Joy and Russian Novels

Nikolai Rostov  has gotten himself deeply into debt from gambling in a stupid fashion, and has to go ask his father for help. While he’s waiting for his father’s return his sister and friend are singing, and inadvertently he joins them in harmony:

Oh, how that third had vibrated, and how touched was something that was best in Rostov’s soul. And that something was independent of anything in the world and higher than anything in the world. What are gambling losses, and Dolokhovs, and words of honor!… It’s all nonsense! One can kill, and steal, and still be happy… (War and Peace p 343)

Of course, Nikolai couldn’t actually be happy if he were to kill and steal, and if he were being reasonable he would admit that to be the case, but that’s immaterial to what he’s feeling.

I haven’t read very many Russian stories, just some Dostoyevsky, a couple of Chekhov short stories, and now War and Peace, but there’s a quality that has been present in every one of them that is more or less absent from all the English novels I’ve read, of which there are many. It’s a kind of spontaneous elation only tangentially related to what’s otherwise going on either externally or mentally. At the end of Chekhov’s very short story The Student, the protagonist, a seminary student who has been considering the chill, his hunger (it’s Good Friday), the poverty of his village, Peter’s betrayal, and has just made an old woman cry, has a little epiphany:

Now the student was thinking about Vasilisa: since she had shed tears all that had happened to Peter the night before the Crucifixion must have some relation to her. . . .

He looked round. The solitary light was still gleaming in the darkness and no figures could be seen near it now. The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present–to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul.

And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.

When he crossed the river by the ferryboat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigor–he was only twenty-two–and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.

In most of the situations like this I’ve encountered in Russian literature, the reason for an upwelling of joy and love is just a pretext: they’re young, strong, there are sticky green leaves on the trees in Spring; the sky is so lofty, still and beautiful; there’s golden sunlight reflecting off the water, somebody is dancing… in a word, the character has had an experience of Beauty, or gotten swept out of himself. Bullets whiz past, the troops charge, and Andrei is very happy. Alyosha leaves the body of the beloved elder Zosima and kisses the ground in rapture. Natasha is in love with everybody and everything at her first ball. It’s not even causally related to what follows: Nikolai behaves like a wretch before his father, Andrei becomes depressed and nihilistic for a time, perhaps the student goes home and moans about the cold to his parents. That’s more or less inconsequential: now there’s this memory of joy in the person’s soul, proving to him that life isn’t all what it seems, and perhaps it will come back later and confirm that perhaps life is worth it after all. Tolstoy is very good at working in these moments, and seems uniquely unconcerned with making any kind of neat lesson out of them. One’s soul touches the divine: what now? nothing in particular, just keep living and remember and sometimes look at the sky and ponder its beauty, but everything is a little different now, only one doesn’t know exactly how.


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