What Was on Tolstoy's Bookshelf?
By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Tolstoy does not list Dostoevsky among his literary influences. In fact, throughout Dostoevsky's life (Dostoevsky died in 1881) Tolstoy professed indifference for Dostoevsky, who by contrast showed great interest in Tolstoy, both the man and his works. Dostoevsky had wanted very much to meet Tolstoy, but this meeting never took place. Dostoevsky wrote extensive reviews of Anna Karenina, and engaged Tolstoy overtly in his works. Tolstoy's tributes to Dostoevsky are much more covert. Scholars have found convincing evidence of Tolstoy reacting to Dostoevsky in his works, despite Tolstoy's possible attempts to underplay this feature.
When Dostoevsky died, Tolstoy wrote the following to a mutual friend, expressing his regret: "When he died, I understood that he was such a very kindred, dear and necessary person to me. I was a man of letters, and men of letters are all vain, jealous, I at least was that kind of man of letters. But never did it enter my head to compare myself to him, never. All that he did (what he did that was good and real) was such that the more he did, the better it was for me. Art arouses envy in me, intellect does, too, but matters of the heart [arouse] only joy. I thus considered him my friend and never imagined that we wouldn't meet. And suddenly, over dinner [...] I read that he is dead. Some kind of support was taken away from under me. I fell apart, and at that point it became clear how dear he was to me and I wept and I weep still."
In What is Art?, which Tolstoy wrote in 1898, he praises Dostoevsky for promoting "unity among humankind" and brotherhood in his works. For all his appreciation of these qualities in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy's response to actually reading Dostoevsky was mixed. The work of Dostoevsky that Tolstoy appears to have admired most is Notes from the House of the Dead (1860-62), a work of fiction based on Dostoevsky's experience in penal servitude. Dostoevsky gives us a first hand view of life inside a penal colony. Tolstoy's rationale for choosing this work no doubt has to do with the subject matter, which was something that was beyond his personal experience.
In 1910, in the last few weeks of his life, Tolstoy started reading The Brothers Karamazov, which had appeared in 1880. Earlier attempts at reading it had left him dissatisfied. Tolstoy complained in a letter and his diary about Dostoevsky's writing style. But he still wanted to read on. On October 28th, after abandoning his family and setting off from home on what became his final journey, Tolstoy wrote his daughter asking her to send him a few books, including the second volume of The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy was dead within ten days. The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's final novel, is filled with religious searching and a yearning for brotherly love. These are features we can surely imagine that Tolstoy could identify with.