When most think of Tolstoy, they think of the great author. War and Peace and Anna Karenina brought him worldwide fame and a good deal of money. Had he done nothing else in life, these two novels would have ensured him status and respect. Few others had written both a national epic and a great love story; and some might have been content with that.
For his last 30 years, however, Tolstoy walked a different track. After his spiritual crisis, when he was 50, he exchanged his author’s clothes for those of a prophet – a prophet who was to have a great influence on Gandhi, amongst others. Through his prolific writing, he now became the scourge of the rich, the Church and the government. Neither did he miss an opportunity to denounce both science and art. Darwin? Dostoyevsky? Shakespeare? No one was to be left standing.
In Conversations with Leo Tolstoy, Simon Parke grants us the honour of sitting with the great man, towards the end of his life, and gives us the chance to chat with him. The conversation is imagined, but not Tolstoy’s answers. This is Tolstoy is his own words, drawn from his extensive books, essays and letters. Vegetarianism, marriage, non-violence, the military, death, God and sex are all on the agenda.
‘I want people to come away feeling they know Tolstoy,’ says Simon Parke, who was keen to use only Tolstoy’s authentic words. ‘They will be become aware of his opinions certainly, for he was forthright in those. He had an opinion on everything! But I hope also that people leave with a sense of the man beneath the opinions. I don’t always agree with him; but it is hard not to admire him. He was far from perfect, but as he says: just because he walks the road like a drunk, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong road.’
About the author
Simon Parke was a priest in the Church of England for 20 years and is now a freelance writer. His most recent books are The One-Minute Mystic, Shelf Life, and The Enneagram: A Private Session with the World’s Greatest Psychologist. He is also the author of The Beautiful Life. Simon runs, leads retreats, meets with people looking for a new way in their life, and follows the beautiful game.
The self-indulgent rich
Count Leo Tolstoy was a privileged man in two ways. Not only was he born into a well-known family of Russian nobility, connected to the grandest Russian aristocracy. He had also made a personal fortune from his writing.
Yet despite his own privileged setting, he is scathing against the rich, and I wish to ask him about this. His rage against privilege echoes with his rage at himself. I wonder if it is a form of self-purgation.
SP: You are rich. But you do not like the rich.
LT: A man accustomed to the life of our well-to-do classes cannot lead a righteous life without first coming out of those conditions of evil in which he is immersed; he cannot begin to do good until he has ceased to do evil. It is impossible for a man living in luxury to lead a righteous life.
SP: But the wealthy know of the inequality?
LT: These people know that the distribution of pleasures among men is unequal, and regard this inequality as an evil, and wish to correct it, yes. Yet they do not cease to strive to augment their own pleasures; that is, to augment inequality in the distribution of pleasures.
SP: They want change as long as it doesn’t involve them?
LT: These people are like men who being the first to enter an orchard hasten to gather all the fruit they can lay their hands on; and yet also wish to organize a more equal distribution of the fruit of the orchard between themselves and later comers - while they continue to pluck all the fruit they can reach! A self-indulgent man who sleeps long upon a soft bed; eats and drinks abundance of fat, sweet food; who is always dressed cleanly and suitably to the temperature; and who has never accustomed himself to the effort of laborious work, can in fact do very little.
SP: For those of us who don’t know, you must tell us about the life of the rich.
LT: A person, man or woman, sleeps on a spring bed with two mattresses, and two smooth, clean sheets, and feather pillows in pillow cases. By the bedside is a rug, so that their feet don’t get cold on stepping out of bed; though slippers also lie near. Here also are the necessary utensils, so that he need not leave the house; whatever uncleanliness he may produce will be carried away, and all made tidy. The windows are covered with curtains that the daylight may not awaken him, and he sleeps as long as he is inclined. Besides all this, measures are taken that the room may be warm in winter and cool in summer; and that he may not be disturbed by the noise of flies or other insects, while he sleeps; water, hot and cold, for his ablutions - and sometimes baths and preparations for shaving - are provided. Tea and coffee are also prepared, stimulating drinks to be taken immediately upon rising. Boots, shoes, galoshes—several pairs dirtied the previous day—are already being cleaned and made to shine like glass, freed from every speck of dust. Similarly are cleaned various garments, soiled on the preceding day, differing in texture to suit not only summer and winter, but also spring, autumn, rainy, damp and warm weather. Clean linen - washed, starched, and ironed - is being made ready with studs, shirt buttons, and buttonholes, all carefully inspected by specially appointed people.
