Tolstoy Knows, ii


Zinaida Serebriakova, At the Dressing-table

For Valentine’s Day, another chapter from Anna Karenina. Levin’s in the same place we left him, floundering around with plans and projects to keep his mind off Kitty. But, as one might guess, the songs of peasants, buying land, and the promise of new resolutions can only take a man so far:

The cart was roped. Ivan jumped down and led the good, well-fed horse by the bridle. His wife threw her rake on top of the cart and with a vigorous step, swinging her arms, went to join the other women who had gathered in a ring. Ivan, having come out on the road, took his place in the line of loaded carts. The women, carrying their rakes over their shoulders, bright in their vivid colors, walked behind the carts, their gay voices ringing merrily. One of the women started a song in a harsh, gruff voice and sang it as far as the refrain, when half a hundred powerful voices, some gruff, others shrill, took it up from the beginning again.

The singing women were approaching Levin, and he felt as if a thundercloud of merriment were bearing down upon him. The cloud bore down, enveloped him and the haycock on which he sat; and the other haycocks, the carts, and the whole of the meadow with the faraway fields all seemed to sway and vibrate to the rhythm of that wild, exhilarating, merry song with its loud shrieks, whistling, and whoops of joy. Levin was envious of this healthy merrymaking and he felt like taking part in that expression of gladness in life. But he could do nothing but lie and look and listen. When the peasants with their songs vanished out of sight and hearing, a heavy feeling of despondency at his loneliness, his physical idleness, and his hostility to this world came over Levin.

Some of those very peasants who had most disputed with him over the hay, those whom he had wronged, and those who had wanted to deceive him, those very peasants had bowed cheerfully to him, quite obviously not bearing, and indeed unable to bear, any grudge against him, or any remorse, or any recollection even of having intended to cheat him. All that had been dissolved in the sea of joyous common toil. The Lord had given them the day and the Lord had given them the strength. And the day and the strength had been dedicated to labor, and the labor was its reward. Who was the labor for? What would be its fruits? These were irrelevant and idle questions.

Levin had often admired this kind of life, had often envied the people who lived this kind of life, but today, especially under the impression of what he had seen of the relations between Ivan Parmenov and his young wife, the idea occurred to him clearly for the first time that it depended on himself alone whether or not to change his wearisome, idle, and artificial personal life for that hard-working, pure, and delightful life.

The old man who had been sitting beside him had gone home long ago; the peasants had all dispersed. Those who lived near had gone home, and those who lived a long way off gathered for supper in the meadow where they were to spend the night. Levin, unnoticed by the peasants, remained lying on the haycock, looking on, listening and thinking. The people who had stayed in the meadow kept awake almost all the short summer night. At first there was the sound of general merry chatter and laughter over supper, then again songs and more laughter.

The whole long day of hard work had left on them no trace of anything but merriment. Before dawn everything became quiet. All one could hear were the incessant nocturnal sounds of the croaking of frogs in the marsh and the snorting of horses in the meadow when the mist began to rise before the morning. Waking up, Levin rose from the haycock, and looking up at the stars, realized that the night was over.

“Well, so what am I going to do? How am I going to do it?” he said to himself, trying to put into words all he had been thinking and feeling in that short night. All that he had been thinking and feeling could be separated into three different trains of thought. The first was the renunciation of his old life, of the useless knowledge he had acquired, and of his utterly futile education. This renunciation was a source of pleasure to him and was easy and simple. Then there were the ideas and thoughts concerning the life he wished to live now. He was fully conscious of the simplicity, purity, and integrity of this life and he was convinced that in it he would find satisfaction, peace, and dignity, the absence of which he felt so painfully. But the third series of thoughts revolved round the question of how to bring about this transition from his old life to the new. And here nothing was clear to him. “Take a wife? Have work and the necessity to work? Leave Pokrovskoye? Buy land? Join a peasant commune? Marry a peasant girl? How am I going to do that?” he asked himself again and again and found no answer. “However, I haven’t slept all night and I can’t get any clear idea of anything,” he said to himself. “I’ll get it all sorted out later. One thing is certain, though: this night has decided my fate. All my old dreams of married life were nonsense, not the real thing,” he said to himself. “Everything is much simpler and better. . . .”

“How beautiful!” he thought, looking up at the curious mother-of-pearl shell of white, fleecy clouds which seemed to hang motionless right over his head in the middle of the sky. “How lovely everything is on this lovely night! And when did this shell have time to form? A short while ago I looked at the sky and there was nothing there, only two white strips. Yes, exactly in the same way my views of life have imperceptibly changed!”

He left the meadow and walked along the highroad towards the village. A light wind was rising and everything looked gray and dull. It was the moment of half-light that usually precedes daybreak, the complete victory of light over darkness.

Shivering with cold, Levin walked fast with his eyes fixed on the ground. “What’s that? Somebody’s coming!” he thought, hearing the jingling of harness bells, and he raised his head. Within forty paces of him a four-in-hand with luggage on top was driving toward him along the grassy highroad on which he was walking. The wheel horses were pressing in toward the pole away from the ruts, but the skillful coachman, who was sitting sideways on the box, kept the pole over the ruts so that the wheels ran on the smooth part of the road.

That was all Levin noticed and, without wondering who the travelers might be, he glanced absently at the coach.

