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Tangents in a Telescope: Virginia Woolf’s Georgian Tolstoy

Tangentes vues au téléscope: le Tolstoï ‘géorgien’ de Virginia Woolf.
Claire Pégon-Davison


Cet article propose une nouvelle lecture des essais que Virginia Woolf a consacrés à Tolstoï, sur lesquels elle travaillait en même temps qu’elle traduisait du russe, en collaboration avec Kotélianski. Nous constatons tout d’abord une vision ‘Georgienne’ du grand romancier, qui, ayant été fêté par les Victoriens comme grand philosophe et philanthrope, et par les Édouardiens comme maître du réalisme et du portrait, est présenté dorénavant comme écrivain d’avant-garde, qui joue de la perspective et met à nu quelques grandes mythologies du xixe siècle. Par la suite, nous nous penchons sur les techniques de construction chez Tolstoï, tels que V.Woolf les présente, mettant en avant une fascination innovatrice, formaliste, inspirée par la dynamique littéraire, qui allait changer de façon profonde et durable la poétique woolfienne. Si les Victoriens encensaient Tolstoï, le conteur d’épopées, Woolf et Forster louangent sa musique, déplaçant le centre d’intérêt de l’intrigue aux sons, aux textures et à la méthode. De par sa collaboration avec Kotélianski, Woolf est venue à découvrir non seulement les grands classiques de la littérature russe, mais aussi les théories et manifestes littéraires qui ont vu le jour dans les premières années après la révolution.

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  • 1 The significance of the date 1910 in Woolf’s essay ‘Character in Fiction’ (1924) has been largely d (...)
  • 2 This opinion was frequently found in obituaries published in 1910. It is later corroborated by vari (...)
  • 3 T. E. Lawrence writing to E. M. Forster, 20 February 1924; quoted by Steiner, 21.
  • 4 See in particular the studies by Simmons, Lavrin, Baring, Gorky, Mirsky, and Steiner. Simmons quote (...)
  • 5 The term ‘Russian fever’ was frequently employed to describe the years 1912–921 during which the pu (...)
  • 6 This opinion is frequently found in documents of the era. David Garnett wrote to his mother asking, (...)

1The year 1910 was nothing short of a watershed: the king died, making England Georgian again; human nature changed; and the first Post-Impressionist exhibition caused an ‘artquake’ in London;1 in Russia, Tolstoy’s very dramatic death left the world bereft of ‘perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century’.2 Certainly his fame and writings were so vast that in the West it seemed ‘hopeless to grapple with him’:3 he was a ‘prophet’, a ‘saint’ and ‘martyr’, an ‘apostle’, the ‘conscience of humanity’, ‘Christ without the cross’, a ‘Titan’, a ‘monster’, a ‘giant’ or quite simply life itself.4 A sense of Tolstoy’s moral and visionary genius, as part of a passion for things Russian, dominated the late nineteenth century. Even when ‘Russian fever’5 abated, an awareness of early modernism’s profound debt to the Russians lasted: from Woolf to Hermione Lee, from Katherine Mansfield to S.P. Rosenbaum, it is generally agreed that Russian literature, more particularly in the masterful translations by Constance Garnett, changed, to an astonishing, perhaps incalculable degree, a whole generation’s perspective on the art and the scope of the novel.6

2My intention here is to try and gauge exactly what the Russian point of view meant in the critical writings of Virginia Woolf, concentrating on her reception of Tolstoy, ‘the greatest of all novelists’ (Woolf 1925, 180). Her enthusiasm and her reticence are well known and oft-cited. As she says in ‘On Re-Reading Meredith’, ‘The Russians might well overcome us, for they seem[ed] to possess an entirely new conception of the novel and one that was larger, saner and much more profound than ours’ (Woolf 1987, 273); she affirms in The Common Reader that ‘they see further than we do and without our gross impediments of vision’ (Woolf 1925, 153); she admits now that ‘to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time’, (Woolf 1925, 153) while despairing with T.S. Eliot that they might herald the ruin of English literature (Woolf 1978, 203). My aim will be to move beyond Woolf’s eminently quotable surface ideas, to read her Russian writings more attentively. Starting from ‘The Russian Point of View’ (included in The Common Reader) and the coherence and the contradictions visible in the 1925 essay, I shall consider Woolf’s perspective within the overall mindset of the era, considering the Russian influences in her immediate surroundings that meant her perspective was both far broader and far more specific that may at first glance appear. By contextualising the essay and the history of its development, I intend thereby to define more precisely what the Russian influence amounted to and what Tolstoy, ‘the sounding bell of this world’ (Gorky 37), brought to Georgian fiction.

