THE DEATH OF A MOUNTAIN

For this winter’s early February night, as snow closes in again on my old home turf in New England and I sit in the surprisingly cold bluster of a Florida night that resembles a chill — if milder — winter night in the north…on this night, I say, I offer the Russian master Boris Pasternak’s recollections of his life, from a little volume I’ve been toting about in move after move for perhaps two decades. I finally read it and found within the poet/novelist’s account of the wake, if that is how they thought of it, for that mountain of a man that was Leo Tolstoy. He gave us, among many other things, War and Peace. What literate soul doesn’t aspire to read it? I read some version of it around high school age, probably an abridged version. I own an unabridged version and dip into it now and then. It remains a mountain I mean to climb. It defines that long, unread novel on every serious reader’s bookstore and library ‘to do’ list. It also continues to define epic literary greatness. Few have disagreed.

Yes, a mountain of a man and artist was Tolstoy — but Pasternak, in a room in a Russian trains station where Tolstoy’s body was taken before its journey home, writes…

“It was not…a mountain that lay in the corner of the room, but a little, wizened old man, one of the old men created by Tolstoy, one of those he had described and scattered over his pages by the dozen. Little Christmas trees stood all around the place. The setting sun cut across the room with four slanting shafts of light and formed a cross over the corner where the body was lying with the thick shadow of winter-bars and other little baby crosses with traceries of the young Christmas trees.

“The railway hamlet of Astapovo was transformed that day into a discordantly noisy encampment of world journalism.”

I guess some things never change: the media gaggle descending with all its collective feet. I used to be a member of that gaggle — and would love to have covered the wake and funeral of the Russian literary giant; the Russian “mountain.”

And, Pasternak writes on….

“The station buffet did a roaring trade, the waiters were run off their feet, too busy to carry out all the orders of their customers and serving underdone beefsteak at a run. Rivers of beer were consumed.”

Sounds like an Irish wake! We’ll call it a Russian wake. Well, it was fitting that the literary giant — the mountain — should be grandly observed and celebrated upon his passing.

Pasternak continues:

“To the chanting of a requiem, the students and the young people carried the coffin across the little yard and the garden of the stationmaster’s house to the railway platform and put it in the freight care, and to the accompaniment of the resumed singing, the train slowly moved of in the direction of Tula.”

Tolstoy had died at 82 of pneumonia. It was 1910. He was buried at his home estate, Yasnaya Polyana near Tula, Russia. The estate operates today as a Tolstoy museum and park the master’s unadorned grave can be found on the property.  

Russia is not a congenial place for many, especially merchants of truth, including artists. But it’s good to know the remains of Leo Tolstoy lie there peacefully in the country he loved and that his memory is treasured, even if disingenuously, by Russia’s indigenous enemies of a free society and free speech who, in bygone days, made life so difficult for that other Russian master and writer of epic novels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Pasternak offers here his own assessment of Tolstoy as a man and and artist who “all his life and at any given moment… possessed the faculty of seeing things in the detached finality of each separate moment, in sharp relief, as we see things only on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-embracing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory.

“To see things like that it is necessary that one’s eye should be directed by passion. For it is passion that by its flash illuminates an object, intensifying its appearance

“Such passion…Tolstoy constantly carried about within himself, ” Pasternak concludes.

The memoir from which I drew this recollection is called, simply, I Remember.

I’m glad the poet and author of the novel Dr. Zhivago recorded these moments, both solemn and festive. Indeed, how could he have forgotten being present the moment a “mountain” was borne away — into posterity.

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