Thursday, September 5, 2013

Becoming a Writer: Tolstoy on Maupassant


Leo Tolstoy. Preface to Nikirov's Russian translation of Maupassant  (1896).  In this brief essay Tolstoy gives his personal view of the ingredient that gives unity to a work of art: the soul of the artist.


People little sensitive to art often think that a work of art possesses unity when the same personages act in it from beginning to end, when all is built on one and the same fundamental plan of incidents or when the life of one and the same man is described. This is mistaken; and the unity appears true only to the superficial observer.

The cement which binds together every work of art into a whole and thereby produces the effect of life-like illusion is not the unity of persons and places, but that of the author's independent moral relation to the subject. In reality, when we read or examine the art­work of a new author, the fundamental questions which arise in our mind are always of this kind: 'Well, what sort of a man are you? What that distinguishes you from all the people I know, and what information can you give me, as to how we must look upon our life.

Whatever the artist depicts, whether it be saints or robbers, kings,  or lackeys, we seek and see only the soul of the artist himself. And If he be an established writer, with whom we are already acquainted, the question is no longer: 'Who are you?' But 'Well what else can you tell me that is new? From what standpoint will you now illuminate life for me?'

Therefore, a writer who has not a clear, definite and fresh view of the universe, and especially a writer who does not even consider this necessary cannot produce a work of art. Though he may write much and beautifully, no work of art will result. So it was with Maupassant and his novels.


To become a writer I write every day. Since English is my second language, when I write essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers (available in amazon).


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