3Woolf’s opening gambit in ‘The Russian Point of View’ relies on one of her favoured rhetorical devices: a sweeping admission of scepticism, even defeat: ‘Doubtful as we frequently are whether the French or the Americans, who have so much in common with us, can yet understand English literature, we must admit graver doubts whether, for all their enthusiasm, the English can understand Russian literature’ (Woolf 1925, 173). The serious barrier of understanding separating the foreigner from English literature and civilisation likewise bars the English from understanding Russian literature apprehended through its vague, style-deprived ‘mutilations’ in translation, or via the scholarly appreciations of critics thoroughly unversed in things Russian. The great Russian writers and their characters have ‘lost their clothes, as if in some terrible catastrophe’ (Woolf 1925, 174). Add to this the soul, so preponderant in Russian fiction, so alien to the English, and the odds are loaded against the English reader’s ever seeing, understanding, what the literature was all about, for the linguistic barrier of translation is doubled by the referential barrier of a world fundamentally different to ours.

4Woolf shifts from this broad perspective to brief case studies of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Chekhov leaves us with a feeling of bewilderment, as if, like a train, ‘we have overrun our signals’, or like a concert-goer, we sat waiting for the triumphant chords of a reassuring conclusion that does not come. Next, Dostoevsky, easily alien, even antipathetic to the English reader on account of the ‘formless [. . .] confused, diffuse, tumultuous’ soul of his fiction (Woolf 1925, 180). We are rushed through these ‘seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in’ (Woolf 1925, 178) until ‘sparks must rush off our wheels’ (Woolf 1925, 179). The English reader, used to slower, more familiar climes and forms, is bewildered indeed: ‘we should begin with his house; we should solidify his surroundings’; we should serve tea from a teapot, not a samovar, presumably pouring a warming beverage into a china cup, while in Dostoevsky ‘out it tumbles upon us, hot, scalding, mixed, marvellous, terrible, oppressive—the human soul’ (Woolf 1925, 180).

5Finally, Woolf turns to Tolstoy, wondering whether he too will prove ‘alien, difficult, a foreigner’, with ‘some oddity in his angle of vision’ (Woolf 1925, 180). It would seem not: ‘here is a man who sees what we see’ (Woolf 1925, 181), a man with an infallible eye and brain who misses nothing. Yet strangeness or alarm seize us differently for suddenly we are both observing the very intensity of life itself, and being observed, as if Tolstoy turned his telescope on us to ask, ‘why live?’ revealing the scorpion at the centre of a flower (Woolf 1925, 182). The vision and the questions are unbearable, and the mind flees, Woolf’s essay closing on a note of native negative theology:

But the mind takes its bias from the place of its birth, and no doubt, when it strikes upon a literature so alien as the Russian, flies off at a tangent far from the truth. (Woolf 1925, 182)

