Tuesday June 8th, 2010

The Master in Miniature


Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy
Available in various collections of Tolstoy’s shorter works

Most of the time I want to read criticism that is direct, to the point, wasting no effort in limning the essential qualities of a work of art. Edmund Wilson can be like that; V. S. Pritchett, too; and James Wood at his best. But then there are moments (often late at night) when that seems like the wrong approach, as if I’m watching the critic stab the artistic specimen through the thorax, then type the label that will slowly yellow beneath it while the art it describes wriggles hopelessly and dies. To be fair, that feeling is rarely a legitimate response to the critic’s work, but a reflection of the incalculable minor shifts between reader and what’s read, a measure of an exact, momentary state of the relationship of my reader’s soul to my favorite works.

Viktor Shklovsky’s essay on Tolstoy’s last fiction, Hadji Murat, is a work that appeals to late-night uncertainty. It appears in Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot:

Tolstoy was writing Hadji Murat.

As though a continuation of his analysis of The Cossacks.

When the arches of such a writer as Tolstoy finally join, many unused pieces are left strewn on the ground.

And this is just the same as if man was fashioning a horse on the third day of creation, the horse that was created by God, and now being re-created by man; here stands man, and around him on the ground lies what seems like extraneous material, what man, unlike God, wasn’t able to unify the way God would have.

He can only see the uniqueness of God’s creation, which never repeats itself.

Because we don’t have Tolstoy’s strength and ability to construct the temple of the human soul.

(Here’s where my lack of proper academic training trips me up: how much of Shklovsky’s approach is unique to him, and how much is common to Russian Formalism? I worry I’m getting into deep waters here, blithely ignoring big signs that warn, “Danger: Misinterpretation Ahead.”)

Hadji Murat is not my favorite Tolstoy, nor are my contrarian impulses strong enough that I’d consider declaring it his best. (Shklovsky had no such qualms: “Among his great works, Tolstoy has one that’s the best. It’s Hadji Murat.”) But it is nonetheless brilliant, and an investment of mere hours in reading it can provide a refreshing refill of its author’s genius. Despite running to just 120 or so pages, Hadji Murat contains all that is peerless in Tolstoy; it is Tolstoy as bullion cube, each scene packed with the telling details that, for him, comprise the world.

Hadji Murat is based on the career of a real-life Caucasian rebel who, after falling out with his fellow commanders, went over to the Russians. For a few weeks, Hadji Murat is the toast of the Russian army, fascinating the officers and their wives with his military prowess, honesty, and dashing guerilla style. At the same time, the reader can’t help but realize that the alliance is tenuous at best, and factions in the Russian leadership—up to and including Nicholas I, whom Tolstoy portrays with devastating satire—are divided about how best to use him, some suspecting him of being nothing more than a spy. Eventually, the rebels capture Hadji Murat’s family, and he is forced to flee the Russian camp in hopes of gathering men and setting them free.

The book serves, for me, as as an argument in favor of a less direct criticism. Its aims and effects can doubtless be explained, its relationship to the rest of Tolstoy’s oeuvre made clear—and those analyses have their place. But the work is so compact and effective that such criticism can seem superfluous. And so long as the circle of Hadji Murat fans remains small, relative to the ever-growing circle of those who, understandably, are swept away by Anna Karenina, I am inclined instead towards the character of Shklovsky’s approach, which, rather than risk suffocating a book under a critical superstructure, instead builds an amenable, understanding, parallel company of suggestive words.

Shklovsky offers sidelong, elliptical insights that range from the declarative (“Heroes die, or they go mad.”) to the personal and tangential:

Once, when I was young and could easily cross a mountain pass without even noticing it—and the ice arches left from winter are good bridges over the river—during one of my journeys into the far lands I had been talking to a woman and when I was leaving, she said: “Are you leaving? I’m in love with you.”

My guide, a stern man from another Georgian tribe, consoled me: “Forget her and don’t remember her with a sigh. She was being polite to you, she knows she’ll never see you again.”

And then I learned by heart that it’s difficult to drown in the Caucasian river; it’s so powerful that it swirls the stones and creates nests at the bottom. The river breaks you, it doesn’t drown you. It can kill you and fling you out.

There are no mermaids in that river.


