TOLSTOY AND THE HAWK

 

A modest little paperback of only 70 pages, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, Paradise Road, Richmond, in 1920: Reminiscences of Leo Nicolavevitch Tolstoi. Short snatches of conversations, fragmentary notes on the great man.

"It was at Yasnaya Polyana an overcast autumn day, with a drizzle of rain, and he put on a heavy overcoat and high leather boots and took me for a walk in the birch wood. He jumped the ditches and pools like a boy . . . he stroked the damp, satin trunks of the birches lovingly . . . suddenly a hare got up under our feet. Leo Nicolayevitch started up excited, his face lit up, and he whooped like a real old sportsman. Then, looking at me with a curious little smile, he broke into a sensible, human laugh. he was wonderfully charming at that moment.

"Another time he was looking at a hawk in the park; it was hovering over the cattle shed, making wide circles suspended in the air, moving its wings very slightly as if undecided whether or not the moment to strike had come. Leo Nicolayevitch stood up, shading his eyes with his hand, and murmured with excitement: "The rogue is going for our chickens. Now, now . . it's coming . . . Oh, he's afraid. The groom is there, isn't he? I'll call the groom . . ."

And he shouted to the groom. When he shouted, the hawk was scared, swept upwards, swung away, and disappeared. Leo Nicolayevitch sighed, apparently reproaching himself, and said: "I should not have shouted; he would have struck all the same'." (All that doubt and controversy is still alive three quarters of a century after this publication.)

A further entry tells us that the great man "talks most of God, of peasants, and of woman". The last item in the book deals with God. "Suddenly he asked me, exactly as if he were deal ing me a blow: `Why don't you believe in God?' The answer: `I have no faith, Leo Nicolayevitch'." Said Tolstoi: "It is not true. By nature you are a believer, and you cannot get on without God. You will realise it one day. Your disbelief comes from obstinacy because you have been hurt." He went on at some length. Then shook his finger at the diarist:

"You won't get out of this by silence, no."

The last words of the diarist, Maxim Gorky, were: "And I, who do not believe in God, looked at him for some reason very cautiously and a little timidly. I looked and thought: The man is godlike.