“If I live.” These words translated from the Russian can be found at the end of nearly every dated entry in the 1895-1899 journals of Leo Tolstoy, who was born on this date, September 9, in 1828, and died at 82 on November 20, 1910. I wonder what Oliver Sacks, who died at 82 ten days ago, would make of Tolstoy’s daily acknowledgment of his mortality. Sacks’s maternal grandfather, who fled Russia at 16 to avoid being drafted into the Cossack army, might know. Perhaps it was nothing more than an abbreviated prayer. After “If I live” July 31, 1896, Tolstoy is quite literal, writing later the same day: “I am alive. It is evening now. It is past four. I am lying down and cannot fall asleep. My heart aches. I am tired out. I hear through the window — they play tennis and are laughing.”
Short, simple statements of fact. You can almost hear him breathing.
While the most familiar image of Tolstoy may be the photograph from 1908 of a white-bearded patriarch seated on a rattan chair, one leg crossed over the other, very much the ruler of his domain, I prefer the word-pictures by his neighbor in the Crimea, Maxim Gorky, who used to see him along the coast, “a smallish, angular figure in a gray, crumpled, ragged suit and crumpled hat … sitting with his head on his hands, the wind blowing the silvery hairs of his beard through his fingers.” This sounds more like the man who would write “If I live” and “I am alive” in his journal. But then, in the same paragraph, Tolstoy becomes “the old magician” in whose “musing motionlessness” Gorky feels “something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a search-light into the blue emptiness above the earth.” more