Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Tolstoy's truest prayer was the manuscript of Hadji Murad"

One of my tiny goals in writing this blog is to make it one of the first places people land following searches for information about Tolstoy's last fiction, the posthumously published novella Hadji Murat (1912). I've raved about the book before: though one of the least well-known of Tolstoy's works, it's the perfect introduction to his genius, offering in a mere hundred-plus pages glimpses of both his unmatched eye for telling detail and the seemingly endless wells of sympathy that underlie his characterizations. At the same time, when set next to his early novel The Cossacks, which is set in the same region, Hadji Murat serves as a clear demonstration of the growth of his skill and perception. Despite the fact that the The Cossacks was based largely on Tolstoy's own experiences as a young man, while Hadji Murat was created through research, it is the earlier novel that at times feels imagined or constructed, while the later novel never feels less than fully lived.

In Tolstoy and the Novel (1966), John Bayley writes that "some portraits in the story are as life-giving and complete as those in War and Peace," while Viktor Shklovsky, in Energy of Delusion (1981), not only makes the grand claim of this post's headline, but also writes, "Among his great works, Tolstoy has one that's the best. It's Hadji Murad." The tale's place at the end of Tolstoy's ouevre is given a further poignancy by the fact that even as he wrote it, Tolstoy was actively denying to himself that literature had value. As A. N. Wilson explains in Tolstoy: A Biography (1988)
While he was writing it between 1896 and 1904, so little did its subject matter accord with mainstream Tolstoyan pacifism that he felt obliged to work on it "on the quiet" and, by the time he had completed the Shakespeare essay and persuaded himself that literature was evil or a waste of time, Hadji Murat was laid aside.
Wilson explains that though Tolstoy denigrated his achievement, his wife, even as their long-running marital wars were reaching fever pitch, treasured the book, writing in her diary,
I have done nothing but copy out Hadji Murat. It's so good! I simply couldn't tear myself away from it.
What brings me back to Hadji Murat today is a letter I came across in the second volume of R. F. Christian's two-volume collection of Tolstoy's letters. Written from Yasnaya Polyana in January of 1903 to Anna Avessalomovna Korganova, the widow of the army officer who had guarded Hadji Murat after he had crossed over to the Russian side in the perpetual war in the Caucasus, it reveals Tolstoy even at that late date searching for specific details to give his portrait of the charismatic rebel leader the force of reality.
Dear Anna Avessalomovna,

Your son, Ivan Iosifovich, having learned that I am writing about Hadji Murat, was kind enough to tell me many details about him and, moreover, permitted me to turn to you with a request for more detailed information about the naib Shamil who lived with you at Nukha. Although Ivan Iosifovich's information is very interesting, many things might have been unknown to him or wrongly understood by him, since he was only a ten-year-old boy at the time. I am venturing therefore to turn to you, Anna Avessolomovna, with the request to answer certain questions of mine and to tell me all you remember about this man and about his escape and tragic end.

Any detail about his life during his stay with you, his appearance and his relations with your family and other people, any apparently insignificant detail which has stuck in your memory, will be very interesting and valuable to me.

My questions are as follows:

1. Did he speak even a little Russian?
2. Whose were the horses on which he tried to escape--his own, or ones given to him? And were they good horses, and what colour were they?
3. Did he limp noticeably?
4. Did the house where you lived upstairs, and he downstairs, have a garden?
5. Was he strict in observing Mohammedan rituals, the five daily prayers etc.

Forgive me, Anna Avessalomovna, for troubling you with such trifles, and accept my sincere gratitude for everything you do to carry out my request.

I remain, with the utmost respect, at your service,
Lev Tolstoy

P.S. Another question (6) What were the murids like who were with Hadji Murat and escaped with him, and how did they differ from him?

And yet another question (7) Did they have rifles on them when they escaped?
It's the hurried questions in the postscript that really bring Tolstoy to life in this letter; like a good friend lingering at a dinner party because there's still so much more to talk about, he can't help but want to know more, more, more. I love question six in particular, the way its request for what are essentially brief character studies rests on an implicit confidence that the discernment and descriptive powers of a master novelist--what Shklovsky calls "Tolstoy's strength and ability to construct the temple of the human soul"--are available to any stranger to call on when asked.

The letter seems to support what Shklovsky, in his typically fervid fashion, notes about Tolstoy's work on this novel in his last years:
[E]ven when he was sick and close to death, Tolstoy was still doing research for this novel. He demanded books, checking the details in them. . . . When Tolstoy finished Hadji Murad, he lifted himself up on the arms of his chair and said: that's how it should be, yes, that's how it should be.

And there he was, a mountaineer, heading straight toward the bullets.

He was singing a song.
As I've urged before: read Hadji Murat. You won't regret it.


  1. George Marques (Brazil)8:48 AM

    "Hadji Murad" is a truly masterpiece that still deserves much wider recognition. For one, I find "Hadji" more interesting and far superior to "The Death of Ivan Illitch", which is much better known.

    I found it very interesting that Tolstoy was so obssessed with research, to check facts and details, in order to build this novel (or I should say novella?). One of the true marks of a genius writer is how able he is to absorb facts, select and transform them, to use them as building blocks for fiction, make the story envolve and gather life on its own, regardeless of the historic events in which it is based. I feel "Hadji Murad" is one of these works of pure genius, that convey with power the idea of how man live, fight, feel and die. One has the feeling of truly living the lives of others.

    Sorry for any (or many) incoherencies and erros in my text. It has been a long while since I last wrote in English, which is not my first language. I hope that in the near future, through reading and contributing in this blog, my language skills should improve and become less rusty.

    Best regards.

  2. No need to apologize for your English, George; it's quite clear.

    I, too, love the obsession with detail that Tolstoy's letters about this brief novel reveal: he wanted to know everything, absolutely everything.