Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Time and the Writer

Leo Tolstoy wrote Master and Man in 1895 when he was sixty-seven years old. A short work, one hundred and sixty-five pages in my big-print, small-page English translation, Master and Man tells the harrowing tale of a tight-fisted merchant, Vassili Andreitch Brekhunoff, who, driven by avarice, brushes off friends' warnings and decides to travel one frozen night from his village to a neighboring town, hoping to get there before a rival merchant and buy a wood lot at a bargain price from a noble landowner.

Vassili's serf, Nikita, hitches up a lively pony, Mukhorty, and they set off in a sledge at a good clip. A blizzard soon obliterates the track across the endless steppe, and they become hopelessly lost and nearly buried in the snow. As the two men sink toward a frigid death, Vassili has a transforming revelation: he being the master and Nikita being the servant are meaningless distinctions; they are both children of God. Fueled by this spiritual insight, he throws himself into saving Nikita's life:

...he stepped back a pace, turned up his cuffs, and with both hands began to dig the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge. When this was accomplished, he hurriedly undid his girdle, threw open his fur coat, and flung himself upon Nikita, covering him not only with his coat, but with his whole glowing warm body.

Vassili falls into a fitful doze. When he awakes, he realizes that Nikita is still alive but that he is dying. Instead of fear or despair, he feels a strange joy:

He remembered that Nikita was lying under him, warmed and alive, and it seemed that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was in Nikita, and not in himself. He strained his ears and heard Nikita breathing.

"Nikita is living so I am also alive," he said triumphantly to himself.

Vassili does die, as does the pony. Morning light reveals that they had gotten lost only seventy yards off the road and stopped only a mile from their destination. Peasants dig out the half-buried sledge and revive Nikita who, though he loses three toes to frostbite and spends months in hospital, lives to a ripe old age and dies glad that he'll no longer be a burden on his children. Tolstoy concludes:

Is he better or worse there where he has awakened after this actual death? Has he been disenchanted? or has he found there all that he yearned for? We shall all of us know soon.

Master and Man is a beautifully written and deeply moving story; tears burst from my eyes unbidden when I read it decades ago, and I remember noting, after I calmed down, how Tolstoy makes the rapturous climax of Vassili's conversion to loving Nikita all the more convincing by detailing how he had previously cheated him:

He paid him not the eighty rubles which a workman of Nikita's stamp was well worth, but forty only, which he used to dole out to him in small change, partly in coin but more in provisions from his store at a high price.

Last summer, browsing a New England bookstore for something new to read, I bought a small blue Modern Library edition of Tolstoy's early short stories, one of which, The Snow Storm, he had written in 1856 when he was twenty-eight. That story, for some reason, I read first, and after a couple of pages I stopped flabbergasted: this was the same story as Master and Man! Well, not the same story, but the same setting: a man being carried in a troika this way and that through a snowy Russian night, getting lost, turning back, then setting out again, nearly freezing to death but brought safe to his destination by the skill of the peasant driver and the gallant courage of the horses. Tolstoy doesn't say who the man is, but an editor's footnote told me that Tolstoy made just such a wintry trip through the Caucasus in 1854.

That midnight ride, I figured, must have given the unknown twenty-eight year-old writer the raw material for The Snow Storm and for Master and Man, written forty years later when he'd become the world-renowned Sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Hmm, I thought next, comparing the two stories will give me a chance to see how a writer treats the same windswept theme when young and when old.

First impression: The Snow Storm contains far more detailed reporting of the exterior scene:

I was struck for a moment by what seemed to be a bright light falling on the white plains; the horizon had widened considerably, the lowering black sky had suddenly vanished, and on all sides slanting white streaks of falling snow could be seen.

The head of the shaft horse with its flying mane stooped and rose rhythmically as it alternately drew the reins tight and loosened them. But all this was covered with snow even more than before. The show whirled about in front, at the side it covered the horses' legs knee-deep...

In sharp contrast, Tolstoy paints the Man and Master storm with brief touches:

The snow was falling from above and whirling about below. Sometimes it seemed that they were driving uphill then down, sometimes that they were standing still and the snow-landscape was flying past them.

—that punctuate longer passages of Vassili's interior monologues:

"I'm not like the rest, idle fools! I don't sleep at night. Storm or no storm, I drive out, I do my business. Some people think they can make money by fooling. Nay! Work hard and tire yourself! They think that it is a question of luck! Look at the Mironoffs with millions now; and why? They have worked and God has given. If only God gives me health!"

Yet Master and Man's snow and ice feels colder and its night looms blacker than those in The Snow Storm because the brevity of Tolstoy's mature descriptions cuts more quickly to our hearts. In his superb book, Art and Illusion, scholar E. H. Gombrich points out that in his youth Rembrandt painted gold braid with painstaking accuracy but in time learned how to create its sparkle with a single brush-stroke: "How many such effects did he have to explore," notes Gombrich, "before he could reduce them to this magic simplicity?" Four decades of writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, likewise, condensed and sharpened Tolstoy's prose.

The narrator of Master and Man has a quiet, patient wisdom; The Snow Storm's "I" is a callow youth who revels in the adventurous night: "the desire that something extraordinary, something even tragic, should happen to us was stronger in me than fear"; he thinks that "it would not be so bad if some of us"—but surely not himself!—"were to perish in the cold." When he falls asleep, he dreams not of brotherhood but of a lovely summer day:

A bee buzzes not far from me in the blazing sunlight; yellow-winged butterflies fly from one blade of grass to another....In a rose bush sparrows bustle about. One hops to the ground, pecks at the ground, flies back into the bush, rustling the twigs, chirping merrily.

The summer-dream/winter-reality contrast strengthens The Snow Storm's structure, but the antithesis seems a bit pat to me. "Aha," I hear the eager young writer thinking, "If I have the guy hallucinating summer, that'll make the winter stuff more dramatic." Vassili's lurching states of mind:

He lay and thought, always of the same subject, the only aim, object, pleasure and pride of his whole life: how much money he had amassed, and how much more he could hope for....

A prey to his emotions, he felt he was beginning to shiver, not knowing whether from cold or from fear. He tried to cover himself and lie as before, but he could not keep still. He felt a longing to be up, to be doing something to stifle the terror within him, against which he was powerless.

—have no such symmetry, but I find them more believable because they are more like mine.

This is the barest beginning of noting the differences between early and late Tolstoy, and studying the work of many writers chronologically would surely reveal similar maturations. Every good writer has core themes he or she returns to throughout their careers—Balzac and business, Dickens and poverty, George Eliot and secrets, Raymond Chandler and murder. Try reading books by your favorite writers in the order they were written, and you'll find the effects of time on each writer's spirit, just as you would find slow changes in their faces, eyes, and bodies if you slowly turned over photographs of them—or of yourself!—snapped in youth, adulthood, and old age.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 10th 2014, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Cassie (Long Grove, IL)
Thank you Michael for sharing your discovery. A most enlightening article and great direction for future reading.
Monday February 10th 2014, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Michael! Outstanding!

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