In the carriage an elderly woman was dozing in one corner, while at the window sat a young girl, who had evidently only just awakened, holding the ribbons of her white cap in both hands. Bright and thoughtful, full of an exquisite, complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she gazed beyond him at the glow of the sunrise.

At the very moment when the vision was about to disappear, a pair of truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him and a look of amazement and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes in the world like those. There was only one being in the world who was able to concentrate for him the whole world and the meaning of life. It was she. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Yergushovo from the railway station. And everything that had been agitating Levin that sleepless night, all the decisions he had taken—everything vanished in a trice. He recalled with disgust his ideas of marrying a peasant girl. There alone, in the rapidly disappearing carriage that had crossed to the other side of the road, there alone was the only possible solution to the riddle of his life which had been weighing so agonizingly on him of late.

She did not look out again. The sound of the sprung wheels could no longer be heard; the jingling of the bells grew fainter. The barking of dogs told him the carriage had passed through the village, and around him only the empty fields remained, the village ahead of him, and he himself, lonely and a stranger to everything, walking solitary on the deserted highroad.

He looked up at the sky, hoping to find there the shell he had been admiring and which symbolized to him the whole trend of this thoughts and feelings that night. There was nothing resembling that shell in the sky. There in the unfathomable height a mysterious change had already taken place. There was not a trace of the shell to be seen, but half across the sky there spread a smooth carpet of fleecy clouds which were growing tinier and tinier. The sky had turned blue and much brighter and responded to his questioning gaze with the same tenderness, but also with the same remoteness.

“No,” he said to himself, “however good that simple life of toil may be, I cannot return to it. I love her.” (322-325)

Tolstoy Knows


Henry Hillier Parker, Harvest Time

Levin, having proposed to Kitty Scherbatsky and been refused, returns home resigned to live out his days gathering and collecting, still striving after the wind, but striving harder:

In the morning Konstantin Levin left Moscow and towards evening arrived home. On his way back in the train he talked to his fellow passengers about politics and the new railways and, just as in Moscow, he was overcome by the confusion of ideas, dissatisfaction with himself, and a vague sense of shame; but when he got out at this station, recognized his one-eyed coachman Ignat, with the collar of his coat turned up; when in the dim light from the station windows he caught sight of his upholstered sled, his horses with their plaited tails, and the harness with its rings and tassels; when the coachman Ignat, while still putting his things into the sledge, told him the village news–the arrival of the contractor and the calving of Pava–he felt that the confusion was gradually clearing up, and his self-dissatisfaction and shame were passing off. He felt this at the mere sight of Ignat and the horses; but when he had put on the sheepskin coat Ignat had brought for him, and, well wrapped up, had sat down in the sledge and was driven away, thinking about the new orders he would have to give and now and again glancing at the side horse (a Don saddle horse once, but overstrained, though still a spirited animal), he began to see everything that had happened to him in quite a different light. He felt that he was himself again and he did not wish to be anyone else. All he wanted now was to be better than he had been before. To begin with, he decided that from that day on he would stop looking for any extraordinary happiness such as marriage was to have given him, and that consequently he would no longer think little of what he possessed at present. He would furthermore never again allow himself to be carried away by low passion, the memory of which had so tormented him when he was making up his mind to propose. Then, remembering his brother Nikolai, he made up his mind never to allow himself to forget him, never to let him out of his sight, and to be ready to help him when things should go badly with him. And that would be soon, he felt. Besides, his brother’s talk about communism, to which he had paid so little attention at the time, now made him think. He considered a complete change of economic conditions nonsense, but he had always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now decided, so as to feel himself absolutely in the right, that though he had always worked hard and lived far from luxuriously, he would now work harder and allow himself still less luxury. And it all seemed to him so easy to carry out that the whole way home he spent in a most pleasant daydream. Feeling greatly uplifted by this hope of a new and better life, he arrived home before nine o’clock in the evening.

A light from the windows of the room of his old nurse Agafya, who now acted as his housekeeper, fell on the snow-covered drive in front of the house. She was not yet asleep. Kuzma, awakened by her, came running out sleepy and barefoot, onto the front steps. Laska, a setter bitch, ran out too, almost throwing Kuzma off his feet, and, whining, rubbed herself against Levin’s knees, jumping up and wishing but not daring to put her forepaws on his chest.

“You’ve come back soon, sir,” said Agafya.

“I was homesick, Agafya,” he replied. “Visiting friends is all right, but there’s no place like home.”

He went into his study, which was gradually lit up by the candle. The familiar objects in the room were revealed: the antlers, the bookshelves, the tiled stove with the ventilator which had long been in need of repair, his father’s sofa, the big table with an open book, a broken ash tray, and a notebook with his writing. When he saw all this, he was for a moment overcome by a feeling of doubt of the possibility of starting the new life he had been dreaming of during his drive home. All these traces of his old life seemed to seize hold of him, saying: “No, you won’t get away from us, and you’re not going to be different; you’re going to be just the same as you’ve always been with your doubts, your everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, your vain attempts at reform, your falling from grace, and the constant expectation of the happiness you have missed and which is not possible for you.”

But this is what the things said to him. Another voice inside him was saying that one must not submit to the past and one can make what one likes of oneself. And obeying this voice, he went to the corner where his two eighty-pound dumbbells lay and started exercising with them, raising and lowering them, trying to put heart into himself. (Anna Karenina, 110-112)

God’s gift of “wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26) is a gift still six or seven hundred pages away for Levin. Instead, for now, he has his dumbbells.