Have I played the What If He Had Died game before at Wuthering Expectations? Not once, in all these years, I believe. It is just another way of thinking about the reputation of an artist. Maybe I should make it less morbid – if the artist had given up his art, if he had entered a monastery before writing whichever gigantic masterpiece casts shade on his other works.
I am rambling towards The Cossacks (1863), the short novel that would have been Leo Tolstoy’s best book if it had been his last. After its publication he spent the next six years writing War and Peace (1865/1869); Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych and many more significant works would follow. Tolstoy would be seen as an innovative writer about war and the life of Russian officers, a theme he pursued from his first published short story (“The Raid,” 1853) through the rest of his career, on to the end of his life, actually, and the sublime Hadji Murad (written 1904 or so). The emphasis on war would have been even more pronounced, though, if The Cossacks were the end of the bibliography – a mix of stories, The Sevastopol Sketches, and this. Hemingway still could have picked up his strong Tolstoy influence, assuming Constance Garnett still translated The Cossacks for him.*
So now The Cossacks looks like a dry run for the later books. Here is the combination of cold description and hot interiority that marks his later war writing; there is a young man tormented by a search for meaning and happiness, Anna Karenina’s Levin in embryo (or, really, in a late adolescence).
The book is now a little hard to read on its own, now, is what I am saying. I have been corrupted by knowledge.
Young Olenin, at risk of gambling away his estate in decadent Moscow, joins the cavalry in search of adventure and purpose. He is stationed in the Caucasus, living amongst the Cossacks; he spends his time hunting, going on punitive raids against the Chechens, and mooning after his landlady’s spectacular daughter, Maryanka. She has been promised, more or less, to the dashing, heroic Lukashka, which gives us a love triangle and a story; I have made the book sound a bit soapy, which is a violation of its tone which is ironic rather than melodramatic:
'But what desires can always be satisfied despite external circumstances? What are they? Love, self-sacrifice.' He was so glad and excited when he had discovered this, as it seemed to him, new truth, that he jumped up and began impatiently seeking some one to sacrifice himself for, to do good to and to love. 'Since one wants nothing for oneself,' he kept thinking, 'why not live for others?'. (XX)
Olenin has this revelation of selfless purposefulness while lost in the woods, alone, so his impatience to do good is amusingly pointless. And when he finally does make a sacrifice a bit later, giving a horse to Lukashka , the results are misunderstood (“Had he been drunk one might understand it!” Lukashka thinks) and eventually destructive.
Another day or two with The Cossacks, I guess. The translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
* Or perhaps Tolstoy’s first book, the pseudo-memoir Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7) would be best known. It is awfully good, too.