Sunday, 16 September 2018

Maxim Gorky’s Notes on Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy with Gorky (1900)
Lev Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky met frequently when the former was living in Oleise and the latter was living in Gaspra, in the Crimea. Gorky made some notes of their interactions on scraps of paper which have been bound together in a book called Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

Gorky’s notes have great merit as was jotting them down for his personal use,  and he had no reason to develop a false narrative of any kind or embellish his conversations with Tolstoy. He offers a convincing picture of Tolstoy’s bearing, inner thoughts, and habits.

To Gorky, Tolstoy was almost a God, not the God of Greece or Judea, but a Russian God. In one of the notes, Gorky writes:  “He is like a god, not a Sabaoth or Olympian, but the kind of Russian god who "sits on a maple throne under a golden lime tree," not very majestic, but perhaps more cunning than all the other gods.”

In the same note, Gorky praises Tolstoy’s hands and speculates if Leonardo da Vinci too had such hands: “He has wonderful hands—not beautiful, but knotted with swollen veins, and yet full of a singular expressiveness and the power of creativeness.  Probably Leonardo da Vinci had hands like that.  With such hands one can do anything.  Sometimes, when talking, he will move his fingers, gradually close them into a fist, and then, suddenly opening them, utter a good, full-weight word.”

Here’s an entry from the book in which Tolstoy is talking about Dickens and Balzac:

“Dickens said a very clever thing: ‘Life is given to us on the definite understanding that we boldly defend it to the last.’ On the whole, he was a sentimental, loquacious, and not very clever writer, but he knew how to construct a novel as no one else could, certainly better than Balzac. Some one has said: ‘Many are possessed by the passion for writing books, but few are ashamed of them afterwards.’ Balzac was not ashamed, nor was Dickens, and both of them wrote quite a number of bad books. Still, Balzac is a genius. Or at any rate, the thing which you can only call genius…”

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