Andrei Navrozov’s dispatches from Europe are always interesting and well written, but in “Love and Fiction” (European Diary, May), he makes a comment that could use clarification. According to Navrozov, Leo Tolstoy is not a writer like Orwell and Dostoyevsky, who drew upon personal experience to invest their work with vividness and verisimilitude. Orwell had been poor; Dostoyevsky had been a compulsive gambler; and, hence, both were in a position to write about those respective conditions. “But what did Tolstoy know besides being Tolstoy? What did he know of soldiering?”
Actually, quite a bit. Count Tolstoy was in Chechnya from 1851 to 1854 during the Russian army’s incursion there, which was every bit as disastrous as more recent ventures in the very same region. In 1852, Tolstoy joined the Russian army and served alongside his brother Nicholai in raids against the strongholds of Muslim insurgents resisting control by Moscow. The Chechens are not bitter about Tolstoy’s activities; on the contrary, a museum in Chechnya honors Tolstoy to this very day as someone who put his life on the line to understand Chechnya and to see at first hand the horrors of war unleashed by Moscow. No armchair soldier, Tolstoy later saw service in the Crimea. He wrote a number of acclaimed stories based on his wartime experiences.
I am surprised that Navrozov does not seem to care for Tolstoy. Besides rendering war vividly, with the help of his own experiences, one thing that Tolstoy’s writing (particularly Anna Karenina) captures is the eternal conflict in the Russian character and society between the rigid, authoritarian strain, and the impulsive, romantic streak that could motivate someone to play roulette or to elope with a Venetian baker’s daughter. Navrozov knows something about that conflict.
Brooklyn, New York
Mr. Navrozov Replies:
“I could not start on the plates yet, because the water was cold,” wrote Orwell, “and I had to fetch milk and make coffee, for the others arrived at eight and expected to find coffee ready. Also, there were always several copper saucepans to clean. Those copper saucepans are the bane of a plongeur’s life. They have to be scoured with sand and bunches of chain, ten minutes to each one, and then polished on the outside with Brasso.”
As the son of an English gentleman, and as an Etonian, the author of these lines belonged to a social stratum not very different from Tolstoy’s a generation or two earlier; yet I dare say there was nothing in the Russian writer’s life experiences to match the Englishman’s headlong plunge into the dishwater of reality. Curiously, in such stories as “Father Sergius,” Tolstoy understands that; he knows he is a toff, and whether a toff goes to war or takes the vows, his experience of the ultimate is filtered, softened, polarized. By contrast—like Tolstoy’s fictional Father Sergius—Orwell was able to plumb the lowest depths as one who belonged there. Interestingly, his account of the Spanish War in Catalonia is so real that it makes war less dramatic or frightening than the unforgettable kitchen that “measured fifteen feet long by eight broad.”
I thank Mr. Washburn for his kind view of my writing. It is significant, however, that, having spent some great portion of my life in the enchanted purlieus of comfort, I have now broken free and, unlike Tolstoy until the very day of his death, have done all I could to dismantle the filters and the screens that work—in theaters of war as in those of love—to soften the effect of brute reality upon the most perceptive or inquisitive of minds. It is not that I dislike Tolstoy; it is that his life and work are painful reminders of the commonplace truth that there is no substitute for experience. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, like his war stories, may be a good show. But I can no longer afford the ticket, and besides, what I really want most these days is the fire marshal’s view of it all.