On this day…20 November

On 20 November 1910 Leo Tolstoy died.

One of the greatest of Russian writers, Tolstoy died at the age of 82 in the railway station at Astapovo. Joyce read a number of Tolstoy’s works and considered his story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ to be the greatest story in world literature.

Born on his family’s estate Yasnaya Polyana in 1828, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy studied law and languages for a time at Kazan University before joining the army and serving in the Crimean War in the 1850s. During this time he published three autobiographical novels – Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth – based on his experiences growing up at Yasnaya Polyana, and a volume of Sevastopol Stories, based on his experiences in the Crimea.

In 1862 he married Sophia Andreyevna Behrs with whom he had thirteen children. Best known now for War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and Resurrection (1899), Tolstoy also wrote plays, short stories and many polemical works. Partly because of his fame as a writer, his outspoken political views, his pacifism, his vegetarianism and his spiritualism all had considerable influence.

The earliest English translations of the great Russian writers began to appear in the 1890s and included those by Constance Garnett, and Aylmer and Louise Maude. Joyce had English, French, Italian and German translations of works by Tolstoy in his library in Trieste, including plays, novels, short stories, essays and letters. He read Anna Karenina and Resurrection, though he seems not to have read War and Peace.

By February 1905 Joyce had already read at least Resurrection and some short stories, and in a letter to his brother Stanislaus in September he declared that Tolstoy was magnificent, and that he was head and shoulders above the other Russian writers. ‘He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!’ he wrote. Stanislaus responded that while Tolstoy might not be dull or tired, he made other writers seem so, and that was just as bad.

In August 1924 Stanislaus claimed that one of the early examples of ‘interior monologue’ that Joyce had known was an entry written by Stanislaus in his diary from July 1904 in which he had experimented with the drifting thoughts of someone falling off to sleep. Stanislaus claimed that this had been inspired by one of Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Stories, as Joyce told Sylvia Beach in a letter on 17 August 1924.

In a letter to his daughter Lucia in April 1935, Joyce mentioned having sent her some books by Tolstoy, and he told her that ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ was ‘the greatest story that the literature of the world knows,’ though he added that he also liked the story ‘Master and Man.’ Early in May he sent her more Tolstoy, including ‘Two Hussars,’ and told her he thought Tolstoy’s name meant ‘great’ in Russian.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, vols II & III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.