Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Givers and Thieves

A trip to rural France leads to thoughts about Tolstoy, conviction, and conflicted acts of generosity.

Michael Greenberg


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A scene from Robert Bresson's L'argent (1983), based on a story by Tolstoy.

After landing in Paris, from New York, I went straight to the Gare Saint-Lazare to board a train to the town of Valognes in Normandy, a three-hour ride. On the train, I fell into a rushing sleep, then woke with a jolt, worried that I had missed my station. The carriage was empty except for an elderly couple tipsily playing cards, smiling at me in what seemed an invitation to join them. They got off at the station before mine, he with a thick carved cane in each hand, hobbling forward with a determined thrust of his hips, throwing his canes onto the platform and then climbing down, like a man lowering himself into a pool.

My friend Jim, who works at the Times Literary Supplement in London, greeted me in Valognes. He nodded approvingly at my sturdy shoes, which I had bought especially for the trip. “Walking is the main activity—and I mean the all-day stuff, with a picnic in the middle,” he said. “Nothing is compulsory, of course, but we ought to keep it up while God is still relatively good to us.”

At the entrance to the château where Jim regularly rents a gîte were two roads separated by about twenty feet of brush and hedgerow. “Proles or toffs?” he asked as he prepared to drive in. “Proles” was a farm track over which tractors rolled, while “toffs” ran along two manicured rows of plane trees. Jim’s gîte was once the estate’s boulangerie, now converted to a modest cottage. We were toffs and proles, I thought, on vacation in a foreign country but sleeping where the lowly bakers once toiled.

This, like many things of late, put me in mind of Tolstoy, an aristocrat who spent much of his life aspiring to be a peasant. At the height of his literary fame, he attempted to become a cobbler, apprenticing himself to a man who came to the house at fixed hours and was admitted by a white-gloved servant. According to Tolstoy’s biographer Henri Troyat, the cobbler would watch with apparent embarrassment as Tolstoy clumsily tried to drive the wooden pegs into the soles.

I told Jim of my fascination with Tolstoy’s spectacular hypocrisy, which appeared to me to be a major symptom of his genius. By the strange alchemy of his intensity, the hypocrisy didn’t cancel out his convictions but rather seemed to reinforce them. What captivated me was his drive to experience the totality of his beliefs, even when they shifted almost daily, his irrepressible desire to take on an ever-expanding range of emotions. The chasm between his beliefs and the way he lived tormented him. As Troyat describes it, Tolstoy was a stubborn Slavophile and Westernizing pacifist; a denouncer of private property who cannily added to his domains; hunter and protector of animals; omnivore and vegetarian; peasant-style Orthodox believer and enraged demolisher of the Church; artist and contemptuous scorner of art; sensualist and ascetic. I wondered aloud whether I was suffering from lack of conviction or lack of hypocrisy. “Probably both,” said Jim. “All I ever want to read here are bird books and the French dictionary.” He refused to have either a cell phone or computer. It was time for bed.

The following morning, Jim packed a rucksack with lunch, wine, and detailed maps of the paths we would be taking. As we set off, I found myself slipping into the state of alertness that his presence seemed to demand. I could feel his assessing eye, his ticking, planning mind. We passed a last cluster of houses and entered deeper into the countryside. I noted Jim’s practiced, conserving stride. He was a content, determined walker, putting me in mind again of Tolstoy, who, at sixty, thought nothing of setting off from Moscow with a pack on his back, covering the hundred and thirty miles to his estate near Tula in five days. Epic walking, I thought, was a sign of inexhaustible vitality: the forward march, the positivism of it, the purposefulness. It was fueled, in part, by a certainty of who you are, a kind of conviction of the self, an intangible power that, to my mind, Jim had built in himself and was purposefully keeping alive.

After a couple of hours, I began to wobble, stepping on the sides of my shoes, reminding myself of the old man with two canes on the train to Valognes—though when I pictured him he seemed filled with his own brand of vigor. My legs began to ache, accustomed, as they were, to a jerky, headlong New York gait. My arms swung a little wildly. I wondered if this was a result of my incendiary impulses, those brief urban spurts that made me unfit for the long haul. Jim pulled ahead of me, then waited, a subtle show of solicitude. As we walked side by side, our lives took on a rare, objectified glow. What we talked about was home, which in Jim’s case was London, on a street populated largely by people on the dole. I was familiar with his impatience with the cycles of welfare dependency that often spanned generations, grinding people down while instilling some with a simmering, riotous resentment. “The real social divide is cultural poverty. And we pay for them to extend their deprivation.” But I wasn’t prepared for the stories of his encounters with his neighbors. He told me of a “desperately lonely” Yemeni man, Abdullah, who lived in a basement down the road. One day, Abdullah asked him for ten pounds. “I’m begging you. I’m starving, I’ll pay you back. I always pay my debts.” Jim knew that the act of handing the note to Abdullah meant they had entered into an unpredictable, and oddly intimate, contract. They arranged for Abdullah to put the money in an envelope and slip it through the mail slot of Jim’s door. “On Friday, the envelope was there, as promised. I was almost hoping it wouldn’t be.”

The following week a pattern was established, though this time Abdullah took longer to repay him. About a month later, Abdullah gave Jim three hundred pounds to hold for him. “He was a gambler. Ponies. His horse had come in.” Jim was now his safeguard, his preventer, his trusted British superego and voice of restraint. “I represented England to him. I was a person who presumably knew how things worked, a connection to the machinery of an established world in which, for one reason or another, he couldn’t operate.” Abdullah would come to Jim as if to a bank, on one occasion calling from the street at eight on a Sunday morning until Jim opened his window, like a teller, and came down with another installment of cash. “He explained that he had been up since dawn, for early prayers.”

More stories came, among them that of a young woman who cadged him for twenty pounds, ostensibly to pay her gas bill. She promised to repay it. “I didn’t believe for a moment it was for the gas,” Jim said. “But as she was talking I thought of myself, and my decent life, and I thought if I can help this woman in any way, then I ought to do so. I gave her the money on the off-chance that it would jar her into thinking a little differently, that it would somehow change her.” Unlike Abdullah, she didn’t repay. “I met her a couple of days later and tried to remind her of the agreement. She treated me as if I had accosted her. I thought she might call the cops or start screaming. Then she hobbled off on her high heels, maybe to turn a trick, who knows. It would have been funny, if it wasn’t so sad.”

We continued on, along an ancient, sunken pathway in the forest and then out into open fields, toward the sea. Arriving back at the gîte, we felt as energetic as when we had set off. Jim built a fire where the boulangerie oven used to be. He had been husbanding his allotment of firewood, but at my behest he threw on the last log. During our second drink, I told him of the time I swiped twenty bucks from the till of a small bookstore on Third Avenue where I was working. I was sixteen. The shop was struggling. When it was forced to shut down, I felt as if my petty larceny was the equivalent of having held the place up at gunpoint. “Now I go around New York handing dollar bills to beggars, like some lost character from Bresson’s L’argent.”

In 1890, peasants were cutting down the birch trees in one of Tolstoy’s forests and stealing the wood. With Tolstoy’s approval, his wife, Sonya, lodged a complaint with the district chief. After the peasants were sentenced to six weeks in prison, Sonya tried to intervene. She had intended merely to show them who was boss, not throw them in jail, but the district chief told her that it was too late, she couldn’t have it both ways, the sentence would not be changed. The remorse Tolstoy felt was immeasurable. The apostle of poverty and the renunciation of property was responsible for a criminal conviction of theft. “Maybe we’re both givers and thieves,” Jim said. “Proles and toffs.” No matter what we believe.

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