Friday, February 20, 2009

Leo and Feo

While walking yesterday morning, I found myself thinking about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Their work could not be more different stylistically (though not thematically), and though both were very Russian writers, I think Dostoevsky was the more Russian of the two. While Tolstoy was essentially a man of the 18th century European Enlightenment, Dostoevsky always looked to the East, to ancient Rus and to Slavophilism. (I suppose a spell in a Siberian penal camp will do that to you.) I have read all of Dostoevsky's work - including Netotchka Nyesvanovna and the Notebooks - and while I admire him enormously and consider him one of the greatest novelists who ever lived, I never developed the love for him that I did for Tolstoy. I think that George Steiner, that remarkable man, was correct when he argued that one inevitably chooses either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky but not both, largely according to one's temperament.

Though the two were contemporaries, they never met, which is exceedingly odd considering that they sometimes lived in the same city, and were regarded as the most important writers in Russia at that time. This was so, I think, because Tolstoy deliberately avoided Dostoevsky's company, perhaps out of jealousy or fear or both, and because Dostoevsky was an ailing and reclusive sort who avoided everyone's company. They did have, I believe, a brief correspondence, and one is tantalized to wonder what the result of their meeting might have been. (I am certain that some young and ambitious playwright will one day latch onto this idea as a subject for a pretentious one-act.) But I think that nothing much would have come of it, knowing Tolstoy as I do, and I offer as evidence his single meeting with Tchaikovsky, from which, apparently, he fled in horror, never to repeat the mistake.

When Dostoevsky died, Tolstoy claimed to have been inconsolable. He wrote a remembrance of Dostoevsky in which he stated that he had re-read all of the man's work (an impossibility, given the interval of time) and that he would miss no other writer as much as he. And yet, during their lifetimes, he never found the occasion to meet the man, and spoke very little about him subsequently, except to criticize the excesses in his work.

Tolstoy seems to have picked his artistic companionships carefully. One of his closest was Gorky (if we can believe his accounts). This was so, I think, because Gorky posed little or no threat to Tolstoy, being a writer more passionate and political than artful. Another was Chekhov, who, though a writer of true talent and a man of personal charm and warmth, worked for the most part on a scale much smaller than Tolstoy's. Gorky remarked that Tolstoy seemed to treat Chekhov as if Chekhov were a girl, and I can believe this easily, since Chekhov by all accounts was a gentle, tender, solicitous soul, whom Tolstoy would have found amusing and endearing. Tolstoy was, of course brutal in his criticism of Chekhov's plays, in the way, I suppose, that a rich and domineering husband might be of a lower-born wife who dresses - to his mind - in bad taste.

Indeed, one of my favorite Tolstoy anecdotes involved Chekhov the dramatist. When Tolstoy was ill in the Crimea near the end of his life, he sent for Chekhov, who made the long journey to Gaspara on the Black Sea to hear what he thought might be the master's last words to him. When Chekhov approached the bedside, Tolstoy motioned him to bring his ear close to his lips. "Anton," Tolstoy whispered, "your plays are terrible. Only Shakespeare's are worse."

It was, of course, a wonderful complement as well as a naughty put-down. And Tolstoy, true to form, went on living after it for several more years. But that was Tolstoy, who was an example of what was once said of Mark Twain: He was perfect.... in his strengths and in his weaknesses.