The boundaries between people, the gaps that we run up against, are more interesting for writing than the “unity of humanity,” and Count Tolstoy was well aware of it. He was constantly stirring up the gap between the sexes, the language gap, the generation gap, the caste gap, the poverty gap, the gap of loneliness, of existence. Writing is about controversy and contradictions, the thin line between war and peace, internal and external. And Tolstoy was constantly crashing into all sorts of boundaries and divides. Especially the ones he wanted to abolish. When I was in school as a child, we discussed Tolstoy in Russian, and I was impressed that when he abolished the education gap between landowners and peasants and ordered his peasants to go to school, both sides hated him for it. When he joined the army, he hated it so much that he began writing out of desperation—and we know how that ended up. Out of love for Jesus, Tolstoy also wanted to abolish the gap between the churches, so of course he was declared a heretic. He also abolished the boundaries between literary genres. Yes, when he sat down with a piece of paper in Yasnaya Polyana to write the shortest short story of all time, he had no idea he had just written the first line of War and Peace. (Somehow it dragged on.) Tolstoy claimed he was writing primarily for simple people. Even though at that time in Russia they didn’t know how to read. Another boundary to abolish. And even though he was trying to write for Russian peasants, he brought Russian literature beyond the borders of Russia to the Western world, where it stunned educated literary audiences.
Are these paradoxes? Not at all. The life and works of Count Tolstoy prove that it doesn’t matter who a writer thinks he’s writing for and what boundaries, real or imaginary, he concerns himself with. It’s enough to be a genius.*
–Jáchym Topol is the leading Czech author of the post–Velvet Revolution generation, and “one of the most original and compelling European voices at work today” (TLS). His books include City Sister Silver and Gargling with Tar. His newest novel to be translated into English is The Devil’s Workshop.
*translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker / photo: Ondřej Němec
–Alex Zucker is currently translating novels by Arnošt Lustig, Tomáš Zmeškal, Heda Margolius Kovály, and Josef Jedlička. His translation of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.