6Taken as a self-enclosed unit, Woolf’s essay may well appear both as a tempered last word on ‘Russian fever’, and an intuitive Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. English cultural norms and expectations are ultimately incompatible with Russian foreignness; we have misread the Russians or, like tangents, have only touched on surfaces which must remain alien. Such a reading, however, overlooks essential counter-arguments running through the essay. First, the confident ‘we’ of the opening phrase, that seems to run, constant and inclusive, from beginning to end: ‘doubtful as we are’, ‘we must admit’, ‘we have all this to separate us’, ‘we have judged’, ‘we become awkward’, ‘we have to cast about’, ‘if we wished to tell the story’, ‘we have been set’. Yet this is no buoyant, self-identical linguistic identity: ‘we’ can be highly self-excluding to refer to the ‘we’ who write ‘with an affectation of goodness and simplicity which is nauseating in the extreme’ (Woolf 1925, 175). It can be the comfortable, but again self-excluding ‘we’ of readers preferring homely Victorian fictions. Analysing Dostoevsky, the ‘we’ swings from an entranced, aesthetically receptive ‘we’ to the ‘we’ of English writers who doggedly concentrate on solid, material surroundings. Faced with Tolstoy, the ‘we’ seems more secure until the gaze turns upon it and it seems to break up altogether, leaving only a dispossessed ‘mind’ to spin off at a tangent. In other words, ‘we’ is a plural, but rarely a first-person, and refers alternately, and very incompatibly, to the essay writer and her reader, a complacent English public, the Victorian nostalgist, the Edwardian materialist authors, and finally those discerning readers who were hearkening to a literature speaking to them in a strangely familiar voice.

  • 7 Woolf specialists have tended to classify the essay as a reflection on translation. See for example (...)

7Second, the purportedly insurmountable obstacle of translation, for Woolf’s contention is ultimately not translation at all.7 She acknowledges its potential obscurity, only to posit, beyond certain contemporary misappropriations of Russian fiction, an overwhelming sense of understanding, when the mists of translation are dispersed: ‘Even in translation we feel that we have been set on a mountain-top and had a telescope put into our hands’ (Woolf 1925, 181). It is not that the language is alien, but the focus is different. Then, as the reader accepts the new pace and the medley of emotions, so the horizon expands, and ‘a new panorama of the human mind is revealed’ (Woolf 1925, 179; the italics are mine). In other words, neither translation nor Russianness is of any object. With Tolstoy, the effect of translation is not one of obscurity but, as for Keats first dipping into Chapman’s Homer, one of clarity, expansion, vision as if from a mountain top.

8Third, there is a double perspective deflected by the Russian point of view. The essay begins by syllogistically affirming that just as foreigners cannot understand us, so we cannot understand them. It then twists this first premise to concede that those with ‘a very daring and alert sense of literature’ (Woolf 1925, 176) can understand them in shafts of dazzling perception, and then twists it anew to affirm that when Tolstoy turns his telescope on us, he pierces to our inner soul and scrutinizes us, in a gaze so intense that we escape, flying off at a tangent. The Russian point of view, in other words, concerns not only what we see of a literature recently brought to the attention of an enthusiastic British public, but also what the Russians see of us. And it offers a very Russian focus on the ambitions and experiments of a generation of English writers who could henceforth look upon themselves as an intelligentsia because the word was just entering the English language, imported from . . . the Russian.

9In fact, Woolf’s essay, though first published in the 1925 Common Reader, is less a statement of belief concerning the author’s point of view at the time, than a renewal of ideas and examples tackled since her first review of Tolstoy’s The Cossacks in 1917. Most of the suggestions and illustrations, and her disingenuous rhetorical stance, can be traced back through the reviews in the TLS, until one might wonder why, in 1925, Woolf should again affirm that translation were impossible, Russian fiction inaccessible and English literature safer on home ground. In fact, the essay does not so much posit a single or Russian point of view, as dismiss what is presented as a very unrefined English take on the Russians. It does this by explicitly parroting conventional takes on Russian fiction, and implicitly defending those angles and perspectives that over eight years, Woolf had been exploring and experimenting with herself. She deplores ‘the serious barrier’ (Woolf 1925, 173) of not knowing Russian, and the vulgar misprisions that have resulted, but only after spending months studying Russian and translating the very authors she deals with. Along the way, the essay re- appropriates the Tolstoy of generations past to offer a very new perspective on the Russian master, and what her generation had learnt from him, delivering a few deft swipes at her Edwardian rivals who had dared claim, by concentrating on his much- cited gift for characterisation, that they were his spiritual heirs.

