marriage that had been so important to the creation of the great novels was in ruins. Tolstoy died at the age of 82, several days after having "escaped" his sleeping wife, and set off to some unclear destination to live in reclusion, his route including one last visit to the Optina Pustyn monastery.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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