During my brief vacation in Russia, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the homes of two of the greatest writers who ever lived, favorites of mine. These great men were Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoyevsky. This was one of the reasons I wanted to see and experience Russia: to try to understand the genius of these particular writers.
I remember reading “War and Peace” when I was studying Spanish in Bolivia. I had plenty of time at night, after my studies and my conversations with my host family. All I had in the room was one light bulb. So I took out the huge book I lugged from Brooklyn and went into a completely different world than I had just experienced that day. I was in Czarist Russia in the wide expanse of history, Napoleon at the gates of Moscow, Prince Andrei and Natasha falling in love, Pierre the thinker musing on the meaning of life and love, surrounded by the forty or fifty well etched and gripping and believable characters that made up that world. I finished the book in two weeks! I could not wait to read his other books: “Anna Karenina” and “Resurrection”. I was permanently smitten by this great artist.
Compared with that, at first I hated Dostoyevsky. So deep, so conflicted, so much agony! It did not help that I was in high school when I was first exposed to his writings! Some books should not be read too early in life! When I reread “The Brothers Karamazov” in college, I humbly had to admit that I was wrong. I realized immediately after I finished that I had read the greatest book ever written. I am currently re-reading it for the fourth time, and thoroughly enjoying it just as if I was reading it the first time! In fact, a few years ago I finished a 10-year project reading every novel of Dostoyevsky while I read the 5 volume biography of him by the great literary critic Joseph Frank. I cannot say that I am an expert on him since I have not formally studied him, but I am sort of a ‘friend’ of his!
Because of my love and respect for these two writers, I made sure that, while I was in Russia, I went to their homes, both of which are kept intact to the minutest details.
Tolstoy had a number of homes. I went to his Moscow home: a sprawling house that sheltered Tolstoy, his wife and his 13 children! (This is not counting the 11 servants that took care of the estate.)
As I walked through the house and gardens, I could feel the aura of a man dedicated to the most minute of observations. If you read any of his works, you know that besides God Himself, no one had such an encyclopedic knowledge of human beings and the world at large. You would have to go back to Shakespeare and Dante to find noteworthy analogues. Something of his ‘aura’ could be seen in the tools he used to make shoes! Everything was interesting to him and he wanted to learn about so many things. He was a deep believer in Jesus, though an unorthodox one. He inspired Gandhi with his pacifism.
In St. Petersburg, I visited the apartment where Dostoyevsky lived with his wife and children. He died in that apartment. The clock was stopped at the moment of his death. A deeply religious man, he had beautiful pictures of Mary and Christ on the walls. But what captured an aura of his presence for me was the picture of his son Alyosha (the name of a great character in his novel “Brothers Karamazov”). Alyosha never lived in this apartment. The reason why the family moved there is that little Alyosha died at the age of 3, a blow so great that Dostoyevsky and his wife could not bear to be in the apartment any more, since everything reminded them of their beloved child; and so they moved. There, they had two more children. Walking through the home made me feel the honesty and the compassion of the man who could be both a person of faith and also so deeply sensitive.
There is something about people that transcend the facts of their lives: a deep greatness; the presence of grace that animates and guides them. This ‘aura’ teaches us never to reduce people to events and statistics. The person in the bed who is dying is an infinite being whose every moment has been filled with the Presence of God.
Walking through the living areas of these two great writers that used that mystery at the heart of things to teach us about humanity taught me a lot about myself and the people around me. We are all, in the words of the great poet Hopkins, “Immortal Diamond”.
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