10Virtually unknown outside Russia until the 1880s, Tolstoy’s tremendous impact in the West derived in part from the fact that within a decade his readers discovered his entire oeuvre, from The Sebastopol Stories and Childhood, through War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to the plays, religious doctrine and moral and philosophical works. This first Tolstoy tended however to be read ‘through Victorian spectacles, as a kind of Russian George Eliot’ (Hyde 27). The late Victorians warmed to his booming call for his social and religious reform, lest materialism and industrialisation destroy man’s soul. Those critics who championed his fictional writings, Arnold and Gosse for instance, insisted on their moral and religious interpretation of life, suggesting that ‘we are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life . . . what his novel in this way loses in art, it gains in reality’ (Knowles 353).

  • 8 The following impatient judgements are revealing examples: ‘le fil très simple et très lâche de l’a (...)

11Even de Vogüé, ardent champion, on both sides of the channel, of the Russian novel, was impatient of Tolstoy’s lack of creative method.8 He uses the analogy of the reader ascending a mountain, and the writer handling a telescope, only to conclude that they would order the matter better in France:

Imaginez le Latin et le Slave devant une lunette d’approche; le premier met l’instrument au point, c’est-à-dire qu’il raccourcit volontairement son champ de vision et voit plus petit pour voir plus net; le second développe toute la puissance des lentilles, agrandit l’horizon et voit trouble, pour voir plus loin. (De Vogüé 295)

12De Vogüé memorably lauded the ‘tidier’ Western version of War and Peace. Foremost among the expurgations were the abandoned appendices (the chapters on the nature of history and the place of the reader) and the suspended ending. The Victorian Tolstoy’s War and Peace ends with a full stop.

  • 9 However modernist James might prove in other aspects of his writing, his dismissive asseverations c (...)

13A second generation of Tolstoy readers explained the dilemma by separating the prophet and pamphleteer from the novelist. What we might call an Edwardian Tolstoy takes shape from about the publication of Edward Garnett’s writings, for whom, ‘There are two men in Tolstoi, the artist and the moralist, always grappling’ (Garnett 109). The early twentieth-century Tolstoy was revered either as champion of proletarian nationalism and reformer, or as master realist and portraitist. Clear political explanations can be advanced for this shift in reception: the Russian political exiles in London, moving in the Garnetts’ circle, were urging for reform and revolution, often using Tolstoy as their emblem. King’s College, London’s new Russian department, meanwhile, was promoting scholars like Mirsky, whose Marxist politics went hand in hand with a traditional Russian reading of the national literature with its ‘marked preponderance of character over plot’, ‘disregard for style’, ‘problems of conscience rather than action’ (Mirsky 14, 15). The Edwardian Tolstoy whose influence is perceptible in the writings of Shaw, Galsworthy, Morris, Gissing, Moore and Bennett, was thus of this ilk.9

14Both visions of Tolstoy are part of the Russian setting behind Woolf’s claim that a Georgian generation of writers had come of age. The choice made by Woolf’s generation to disregard the aesthetic aspirations of the writers that immediately preceded them, and much of the Victorian model previously, is presented as a deliberate, iconoclastic turn towards Russia:

The failure of the Edwardians, comparative yet disastrous [. . .] how it followed that the Georgians read Russian novels in translation. (Woolf 1988, 336)

But there was another force that made much more subtly against the creation of character and that was Mrs Garnett and her translations. (Woolf 1988, 386)

The Victorian version was discredited [. . .] And the Russian had shown him—everything or nothing—The Georgians had, therefore, a difficult task. (Woolf 1988, 386)

