The great short works of Tolstoy are in fact great, but they are not, unsurprisingly, short. My edition of almost 700 pages approximates a cube (it will stand up by itself on any of its six faces), and it’s colored a dyspeptic puce as if to warn you in advance of the excess of it, the literary heartburn. The size of the book accurately suggests the titanic, unparalleled power of Tolstoy. In the cover photograph of the great writer working at his desk, his beard is like a cloud of factory smoke swirling around his industrious brain. He is a conqueror. He will prevail as the Russians prevailed over Hitler and Napoleon before him–by sheer size–an oceanic volume of thought, feeling, reality that can overwhelm anything, even Time, Death, or the deficits of translation from Russian to English.
Tolstoy is the great portraitist of all that’s horribly obligatory in life–death and desire are the uncontrollable thunder and lightning that buffet the little human ego in the works of Tolstoy, much as they can in real life. I don’t think there is anything in literature going back to the The Iliad that compares with Tolstoy’s depictions of death and loss. Homer comes in second and it’s not close. Here is the beginning of the first ‘short’ story in the group, “Family Happiness” (which weighs in at a slender 83 pages):
We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Kátya and Sónya. Kátya was an old friend of the family, our governess who had brought us all up, and I had known and loved her since my earliest recollections. Sónya was my younger sister. It was a dark and sad winter which we spent in our old house of Pokróvskoe. The weather was cold and so windy that the snowdrifts came higher than the windows; the panes were almost always dimmed by frost, and we seldom walked or drove anywhere throughout the winter…. The feeling of death clung to the house; the air was still filled with the grief and horror of death. My mother’s room was kept locked; and whenever I passed it on my way to bed, I felt a strange uncomfortable impulse to look into that cold empty room.
As in the work of Robert Frost, the incontrovertible and indifferent will of the universe is plainly reified in a blanketing snow and wind at once inimical to human life and also, in a way, the opposite: an occasion for retreat to the comforting hearth of loved ones. But Tolstoy’s characters are not passive or static in their grief; the main character in the next paragraph of “Family Happiness” frets over wasting another winter “in the solitude of the country.” Desire always comes in the midst of grief to whipsaw the aggrieved from within and without. Tolstoy understands this perfectly and one feels that he–or his books, anyway–are a friend at your hearth who understands and consoles.
Harold Bloom has observed that Hadji Murád, the Chechen warrior in the penultimate story in this collection, in some ways represents a critique of the Shakespearean tragic hero. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes usually bring disaster on their own heads, but Hadji Murád does everything right and he still loses. That is quintessential Tolstoy: it isn’t up to Hadji Murád. It’s up to forces much bigger than him.
Tolstoy hated Shakespeare for reasons that remain obscure to me, but he was so adept at the depiction of desire that he imparts a psyche of Shakespearean complexity and vitality to even the most peripheral characters. Everybody lives on Tolstoy’s pages, even characters present for a line or two, because in that space any character that appears does so with evident desire. He creates so much life with his art, with such efficiency and skill, that you can almost hear the Grim Reaper crying out his surrender under the weight of all those many pages and pages of real human life.