While Leo Tolstoy was writing the greatest novel of all time, Anna Karenina (1877) he was passing through a period of personal religious crisis that led him to renounce the artistic impulse that led to that novel and to War and Peace and so on as worthless. As he writes in Confession (1884):
In spite of the fact that during these fifteen years I regarded writing as a trivial endeavor, I continued to write. I had already tasted the temptations of authorship, the temptations of enormous monetary rewards and applause for worthless work, and I gave myself up to it as a means of improving my material situation and as a way of stifling any questions in my soul concerning the meaning of my life and of life in general. (Ch. 3, pp. 25-6, tr. David Patterson)
At some point, the crisis overtakes his life:
It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease. At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering. The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death. (p. 26)
I would not say that Confession is essential reading for a student of Tolstoy’s fiction. It is obviously central for the Tolstoyan, like a religious text. Much of it covers the basic issues of a loss of faith – is there a god, why do we die, does the Church have the answers? Tolstoy works his way to the kinds of answers these questions lead to. Rhetorically, Tolstoy’s book is superb, but people have been working on these questions for a long time. Does life have any meaning? Confession is a deeply Ecclesiastian book. Is all vanity?
Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing to me I would say to myself, “Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world – so what?”
And I could find absolutely no reply. (p. 27)
As the previous passage, the metaphor about terminal illness, suggests, Confession casts a lot of light on the literature Tolstoy wrote soon afterwards. Just naming what I have read: “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), in embryo in those lines, the nightmarish play The Power of Darkness (1886), and the two problematic novellas about the torments of the male sex drive, “The Devil” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” (both 1889).
The latter two are recognizably Tolstoy, although he has simplified his language and despite throwing every distancing device he has at them – frames, unreliable narrators – they are unappealingly didactic and unpleasant, to me, at least. The play is beyond belief, bonkers. “Ivan Ilych” is an astounding masterpiece. All the product of the same shift in aesthetic ideas.