A passage from my piece on Gore Vidal yesterday (“As with Tolstoy, Vidal’s fiction — the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across — deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility”) brought this response from a reader:
The comparison with Tolstoy fails completely, to the detriment of Gore Vidal. In his thought Tolstoy was a religious crank who thought in crude black and white. None of the genius he brought to his fiction carried across to his later religious and moralistic writings.
The plain fact is, having read both some of Gore Vidal’s fiction and heard him speak on video etc, he is more consistent than Tolstoy and thus immeasurably superior.
To which, this brief reply:
Opinions on these matters are all subjective, of course; one man’s “crank” (an epithet applied not infrequently to Vidal himself by those eager to dismiss his discomforting views) is another man’s exemplar. But, with respect, I must say I find it hard to believe that you have actually read any of Tolstoy’s non-fiction writings on politics and power and war (as opposed to any of the “religious crankery” you might have run across.) And I seriously doubt that Vidal would have shared your opinion of these anti-war, anti-elite, anti-establishment pieces. (Such as those collected in Letters From Tula, for example.)
Certainly Vidal would have found much of Tolstoy’s religious writings to be risible — though I doubt he would have found them ‘crude,’ as he would have recognized the complex learning that lay behind them, and their logical, iconoclastic rigour (while, again, rejecting their religious premises). But beyond Tolstoy’s typically 19th century hang-ups about sex, his “religious crankery” focused mainly on ending war, ending coercion and corruption by powerful elites and institutions (including all religions), and establishing social, political and economic justice. There’s very little there that Vidal would have found entirely uncongenial, I think.
He might also have delighted in the fact that Tolstoy’s religious beliefs shook one of the world’s most powerful and repressive religious institutions — the Russian Orthodox Church — to its foundations, and led multitudes of people out of its stultifying grip. At the core of Tolstoy’s beliefs was a fierce commitment to intellectual liberty, to freedom of thought and conscience, even for those who disagreed with whatever particular notion he happened to hold at any particular time.
And I imagine Vidal might well have enjoyed Tolstoy’s “inconsistency” — especially the randy Russian’s inability to quell his rampant sexuality. After all, ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,’ and Vidal probably would have admired the restlessness of Tolstoy’s rather large mind, as it groped through the darkness that surrounds us all, chasing flickers of light here and there, never quite satisfied with any final conclusion, but pushed always by doubt, by inner turmoil, and by the desire to know more.
No one would argue that Tolstoy’s non-fiction has the power and genius of his greatest novels and stories. That was my point: that the true greatness of both writers lay in their artistic achievement, which lent greater depth and credibility to their non-fiction — whether or not one agrees with every single judgment or opinion they rendered.