15From 1917 at least, Woolf’s writings express both her impatience with the ponderous contrived plots of homespun fiction, and her thrill faced with the unexpected speeds and rhythms of literature in translation. On the one hand, Mr Bennett’s ‘magnificent apparatus’ for observing detail fails to catch life (‘Modern Fiction’, Woolf 1925, 149); Mr Beerbohm peers over the fence to admire ‘his exquisite plot’ (‘The Limits of Perfection’, Woolf 1988, 125); dust gets in our eyes when we look at English literature from home ground (‘Modern Fiction’, Woolf 1925, 146); the familiar music of native literature is graven like barrel organ cylinders in our minds . . . (‘Philosophy in Fiction’, Woolf 1987, 208). On the other, there is a sense of ‘perfect language’ to be gained from reading foreign texts side by side with their translation in a ‘spirited version’ that dances off the foreign language and sends off new sparks of understanding and points of view and tunes, revealing the ‘tumult of thought’ (see ‘The Perfect Language’, Woolf 1987, 114–119). The notions of novelty, friction and intuitive familiarity come together in Woolf’s descriptions of her Russian lessons, taken with Koteliansky, prefiguring the speed and train metaphors linked to reading Dostoevsky in ‘The Russian Point of View’:

Russian is snatching all the time spared for this book. I can only keep up with L. by running as hard as I can. Everyone prophecies an early end. But I feel myself attached to an express train. With Kot & Leonard dragging me I must be pulled through somehow. (Woolf 1978, 90)

  • 10 The translated texts comprised chapters censored from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (Stavrogin’s Confe (...)
  • 11 One of the more provocative slogans in the Futurists’ manifesto, ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Tast (...)

16These lessons had very much untold repercussions on the development of Woolf the writer. Beyond the formative experience of a defamiliarizing alphabet, phonetic system and inflected grammar, they enabled her to collaborate with Koteliansky directly in the translation of three works published in the early 1920s in Moscow and within months by Hogarth.10 Furthermore, these lessons were no simple exercise in language acquisition. Koteliansky, perhaps one of the ‘most extraordinary inhabitants’ (Gadd 156) of London’s literary world, and moving in the Woolfs’ circles from 1917, was a self-imposed political exile, lacking the ideological fervour of the Whitechapel revolutionaries. His Thursday group, which counted Leonard Woolf as a member, debated both the pro-Kerensky, anti-Bolshevist politics of the revolutionary era, and the aspirations of the modern novel in its ‘purified and firm European tradition’ (Carswell 265), and he had very clear ideas about the new directions English literature should be taking. More importantly, perhaps, Kot’s idiosyncratic position as both revolutionary and reluctant reformer, was maintained through his close contact with emigré circles in Berlin, his exiled associates in London and his family links in the Ukraine and Moscow. As the very contemporary texts he brought to the Woolfs’ attention at Hogarth attest, his links with Eastern European intellectual circles were tight indeed. And so the Russian Tolstoy, for example, that he drew for Woolf, was neither the out-and-out champion of the people and the harbinger of revolution as presented in the politically expedient version of the Bolshevists, nor the venerable antiquarian whom the first Futurists wanted to toss from the steamship of modern times,11 and the later White Russian émigrés wanted to sanctify. Kot’s Tolstoy, who was in many ways to become the Georgian Tolstoy, was far richer than either, but also rather smaller and more human than the previous generations’ figurehead, as if observed through the wrong end of a telescope.

  • 12 This is not of course to suggest anything as rudimentary as cause and effect. Woolf did not need Ko (...)

17While it would be impossible to separate precisely what Woolf’s reception of Tolstoy owes directly to Kot, and what to her own perceptive reading, three very clear strands of influence can be isolated: Kot’s own tastes, the early nineteenth-century Russian critical reception of Tolstoy, and early Soviet re-evaluations. First, Koteliansky’s own personal inclination to set Tolstoy above all the other Russian masters, while in Britain until Woolf’s essays, it was Turgenev and then Dostoevsky who had held sway. Kot memorably praised Tolstoy for knowing ‘everything about every sort of situation and every kind of person—everywhere’ (Glenavy 137), and for being ‘the greatest and most suffering of human beings’ (Glenavy 158), hardly objective praise, admittedly, but encouraging a new approach to the writer to which Woolf was not indifferent. More tangibly, Kot’s setting of Tolstoy within the Russian tradition of criticism brought to the fore characteristics that Western commentators had overlooked entirely. If praise had been very unanimously voiced for Tolstoy’s panoramic vision, a counter-balancing Russian school had seized on the clamour of inner voices circulating within the texts, notably the ‘transitions of thought’ of the perceiving subject. As early as 1856, Chernyshevsky was bringing attention to the fact that behind the conventional praise for Tolstoy’s ‘exceptional powers of observation’ was a very fine sense of the ‘dialectic of the soul,’ evoked equally as ‘interior monologue’, dramatising the secret processes of inner turmoil (Knowles 60). This Kot could pass on to his pupils.12

  • 13 S. P. Rosenbaum, notably, insists at length on the considerable impact this work had on the Bloomsb (...)

