Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different Planets

In 1861 Turgenev and Tolstoy had a hell of a fight. It started when Tolstoy made some offhand, though pointed, reference to Turgenev's illegitimate daughter and Turgenev, understandably, got upset. Afanasy Fet was there at the time, it all happened in his house, and he reported later that Turgenev threatened to slap the other man, then ran out of the room. A little while later, after stewing and steaming for a while, Tolstoy sent Turgenev a letter. Tolstoy wasn't used to being slapped, or even threatened, and he demanded an apology. And I don't know why, but Turgenev wrote Tolstoy the letter. He said he was sorry, hadn't meant for the incident to get so out of hand, and then he mailed it to the wrong address.

Tolstoy never got the letter, and thought that Turgenev was ignoring him. The slap, or at least the threat of the slap, was bad enough. But to be ignored completely was just too much for the guy. He sent Turgenev another letter, this time challenging him to a duel in the woods. Turgenev was confused. He still didn't know that his letter had been sent to the wrong address, he had apologized to Tolstoy just as the man asked him to do. Why this? Why now? Turgenev was a fair guy, maybe even too fair, and he wrote Tolstoy again. He said: "I say in all sincerity that I would gladly stand under your fire in order to wipe out my truly insane words." Though Tolstoy was probably the one who should have been doing the apologizing in the first place. This all started over Turgenev's daughter, after all, and what business was it of Tolstoy's?

Anyway, Tolstoy actually got the letter this time, and he wrote back to Turgenev right away. He said: "You are afraid of me, but I scorn you and do not want to have anything to do with you." Strong words, but in another couple of months he changed his mind. He wrote again, this time apologizing for everything that went down. But now it was Turgenev's turn. He was abroad, and he never got the letter. He went to Paris, he went to London, he even met the Queen. While he was gone he heard news from back home. He heard that Tolstoy was showing Turgenev's letter around to all their old friends - the letter where he apologized for his "insane words" - and mocked him for being a coward. For Turgenev this was just too damn much. He had done everything he could, went above and beyond to make peace with the guy, and now this. This time Turgenev challenged Tolstoy to a duel. Almost as soon as he put his fresh threat into the mailbox, a letter came to his door. It was from Tolstoy, apologizing for the whole incident.

That day, giving up on the whole thing, Turgenev sat down and wrote to Afanasy Fet...

"Today, at last, I received the letter Tolstoy send in September via Davidov the bookseller (admirable punctuality of our Russian businessmen!), in which he states thathe had insulted me intentionally and apologizes, etc. And almost at the same moment, owing to certain gossip I think I told you about, I challenged him to a duel. What can we do? We must act as though we lived on different planets or in different centuries."

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