‘This is the second day when I have been indolent and failed to carry out all that I had set myself. Why so? I do not know. However, I must not despair: I will force myself to be active.’ This is the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, who died a century ago today. Though best known for his novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he was a diarist of some distinction too. His earliest diary entries reveal a very self-analytical man, intent on pressing himself to be productive, and chastising himself when failing in his endeavours - even, for example, about the very act of writing a diary.
Tolstoy was born at Yasnya Polyana, in Tula Province, Russia, in 1828. The youngest of four sons, he was orphaned at the age of nine and subsequently brought up by one aunt and then another, both of whom lived in high society. He was educated by tutors, and then at Kazan University, although he dropped out to join his brother in the army. He served as a second lieutenant during the Crimean War, and the experience led not only to the publication of his Sevastapol Sketches but to a lifelong belief in pacifism.
After leaving the army in 1856, Tolstoy spent some time in St Petersburg, where he became increasingly interested in education. He also travelled to Europe, visiting schools in France and Germany for example. And then, on his return to Yasnya Polyana, he set up a progressive school for peasant children. In 1862, he married Sofia Andreyevna Bers who was only 18. Subsequently, Tolstoy seems to have given up his educational activities to concentrate on family life (he had a very large family) and his writing.
Tostoy’s great novels - War and Peace and Anna Karenina - were written in the 1860s and 1870s respectively. In 1876, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual conversion; and issues of social reform then underpinned his later plays and novels. The conversion also affected the way of his life. He dressed in homespun clothes, ate only vegetables, renounced alcohol and tobacco, and did manual work. He became increasingly difficult and unhappy, and, in the last days of his life, left home in the middle of winter in search of a simpler life, only to die at a railway station - 100 years ago today on 20 November 1910. Further biographical information can be found at Kirjasto, Wikipedia or Tolstoy Centennial, a website set up to celebrate the anniversary. The Diary Junction has various diary-related links.
Diaries were a way of life for Tolstoy, and indeed for his family. Jay Parini, writing recently for The Guardian, about a new edition of Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries, makes this modern analogy: ‘For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and - most of all - his wife also kept journals. Of these, the greatest diarist of them all was Sofia, the Countess Tolstoy.’ Indeed, Parini makes a very similar comment for The Times, in an article about his novel, The Last Station, based on Tolstoy’s last days and sourced from the family’s diaries, and how it was finally released as a film earlier this year.
A first and early collection of Tolstoy’s diary entries - The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy - Youth 1847-1852 were translated by C J Hogarth and A Sirnis and published by J M Dent (London) and E P Dutton (New York) in 1917. And, in the same year, Knopf (New York) published The Journal of Leo Tolstoi (1895-1899). It was not until the 1980s, that Athlone Press published a more definitive edition in two volumes - Tolstoy’s Diaries - edited and translated by R F Christian. The first volume covered the years 1847-1894, and volume two the years 1895-1910. They have recently been re-issued by Faber Finds.
Here, though, are several extracts from the very beginning of the early diaries, when Tolstoy was still in his young 20s. (In the extracts about his planning for the following day, the dates seem to be a bit mixed up, but the sense of his intent is clear, as is his disappointment at being so indolent.)
June 14th, 1850, Yasnaya Polyana
‘Again I betake myself to my diary - again, and with fresh ardour and a fresh purpose. But for the what-th time ? I do not remember. Nevertheless, even if I cast it aside again, a diary will be a pleasant occupation, and agreeable in the re-reading, even as are former diaries.
So many thoughts enter my head, and some of them appear very remarkable; they need but to be scrutinized to issue as nonsense. A few, however, are sensible, and it is for their sake that a diary is required, since a diary enables one to judge of oneself.
Also the fact that I find it necessary to determine my occupations beforehand renders a diary additionally indispensable. Indeed, I should like to acquire a habit of predetermining my form of life not merely for a day, but for a year, several years, the whole of the rest of my existence. This, however, will be too difficult for me, almost impossible. Nevertheless I will make the attempt - at first for a day in advance, then for two. In fact, as many days as I may remain loyal to my resolutions, for so many days will I plan beforehand.