18Early twentieth century Russian reappraisals of Tolstoy’s art and craft, made available by translation in the first case, via Koteliansky in the second, provided another essential ingredient of the Georgian Tolstoy. In Merezhkovsky’s study (translated in 1902), Tolstoy is the master of detail, sound, repetition and blinding flashes of light, ‘which shine through everything and illuminate it all and remove from the shadows some individual detail, the nakedness of the body, the fold of a dress caught in a quick movement or a part of a face marked with passion or suffering’ (Merezhkovsky 187). More importantly, Tolstoy as perceived by Eichenbaum, becomes a Formalist harbinger writing the handlungsarmer Roman, or the novel without a plot, who broke up personality into series of individual sensations or states of mind, using novelistic form ‘significantly’, whose renowned ‘slices of life’ were made of swooping transitions from the very great to the very small. Tolstoy in Eichenbaum’s work, is a relentlessly logical analyst of human passion, both an eighteenth-century master and an artist-innovator, all qualities that could but endear him to Bloomsbury. Meanwhile Shklovsky, moving in circles that were very close to Koteliansky, was seizing on Tolstoy’s notion of the ‘labyrinth of linkages which is literary art’ to enhance the Formalist credentials (Shklovsky 16), drawing on examples of defamiliarization as inner voice and quirky focalisation from Tolstoy’s works. Such notions could circulate via Gorky, then Koteliansky in Bloomsbury London as innovative literary theories prior to their translation into English. Woolf’s Russian lessons, for example, could provide a different version of Formalism to that defended by Lubbock, for example, to which she objected for its x-ray vision of character and its oblivion to literary emotion (‘On Re-Reading Novels’, Woolf 1988, 341). And on this count too, the Georgians had their Tolstoyan bible in the form of his essay, What is Art? which with retrospect, may prove to be the single most influential work of theory on Bloomsbury aesthetics.13

19The last point of Tolstoyan craftsmanship to which Eichenbaum draws attention and which was of undeniable importance in the making of a Georgian Tolstoy was the debunker of romantic myths, notably in the portraits of the most eminent master politicians of the nineteenth-century: Napoleon, snuffling miserably in his tent on the night before Austerlitz, Tsar Alexander, nervously crumbling biscuits as he fleshes out his speech. What the Bloomsbury art of biography,—Eminent Victorians, Roger Fry or Flushowes to Tolstoy, or what early twentieth- century pacifism owed to War and Peace remains to be explored. But there can be little doubting the vast impact of Tolstoy—from a Russian point of view—on Woolf, who in turn made him an honorary Georgian.

20Whatever the lasting effect upon Woolf in terms of the objective methods or craftsmanship of the works, Tolstoy’s influence was as important in the minute act of translating the texts from a partially unfamiliar language into an aesthetically satisfying whole, touching on the sounds, shapes and forms of Tolstoy’s music, as it was in larger terms of theme. Goldenveizer’s Talks with Tolstoi is revealing indeed from this respect, as an example in the art of ‘little biography’, recounting not the dramatic incidents but ‘half-finished literary products’ and anecdotal truths which tell a more singular tale of the Russian master’s greatness than any face-on traditional portrait could hope to do. Goldenveizer’s method of assembling disparate paragraphs on personality, music, emotion, subjectivity and consciousness, history, God, light, childhood, time read as tangents on Tolstoy bringing the vast nineteenth- century prophet abruptly into focus as a man. Similarly, Gorky’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy, translated by Leonard Woolf and Kot in 1920, uses Tolstoy’s methods to throw light on the man himself, bringing an anecdotal, human-dimensioned, poignantly debunked writer to the fore. As Virginia Woolf observes reviewing the work, Gorky’s ‘amateur photograph’ makes ‘the static Watts and Millais portraits insipid and lifeless’ (‘Gorky on Tolstoy’, Woolf 1988, 252); here too, the double perspective of Tolstoy’s vision pierces the soul: ‘Before his eyes, and very close to them, he seems always to be holding human life, scrutinising it, trying to penetrate into it and accidentally throwing off profound coarse wise sayings, as if they were sparks struck out by his mind’ (‘Gorky on Tolstoy’, Woolf 1988, 253).

