In War and Peace with Tolstoy

Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé in Russia, 1900

 

As Rainer Maria Rilke approached his 50th birthday, he was frequently asked to name influences on his career and literary work. In 1924, in response to a letter from the Swiss literary historian Alfred Schaer, Rilke mentioned to the Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Nekrasov, Ivan Turgenev, and Afanasij Fet. The name of Leo Tolstoy was conspicuously absent from his list. Several months later, in his answer to another biographical inquiry, he flatly denied that Tolstoy had had any literary effect on him whatsoever. Tolstoy’s role was a strictly cultural one, Rilke explained, and it would have been false to attribute to his visits with the Russian novelist any influence on his work at that time. Tolstoy, after all, only confirmed the discovery of Russia which became decisive to him. Tolstoy’s image captivated Rilke’s imagination as an artist who was struggling against his own creative genius.

Rainer Maria Rilke expressed resentment of Tolstoy’s moralizing aesthetics and failed to produce a monograph or an essay about the Russian novelist. Nonetheless, Tolstoy’s role was consequential: he provided Rilke with an anti-model for living and writing. After years of anxiety and indecision, Rilke became reconciled with Tolstoy in the fictional images of his novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Maxim Gorky‘s literary memoirs helped him articulate those feelings more precisely, and only as an established writer was Rilke able to find a compromise between his filial affection for Tolstoy the artist and his rejection of Tolstoy the preacher.

Lou Andreas-Salomé’s memoir Lebensrückblick (1931-33) corroborated Rilke’s assertions. She recalled that at the time to their travels in Russia, Tolstoy served as an archetype of the “eternal Russian” (der ewige Russe) and that his role was primarily symbolic. The image of the novelist formed for them, so to speak, a point of entry into Russia.

Despite Rilke’s public denials of Tolstoy’s importance for his work, he privately spoke about the Russian master in reverential tones. He was young and diffident at the time of his journeys with Andreas-Salomé and had no access to the language in which he which he could convincingly explain the complex phenomenon of Tolstoy’s personality and its impact.

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Portrait of a Mother

Anna Mathilda McNeill in Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother) James Abbott Whistler, 1871

 
 

Shushan Adoyan by Arshile Gorky, 1936

 
 

Cornelia Nobel in Woman I by Willem De Kooning, 1952

 
 

Ginevra de’ Pozzi by Guido Reni, 1612

 
 

Marguerite Merlet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1860

 
 

Eugénie-Desirée Fournier by Édouard Manet, 1880

 
 

Ernestine Faivre by Georges Pierre Seurat, 1883

 
 

Marie-Francoise Oberson by  Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1838

 
 

Lucy Read by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1797

 
 

Laura Catherine Bjølstad by Edvard Munch, 1899

 
 

Countess Adèle Tapié de Celeyran by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1883

 
 

Katherine Kelso Johnston by Mary Cassat, 1878

 
 

Sophie Maurice by Franz Marc, 1902

 
 

Marie Soukupová by Egon Schiele, 1911

 
 

Anna Cornelia Carbentus by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

 
 

Alina Maria Chazal by Paul Gauguin, 1890

 
 

Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert by Paul Cézanne, 1866-67

 
 

Barbara Holper by Albrecht Dürer, 1490-93

 
 

Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck by Rembrandt, 1630

 
 

Gemma Cervetto by Giorgio De Chirico, 1911

 
 

Elizabeth Griffiths Smith by Edward Hopper, 1916-20

 
 

Anne Mary Hill was the inspiration and model for Mother Tucking Children Into Bed by Norman Rockwell, 1921

 
 

María Picasso y López by Pablo Picasso, 1896

 
 

Laura in Mum by David Hockney, 1985

 
 

Lucie Brasch by Lucian Freud, 1983

 
 

María del Pilar Barrientos by Diego Rivera, circa 1904

 
 

Flora Angulo by Fernando Botero, 1990

 
 

Felipa Domenech Ferrés by Salvador Dalí, 1920

 
 

Julia by Andy Warhol, 1974