By resolutions I mean, not moral rules independent of time and place, rules which never change and which I compile separately, but resolutions temporal and local, rules as to where and for how long I will abide, and when and wherewithal I will employ myself.
There may arise occasions when these resolutions may need to be altered; but if so, I will permit myself to make deviations only in accordance with rule, and, on all such occasions, explain their causes in this diary.
For June 15th. From 9 to 10, bathing and a walk; from 10 to 12, music; from 6 to 8, letters; from 8 to 10, estate affairs and office.
At times the three years past which I have spent so loosely seem to me engaging, poetical, and, to a certain extent, useful: wherefore I will try frankly, and in as much detail as possible, to recall and record them. This will constitute a third purpose for a diary.’
15 June 1850
‘Yesterday I carried out all that I had set myself.
For June 15th. From 4.30 to 6, out in the fields, estate affairs, and bathing; from 6 to 8, continuation of my diary; from 8 to 10, a method of music; from 10 to 12, the piano; from 12 to 6, luncheon, a rest, and dinner; from 6 to 8, rules and reading; from 8 to 10, a bath and estate affairs.’
16 June 1850
‘Yesterday I carried out badly what I had set myself; but why I will explain later. For June 16th. From 5.30 to 7, to bathe and be afield; 7-10, the diary; 10-12, play; 12-6, luncheon, a rest and dinner; 6-8, write on music; from 8 to 10, estate management.
For June 16th. From 5.30 to 7, to bathe and be afield; 7-10, the diary; 10-12, play; 12-6, luncheon, a rest and dinner; 6-8, write on music; from 8 to 10, estate management.’
17 June 1850
‘Rising at 8 o’clock, I did nothing until 10. From 10 to 12 I read and posted my diary; from 12 to 6 I had luncheon and a rest - then reflected on music, and dined; 6-8, music; 8-10, estate affairs. This is the second day when I have been indolent and failed to carry out all that I had set myself. Why so? I do not know. However, I must not despair: I will force myself to be active. Yesterday, in addition to leaving undone what I had set myself, I betrayed my rule.
I have noticed that when I am in an apathetic frame of mind a philosophical work never fails to rouse me to activity. At the moment I am reading Montesquieu. I think that I grow indolent because I have undertaken too much, and keep feeling that I cannot advance from one occupation to another so long as the first one be undone. Yet, not to excuse myself on the score of having omitted to frame a system, I will enter in my diary a few general rules, with a few relating to music and estate management. One of my general rules: That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the ground of absence of mindlor distraction, hut, on the contrary, take in hand for the sake of appearances. Thoughts will then result. For example, if one shall have planned to write out rules, one should take one’s notebook, sit down to the table, and not rise thence till one has both begun and finished one’s task.’
. . .
8 December 1850
‘Moscow. I kept this diary only for five days. Now it is five months since last I took it into my hands!
However, let me try to remember what I have done meanwhile, and why I evidently wearied of my then pursuits. During the past period a quiet life in the country has wrought in me a great revolution : my old follies, my old need to interest myself in affairs, have shed their fruit, and I have ceased to frame castles in Spain, and plans which no human capacity could execute. Above all - and it is a conviction most favourable to me - stands the fact that I no longer place reliance upon my own judgment alone, I no longer despise the forms generally accepted of mankind. There was a time when everything ordinary seemed to me unworthy of my notice : whereas now I accept as good and true but few convictions which I have not seen applied and practised by many. It is strange that I should have despised that which constitutes man’s greatest asset, his power of comprehending the convictions of others, and observing in practical execution those convictions! And it is strange that I should have given rein to my judgment without in the least verifying or applying that judgment! In a word, and to put it very simply, I have now come to my senses, I am grown a little older.’