  • 14 Steiner pays tribute to the Woolf essay, and develops her ideas of the tangential nature of Tolstoy (...)
  • 15 Desmond MacCarthy stakes the rather excessive claim that it was thanks to Tolstoy that ‘from then o (...)

21Here we have Tolstoy’s tangents, first observed by Woolf, which proved a turning point in the history of the reception of Tolstoy in Great Britain. While most contemporary literary journalism quickly sank into oblivion, Woolf’s Tolstoy remained a founding reference for Russian scholars throughout the twentieth century, including Steiner in his monumental Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, where Woolf’s metaphor of vision in tangents is spun out to the end.14 More importantly, the Georgian Tolstoy stood as the figurehead of new means and voices being tried out by writers coming of age from the 1910s.15 Gone were the epic panoramas or catalogues of fact that previous writers had sought to replicate, replaced by sounds, textures, methods of textual construction that could, from a single glance, glance off the intended subject as tangents of intuition. The Georgian Tolstoy is the master of linkages, sounding consciousness through ‘the continuous vein of thought’ (‘Tolstoy’s The Cossacks’, Woolf 1987, 77) asking those questions which disturb as profoundly as they delight because ‘they sound on and on in our ears after the music was finished’ (‘Character in Fiction’, Woolf 1988, 426). In this respect, the Georgian Tolstoy, Gorky’s ‘man- orchestra’ (Gorky 63), had shown a generation of writers less what could be done, than what there was left to do, particularly when the telescope could be inverted to show not only vast panoramas and oddities of close-up, but the mind’s eye itself. For this reason alone, Tolstoy sounds on in Woolf’s fiction long after she turns her attention elsewhere, to surface for example in a very retrospective diary entry in 1941:

Always the same reaction, like touching an exposed electric wire. Even so imperfectly conveyed—his rugged short-cut mind—to me the most, not sympathetic, but inspiring, rousing: genius in the raw. Thus more disturbing, more ‘shocking’, more of a thunderclap, even on art, even on than any other writer. I remember that was my feeling about W&P. (Woolf 1984, 273)

22In other words, to the end of her life, Woolf was still entranced by Tolstoy’s method of settling on the immensely big and the intensely small, understanding life in flashes of exquisite insight, and never quite finding the answer to the bleak question, why live? With Tolstoy, Woolf apprehended something essential about life itself and how fiction might encompass it asymptotically; she could then turn away to concentrate on her own fictional processes, laying down the Tolstoyan telescope as if to say ‘Yes . . . I have had my vision’.

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Woolf, Virginia, The Essays of Vi rginia Woolf, volume II : 19121918, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London & New York, Harvest Harcourt, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, volume III : 1919–1924.

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1 The significance of the date 1910 in Woolf’s essay ‘Character in Fiction’ (1924) has been largely discussed and commented upon. S. P. Rosenbaum offers one of the broadest takes on the question in Georgian Bloomsbury, notably quoting Desmond MacCarthy’s description of the 1910 post-impressionist exhibition as an ‘art- quake’. (Rosenbaum 2003, 1-13).

2 This opinion was frequently found in obituaries published in 1910. It is later corroborated by various Tolstoy scholars. See for example Simmons’ Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings, p. 4.

3 T. E. Lawrence writing to E. M. Forster, 20 February 1924; quoted by Steiner, 21.

4 See in particular the studies by Simmons, Lavrin, Baring, Gorky, Mirsky, and Steiner. Simmons quotes Maude who suggested that if life could write, it would write just as Tolstoy did (Simmons 76).

