Leo Tolstoy. Hadji Murad. 1911.
September 30, 2009
I recently downloaded and read from Google Books Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murad. It’s one of the very last pieces of fiction he wrote, finishing it in 1904, published in 1911, the year of his death. The short novel, about 200 pages on an ereader, has always been praised as an exquisitely crafted work of art. Tolstoy allows the structure and interplay of events to speak for themselves, eschewing nearly all temptation to explain to the reader his intentions and meaning. For precisely this reason, the book may be an especially challenging one. Before stating what I think of Hadji Murad, I must touch on my very long relationship with Tolstoy.
As a young undergraduate at Eastern Michigan University in 1976, I used to read Tolstoy when I was supposed to be studying more important things. I would go to the library and comb through the many feet of his Collected Works, devouring many of the more obscure, less-read books by him. While taking classes in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the romantic poets, I reveled in his works What Is Art?, “Essay on Shakespeare,” and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. I well realized these works were anathema to most of the ruling academic establishment, whom I was beginning to realize even as far back as then were sunk in doctrinaire nihilism. I thrilled to read a writer who believed literature could and should have a spiritual dimension, as do our lives, if we are at all awake and sensitive to the Divine.
From, What is Art?:
“Special importance has always been given by all men to that . . . which transmits feelings flowing from their religious perception, and this small part of art they have specifically called art, attaching to it the full meaning of the word. That was how men of old — Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — looked on art. Thus did the Hebrew prophets and the ancient Christians regard art; thus it was, and still is, understood by the Mahommedans, and thus is it still understood by religious folk among our own peasantry.”
“The business of art lies just in this, — to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of a truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it.”
“Art is the transmission of feelings flowing from man’s religious perception.”
“So that good, great, universal, religious art may be incomprehensible to a small circle of spoilt people, but certainly not to any large number of plain men.”
How excited I was to discover Google Books now has, it seems, all that huge stretch of library shelf devoted to Tolstoy, available online. I eagerly downloaded all of it, including Hadji Murad, which I have thought of for years, sensing there was something in the book I needed to read, at the right time, now come, one of Tolstoy’s last artistic communications to the world.
As a young man Tolstoy had served in the Russian military in the Caucasus and in Crimea. His early stories and books reflect such experience. Late in life, he found himself recalling that time in the 1850s, while walking through a newly ploughed field in 1896, noticing a beautiful thistle that had been bent and broken by the plough. He tried to save it, but couldn’t, it was so damaged. The incident became a metaphor evoking the life of a local fighter Tolstoy had actually met, Hadji Murad, who was caught between the fanaticism of an Islamic war-lord named Shamil, who was intent on taking over Chechnya, and the Russians, who were extending their control into the area. Hadji Murad, as a man belonging to the more peaceful, local Sufi-like branch of Islam, known as Muridism, resisted the onslaught of Shamil’s jihad and fundamentalist fanaticism. Hoping to obtain troops from the Russians with which to fight off Shamil, Murad leads his band of men over to the Russians, ultimately being caught between the opposing forces. Tolstoy’s art lies in what he makes of and does with these facts of history. His perceiving sensibility and interpretation is subtle and attuned to the issues on all sides.
In the end, the Russians fail to provide Hadji Murad with the troops he needs to protect the Murid community from dominance by Shamil’s fanatics. He waits and waits while the incompetent and corrupt Russian political machine misunderstands what is involved and bungles the chance Murad has offered it. Tolstoy is especially insightful and scathing on the moral and spiritual corruption of the Russian elite and monarchy, contrasting its decline with the healthier vitality of Hadji Murad’s village simplicity, spiritual vigor, and self-less service to his community. Tolstoy’s art fully critiques both Western Christianity and the Islam of beheadings and the chopping off of hands. Murad’s values and beliefs, pure, unsullied, grounded in mystical prayer and communion, are crushed between the two. Finally despairing of Russian help, especially in time to rescue his own family, rendered pawns in Shamil’s intrigues, Murad decides to make a break from Russian confinement to save his family, an act misinterpreted by the Russian garrison which sends troops out after him, murdering his men and beheading him, no better than Shamil’s tactics. Tolstoy allows the tragedy of Hadji Murad to resonate with the accents of art and vision, challenging the reader to understand.
It seems to me, though, that few have understood. For instance, Harold Bloom’s discussion of Hadji Murad overemphasizes the tragedy while neglecting the Islamic, Sufi resonance. Perhaps we have a larger context today in which we can begin to perceive the profundity of Tolstoy’s art, what with the collapse of Utopia in Power and the terrorism of 9/11. Despite some of his cranky personal flaws, mostly the result of his intense search for truth, his support of the anarchist Kropotkin, and so on, he was a tremendous artist of incredible vision and foresight, part of the tragedy of his time.
The ecopy of Hadji Murad that I read is in the epub format, which promises to become the standard for ebooks. After more than a decade of using numerous formats, I hope it does become the dominant one. There were only four to six minor errors in the text that I could detect without comparing it to a hard-copy. That’s down to about what one would expect to find in most published books, copy-editors seldom being up to snuff anymore. Other minor but annoying problems of formatting seem to be solved by the epub format.
Hadji Murad was a pleasure to read on my Sony Reader. The stage seems set for Google and other ebook publishers to make tens of millions of books, the knowledge and art of humanity, available online. I, for one, shall appreciate it.