One of the keys to Tolstoy is his early admiration of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The young Tolstoy visited Hugo during a trip to Europe; the young Russian Count read and admired Les Miserables before he wrote War and Peace. This was a time when the Russians still had a culturally subordinate relationship to the French; notice how the aristocratic Russians in War and Peace, who would go on to fight the Armies of the Revolution, sprinkle their debates about Napoleon with Napoleon’s language.
Hugo’s novels are, in some ways, the kind of fiction Tolstoy wanted to write. Hugo is a moralist writing in novel form; his sympathy with and understanding of the plight of the poor, lower-class, and unfortunate (les miserables) is deeply felt and morally profound. In Hugo, the didactic and artistic tendencies work in unison.
As Isaiah Berlin, in his razor-sharp essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox, points out, in Tolstoy, the didactic and artistic tendencies are in conflict. Tolstoy the thinker wanted to write the Hugo-esque didactic novel; his miserables would be the Russian serfs. In War and Peace he wanted to teach history; in Anna Karenina, morality. The material, with Tolstoy, took on a life of its own in both cases. Consider that Biblical epigraph at the start of Anna Karenina—that dour “Vengeance is mine” seems, by the end of the novel, to have missed the point. The historical essays in War and Peace try desperately to fit that Tolstoyan sky in a picture-frame. Tolstoy’s characters and events buck the Overarching Vision and start behaving and occurring autonomously. The novelist Tolstoy hijacks both major novels from the didactic Tolstoy. In Hugo, you never sense this happening; the didactic writer and the fiction writer are the same man, at home in the same skin.
Tolstoy, before his religious conversion, consisted of two unintegrated Tolstoys. Their agon generated the “life” in those two novels. In the later fiction, the two Tolstoys are better integrated. The novelist has been harangued into submission and stays on message, except for a flash of detail here or there. The moral and religious vision in the later works is clear, but they are considerably less crowded. They contain more truth and less life—which is why they hold, for most readers, less interest.