5 The term ‘Russian fever’ was frequently employed to describe the years 1912–921 during which the publication of Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoevsky’s novels in particular galvanized the British literary world. Phelps provides a remarkably concise and insightful reading of this period (Phelps 1956, 11–22).

6 This opinion is frequently found in documents of the era. David Garnett wrote to his mother asking, ‘I wonder if you sometimes rest for a moment in your translations to realise the tremendously momentous thing you are engaged upon? You have probably had more effect on the minds of everybody under thirty in England than any three living men’. (Autumn 1916; Garnett 304). Similarly, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Constance Garnett, saying, ‘Yet my generation (I am 32) and the younger generation owe you more than we ourselves are able to realise. The books have changed our lives, no less’ (8 February 1921; Garnett, 309).

7 Woolf specialists have tended to classify the essay as a reflection on translation. See for example the chapter on Russian literature in The Reception of Virginia Woolf, which affirms that ‘ ‘The Russian Point of View’ is first and foremost an essay about translation’ (353).

8 The following impatient judgements are revealing examples: ‘le fil très simple et très lâche de l’action romanesque sert à rattacher des chapitres de l’historie, de politique, de philosophie—empilés pêle-mêle dans cette polygraphie du monde russe’; ‘un fouillis de personnages, une succession d’incidents banals qui encombrent l’action’ (De Vogüé, 295).

9 However modernist James might prove in other aspects of his writing, his dismissive asseverations concerning Tolstoy’s writings mark him as decisively Victorian. Twelve years before his famous dismissal of those ‘baggy monsters’, he wrote, ‘The perusal of Tolstoy—a wonderful mass of life—is an immense event, a kind of special accident, for each of us; his name represents nevertheless no such external spell of method, no such quiet irresistibility of presentation, as shines, close to us and lighting our possible steps, in that of his precursor [Turgenev]. Tolstoy is a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all human life! —as an elephant might be harnessed, for purposes of traction, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house. (Knowles, 433).

10 The translated texts comprised chapters censored from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (Stavrogin’s Confession, see bibliography), Goldenveizer’s Talks with Tolstoi and Biryukov’s autobiographical sketch and letters published as Tolstoy’s Love Letters.

11 One of the more provocative slogans in the Futurists’ manifesto, ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1912) called for Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to be disposed of in this way.

12 This is not of course to suggest anything as rudimentary as cause and effect. Woolf did not need Kot to teach her about the use of inner voices in her fiction, and inner monologues can be traced back to the origins of the novel itself. On the other hand, if Tolstoy’s works were being specifically characterised by their use of inner monologue, and this was being presented as a remarkable feature of the Russian greats, Woolf may well have become more sensitive to its usage and development, or even experimented with it more deliberately in her attempt to establish her literary genealogy more markedly. The same has been suggested of Joyce. See Neil Cornwell’s study, James Joyce and the Russians cited in the bibliography.

13 S. P. Rosenbaum, notably, insists at length on the considerable impact this work had on the Bloomsbury group. See both Victorian Bloomsbury and Georgian Bloomsbury in particular.

14 Steiner pays tribute to the Woolf essay, and develops her ideas of the tangential nature of Tolstoyan poetics as the following quotations show: ‘The eye is borne away from an image of vivid and clamorous action and as the angle of vision widens, a scene of tranquil normality comes into focus’ (Steiner 80); ‘ . . . the technical form is a great curve of motion speeding outward from a conscious centre—the eye of the character through which the scene is ostensibly perceived—and returning decisively to earth’ (Steiner 245).

15 Desmond MacCarthy stakes the rather excessive claim that it was thanks to Tolstoy that ‘from then onwards, novelists began to try to get closer and closer to the actual content of the mind [ . . . ] and to surprise emotion at its source’, quoted in Phelps, 149.

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Claire Pégon-Davison, « Tangents in a Telescope: Virginia Woolf’s Georgian Tolstoy »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Pégon-Davison

Université de Provence

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