Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
He was born in the familial manor of the Tolstoys near the village of Petrovskoe. He had a tutor, Karl Ivanitch, a German professor who tickled Leo’s toes in the morning to get him up and had a penchant for making things out of cardboard. Karl’s book collection was eclectic: a History of Voyages, Manuring Cabbages in Kitchen Gardens, a History of the Seven Years’ War, and a Course of Hydrostatics. Torn maps hung on the little schoolroom wall along with a blackboard and a stove. Karl was not a tyrannical pedagogue; he was kind and fond of his pupils, and sympathetic to their learning idiosyncracies, which included yelling, running around and occasional practical jokes.
Another intermittent occupant of the house was Grisha, a semi-moronic peasant who loaded himself with chains and spent his nights in the attic moaning to himself. When Leo was ten, he and his brother Woloda traveled to Moscow with their father to stay with their grandmother and to become a bit more civilized. But before they left the family went on a picnic. The weather was hot, the butterflies fluttered about, birds celebrated life, the local river proffered fish and swimming, and there was a sort of hunt. Leo was told to catch a rabbit but he became distracted with a colony of ants and some butterflies. When the two carriages left the next day, crowds of serfs saw them off together with the mother in tears and various housemaids and servants waving pieces of white linen.
Arriving at grandmother’s house, there were more servants to sort them out and visitors came frequently to entertain the two boys while their father went out to earn money. He was a professional gambler. Being short, stout and rather ugly, Leo had some unfortunate social experiences which left him disconsolate and eremitic. Once he forgot his gloves and had to wear an old dirty one at a dance; this appeared to be a traumatic experience for him. In the interim, Leo’s mother died and they returned to Petrovskoe.
Tolstoy considered that the second part of his history, Boyhood, began with his mother’s death. After a period of mourning the family returned to grandmother’s house in Moscow, leaving the country place in the hands of servants. A new tutor was hired, Monsieur St. Jerome, a young person with ambitions. The immediate friction between St. Jerome and Leo resulted from the somewhat corporeal habit of the former’s teaching philosophy. Leo became unmanageable, breaking glasses and mirrors and spending a lot of time hiding in closets. He became aware of mathematics and much preferred that subject to history, which he tried to ignore. By the age of fourteen, though, Leo, through observing servants, became cognizant of love, gradually achieved some scholastic kudos and actually became friends with St. Jerome. During this period he learned the importance of social behavior and grew to be picky about his habiliments and his comportment in social venues.
His search for “moral improvement” came to occupy much of his time and interest. He developed a few generalizations about behavior: that the past could be eliminated by turning over a new leaf and that superior, upperclass demeanor was imperative if he desired the admiration of others. He wrote a list of Rules for himself regarding his connection with the outside world and attempted to associate with the noble elements of society only. This included some of his elder brother’s friends who drank a lot and conducted themselves in cynical fashion and never seemed to study. Throughout this interval (which Leo labeled his “Youth” autobiographical segment) he became anxious over his upcoming university entrance exams and began studying more intensively. As a result, he passed the exams in history, math and Latin and was admitted. His father gave him money a carriage of his own, horses, and a uniform (he needed one to attend classes).
Leo didn’t study. He made friends, visited other members of the nobility, went to a lot of parties, debated philosophy and politics with various sorts of advocate, and spent money. As a result when the finals arrived an academic year later, he was “plucked” (British slang for flunking out). It was only at this juncture that Leo began to suspect that there was more to life than behaving cynically, attending parties, and dressing well. He writes a new set of “Rules” and at this point the book ends.
This was rather an eye-opener for me. I’d never thought of Tolstoy as a real person with faults and characteristics, but just as a sort of mystical guru living in the countryside and writing novels. But he was quite different than that. He was one of those people who are terrific observers, and he possessed the mathematical ability to arrange what what he perceived in logical order: probably one of the traits that made him a world-class author. Nevertheless he lacked a certain kind of perception: the kind that might have enabled him to see beneath the surface of the upperclass society that he lived in. I think he might have developed it later, but there’s no more autobiography to read, so the question remains unanswered. The prose in this work is occasionally remarkable: unlike the best Nature writers, he hadn’t the gift of reeling out pages of lucid and dramatic description, but he had the ability, in just a few sentences, to make a vista, a rainstorm, a sunlit meadow, explode into the reader’s brainpan. It was quite surprising when it happened and the made the book scintillate briefly, like a bursting coal in the late ashes of a wood fire. I enjoyed it.