Leo Tolstoy I think of as almost beyond influence, and the older Tolstoy would seem particularly settled in style, yet reading his novellas of the 1890s, “Master and Man” (1895) and “Father Sergius” (finished 1898, published 1911) I saw traces of Anton Chekhov. The first could almost have been by Chekhov; the second is unmistakably Tolstoy but takes a Chekhov-like turn in its last episode, as if the title character must journey through a Chekhov story to reach his goal. Maybe this is all an illusion, caused by the lingering flavor of Chekhov. Tolstoy has a strong taste, too, though, right?
“Father Sergius” is the most bearable of a kind of lust trilogy, along with ethically dubious “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “The Devil” (both 1889). In this case, the title character is a monk, a vowed celibate, so his struggles with lust are an ordinary part of his vocation, less important, usually, than – a part of – his struggles with pride. He enters the convent in large part out of pride; he becomes a hermit out of pride; he becomes a miracle worker, healing the sick, which leads to more pride. His constant lunges at humility control his pride, but are also perhaps sources of pride.
The most memorable scene is one of Father Sergius’s struggle with lust. A rich woman tries, on a dare, basically, to seduce the monk, and in his struggles with lust he – if this story were really written alongside “The Kreutzer Sonata” he would murder her – he does something similarly shocking, but only to himself. As for the shocked woman, “[a] year later she entered a convent as a novice” (Ch. III).
In a later moment of suicidal despair, Sergius for some reason remembers a girl he knew and bullied as a child, Pashenka. As an act of contrition he makes a pilgrimage to visit her, an ordinary woman. “She presented herself to him as a means of salvation” (Ch. V). How a poor grandma who gives music lessons to get by can save him is a puzzle, but he cuts his hair and tramps “as a beggar” to her home, confesses his sins, and then – well, it is still a puzzle.
This is the Chekhovian section, Chapter VI. “Unkindly relations between people caused her actual physical suffering.” But she is no saint:
“Mamma!” – her daughter’s voice interrupted her – “Take Mitya! I can’t be in two places at once.”
Praskovya Mikhaylovna shuddered, but rose and went out of the room, stepping quickly in her patched shoes. She soon came back with a boy of two in her arms, who threw himself backwards and grabbed at her shawl with his little hands.
“Shuddered” is a tough, fine touch. Grandma can’t have one minute alone with the holy man. It is not exactly that this episode sounds like Chekhov, but rather that I can imagine the story from the family’s point of view – the day the famous monk dropped by – that would be the Chekhov story.
The monk’s story is that he is somehow converted to ordinary life. “’I lived for men on the pretext of living for God, while she lives for God imagining that she lives for men.’” It is hardly clear that this is true, but it sets Sergius on a new path. “And little by little God began to reveal Himself within him.” I suppose this gets him where he wants to go.
The quotations are from the Maude translation, in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.