When set next to Tolstoy’s early novel The Cossacks, which is set in the same region, Hadji Murat serves as a clear demonstration of the growth of his skill and perception. Despite the fact that The Cossacks was based largely on Tolstoy’s own experiences as a young man, while Hadji Murat was mostly the product of research, it’s the earlier novel that at times feels imagined or constructed, and the later one that feels fully lived.

In Tolstoy and the Novel (1966), John Bayley wrote that “some portraits in the story are as life-giving and complete as those in War and Peace.” The tale’s place at the end of Tolstoy’s oeuvre is given a further poignancy by the fact that even as he wrote it, Tolstoy was actively denying to himself that literature had value. As A. N. Wilson writes in Tolstoy: A Biography (1988):

While he was writing it between 1896 and 1904, so little did its subject matter accord with mainstream Tolstoyan pacifism that he felt obliged to work on it “on the quiet” and, by the time he had completed the Shakespeare essay and persuaded himself that literature was evil or a waste of time, Hadji Murat was laid aside.

Wilson explains that though Tolstoy denigrated his achievement, his wife, even as their long-running marital wars were reaching fever pitch, treasured the book, writing in her diary, “I have done nothing but copy out Hadji Murat. It’s so good! I simply couldn’t tear myself away from it.”


R. F. Christian’s two-volume collection of Tolstoy’s letters includes one written in January of 1903 to Anna Avessalomovna Korganova, the widow of the army officer who had guarded Hadji Murat after he had crossed over to the Russian side in the perpetual war in the Caucasus. It reveals Tolstoy even at that late date searching for specific details to give his portrait of the charismatic rebel leader the force of reality.

Dear Anna Avessalomovna,

Your son, Ivan Iosifovich, having learned that I am writing about Hadji Murat, was kind enough to tell me many details about him and, moreover, permitted me to turn to you with a request for more detailed information about the naib Shamil who lived with you at Nukha. Although Ivan Iosifovich’s information is very interesting, many things might have been unknown to him or wrongly understood by him, since he was only a ten-year-old boy at the time. I am venturing therefore to turn to you, Anna Avessolomovna, with the request to answer certain questions of mine and to tell me all you remember about this man and about his escape and tragic end.

Any detail about his life during his stay with you, his appearance and his relations with your family and other people, any apparently insignificant detail which has stuck in your memory, will be very interesting and valuable to me.

My questions are as follows:

1. Did he speak even a little Russian?

2. Whose were the horses on which he tried to escape—his own, or ones given to him? And were they good horses, and what color were they?

3. Did he limp noticeably?

4. Did the house where you lived upstairs, and he downstairs, have a garden?

5. Was he strict in observing Mohammedan rituals, the five daily prayers etc.?

Forgive me, Anna Avessalomovna, for troubling you with such trifles, and accept my sincere gratitude for everything you do to carry out my request.

I remain, with the utmost respect, at your service,
Lev Tolstoy

P.S. Another question (6) What were the murids like who were with Hadji Murat and escaped with him, and how did they differ from him?

And yet another question (7) Did they have rifles on them when they escaped?

It’s the hurried questions in the postscript that really bring Tolstoy to life in this letter. Like a good friend lingering at a dinner party because there’s still so much to talk about, he can’t help but want to know more, more, more. I love question six in particular, the way its request for what are essentially brief character studies rests on an implicit confidence that the discernment and descriptive powers of a master novelist—that “ability to construct the temple of the human soul”—are available to any stranger to call on when asked.

The letter seems to support what Shklovsky, in his typically fervid fashion, notes about Tolstoy’s work on this novella in his last years:

[E]ven when he was sick and close to death, Tolstoy was still doing research for this novel. He demanded books, checking the details in them. . . . When Tolstoy finished Hadji Murat, he lifted himself up on the arms of his chair and said: that’s how it should be, yes, that’s how it should be.

And there he was, a mountaineer, heading straight toward the bullets.

He was singing a song.

In addition to holding a full-time job at the University of Chicago Press, Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation and a blogger at I’ve Been Reading Lately. He has written for the Poetry Foundation, the Chicago Reader and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. This essay was adapted from posts that previously appeared at I’ve Been Reading Lately.

Mentioned in this review:

Hadji Murat
The Cossacks
Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot
Anna Karenina
Tolstoy and the Novel
Tolstoy: A Biography
Tolstoy’s Letters