Thursday, 13 July 2000

Leo Tolstoy: A Confession (1865)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 536

In contrast to Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, with which it is packaged in this Everyman edition, A Confession is a work of non-fictional autobiography. It followed Tolstoy's greatest work, rather than preceding it as Notes From Underground did that of the older writer. There are similarities, in that both authors use these short pieces of writing to set out something of their views on life, and as these philosophical ideas are vitally part of their great novels, the works bear similar roles in the authors' output as a whole.

The subject of A Confession - not a title Tolstoy liked, but imposed by publishers because of similarities to Rousseau's Confessions - is the move of the writer away from the religious certainties of his Orthodox childhood. This started with an excited discussion between Lev and his brothers after one of them had been told that there was no God. The line of thought taken by Tolstoy from that date parallels that of the writer of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which is quoted at length. Basically, Ecclesiastes looks at the world from a purely materialistic point of view, and comes to the conclusion that it is meaningless; only God, the writer feels, can make sense of life. Tolstoy does not take the same final step, being put off by the vast differences between the professed values and the actions of those who called themselves believers in the nineteenth century Russia upper classes. He tried to copy the simple faith of the peasantry, by just glossing over the parts of Orthodox ritual he didn't 'understand' - the word he uses, though he really means 'identify with' in today's terms. When he realised that this amounted to most of the ritual, he left the church and effectively formulated his own personal religion, trying to follow the moral teachings of the New Testament while jettisoning every other part of Christianity.

Tolstoy's religious writings, of which this is the best known and (I think) the first, were fairly influential in the last years of the nineteenth century. He considered these works his most important and retired from novel writing to concentrate on them, before returning to fiction with Resurrection years later - and even then, the novel was written as a way to publicise his ideas.

Today, the religious work of Tolstoy is relatively obscure, and there are both historical and literary reasons for this. The Russian Revolution brought suspicion in the West on ideas from that country, even if they were not Communist in origin. Thus, Tolstoy ceased to be cited as an influence on atheistic humanism, even as this became one of the dominant philosophies of the twentieth century. From a literary point of view, Tolstoy tends to play to the gallery; in A Confession, the autobiography is smoothed out for public consumption, every action rationalised and justified (in a rhetorical way, the philosophical argument being of a poor standard). In the end, the reader is left wondering whether Tolstoy really believes what he says, and certainly is in doubt as to the way he actually reached these beliefs.

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