SP: So what time do they get up in the morning?
LT: If the person be active, he rises early— at seven o’clock— i.e., still a couple of hours later than those who are making all these preparations for him. Besides clothes for the day and covering for the night, there is also costume and foot-gear for the time of dressing —dressing-gown and slippers; and now he undertakes his washing, cleaning and brushing, for which several kinds of brushes are used, as well as soap and a great quantity of water. Many English men and women, for some reason or other, are specially proud of using a great deal of soap and pouring a large quantity of water over themselves.
SP: The rush to be cleaner-than-thou.
LT: Then he dresses, brushes his hair before a special kind of looking-glass - different from those that hang in almost every room in the house - takes the things he needs, such as spectacles or eyeglasses, and then distributes in different pockets a clean pocket-handkerchief to blow his nose on; a watch with a chain, though in almost every room he goes to there will be a clock; money of various kinds, small change (often in a specially contrived case which saves him the trouble of looking for the required coin) and bank-notes. He also takes visiting cards on which his name is printed, saving him the trouble of saying or writing it; oh, and pocket-book and pencil. In the case of women, the toilet is still more complicated: corsets, arranging of long hair, adornments, laces, elastics, ribbons, ties, hairpins, pins and brooches.
SP: Yes, I can see it all takes a while.
LT: But at last all is complete and the day commences, generally with eating: tea and coffee are drunk with a great quantity of sugar; bread made of the finest white flour is eaten with large quantities of butter, and sometimes the flesh of pigs. The men, for the most part, smoke cigars or cigarettes, and read fresh papers, which have just been brought. Then, leaving to others the task of setting right the soiled and disordered room, they go to their office or business; or perhaps drive in carriages produced specially to move such people about. Then comes a luncheon of slain beasts, birds and fish, followed by a dinner consisting, if it be very modest, of three courses, dessert and coffee. After this, they play at cards and play music— or the theatre, reading and conversation in soft spring armchairs, by the intensified and shaded light of candles, gas or electricity. After this, more tea, more eating—supper—and then to bed – a bed shaken up and prepared with clean linen; and with washed utensils to be made foul again soon.
Thus pass the days of a man of modest life, of whom, if he is good-natured and does not possess any habits specially obnoxious to those about him, it is said that he leads a good and virtuous life!
SP: I’m sure you could write a wicked story about all this.
LT: I have long wished to write a fairy-tale of this kind : A woman, wishing to revenge herself on one who has injured her, carries off her enemy’s child, and, going to a sorcerer, asks him to teach her how she can most cruelly wreak her vengeance on the stolen infant, the only child of her enemy. The sorcerer bids her carry the child to a place he indicates, and assures her that a most terrible vengeance will result. The wicked woman follows his advice; but, keeping an eye upon the child, is astonished to see that it is found and adopted by a wealthy, childless man. She goes to the sorcerer and reproaches him, but he bids her wait. The child grows up in luxury and effeminacy. The woman is perplexed, but again the sorcerer bids her wait. And at length, the time comes when the wicked woman is not only satisfied, but has even to pity her victim. He grows up in the effeminacy and dissoluteness of wealth; and owing to his good nature is ruined. Then begins a sequence of physical sufferings, poverty, and humiliation, to which he is especially sensitive and against which he knows not how to contend. I can see it all. The weakness of his effeminate body accustomed to luxury and idleness; vain struggles; lower and still lower decline; drunkenness to drown thought, and then finally crime and insanity - or suicide.
SP: There’s nothing like a happy ending; and this is nothing like a happy ending!
LT: I cannot but repeat this same thing again and again, notwithstanding the cold and hostile silence with which my words are received.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published January 2010
Size: 5 x 8"