Honesty is the essence of dialogue.

from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy page 243 fiction ~5 min read

Levin had long ago observed that when things are made awkward by people’s excessive compliance and submission, they are soon made unbearable by their excessive demandingness and fault–finding. He felt that this was going to happen with his brother. And indeed, brother Nikolai’s meekness did not last long. The very next morning he became irritable and diligently applied himself to finding fault with his brother, touching the most sensitive spots.

Levin felt himself guilty and could do nothing about it. He felt that if they both had not pretended but had spoken, as the phrase goes, from the heart – that is, only what they both actually thought and felt – they would have looked into each other’s eyes, and Konstantin would have said only, ‘You’re going to die, to die, to die!’ and Nikolai would have answered only, ‘I know I’m going to die, but I’m afraid, afraid, afraid!’ And they would have said nothing else, if they had spoken from the heart. But it was impossible to live that way, and therefore Konstantin tried to do what he had tried to do all his life without succeeding, and what, in his observation, many could do so well, and without which it was impossible to live: he tried to say what he did not think, and kept feeling that it came out false, that his brother noticed it and was annoyed by it.

On the third day, Nikolai provoked his brother to tell him his plans again and began not only to condemn them, but deliberately to confuse them with communism.

‘You’ve just taken other people’s thought and distorted it, and you want to apply it where it’s inapplicable.’

‘But I’m telling you, the two have nothing in common. They deny the justice of property, capital, inheritance, while I, without denying this main stimulus’ (Levin was disgusted with himself for using such words, but, ever since he had become involved in his work, he had inadvertently begun to use non–Russian words more and more often), ‘only want to regulate labour.’

‘That’s the point, that you’ve taken other people’s thought, lopped off everything that gives it force, and want to insist that it’s something new,’ said Nikolai, angrily twitching in his necktie.

‘But my thought has nothing in common ...’

‘There,’ said Nikolai Levin, with a malicious gleam in his eyes and an ironic smile, ‘there at least there’s a geometrical charm, so to speak – of clarity, of certainty. Maybe it’s a Utopia. But let’s suppose it’s possible to make a tabula rasa of the whole past: there’s no property, no family, and so labour gets set up. While you have nothing ...’

‘Why do you confuse them? I’ve never been a communist.’

‘But I have been, and I find that it’s premature but reasonable, and that it has a future, like Christianity in the first centuries.’

‘I only suppose that the work force must be considered from the point of view of natural science – that is, study it, recognize its properties, and...’
‘But that’s all useless. This force itself finds a certain way of action, according to its degree of development. Everywhere there were slaves, then métayers;[1] and with us, too, there’s sharecropping, leasing, hired help – what are you seeking?’

Levin suddenly became aroused at these words because in the depths of his soul he was afraid it was true – true that he wanted to balance between communism and the established forms and that this was hardly possible.

‘I’m seeking a productive way of working, both for my own sake and for the workers,’ he answered hotly. ‘I want to set up ...’

‘You don’t want to set up anything, you simply want to be original, as you have all your life, to show that you don’t simply exploit the muzhiks but do it with an idea.’

‘Well, so you think – and let’s drop it!’ Levin replied, feeling the muscle on his left cheek quivering uncontrollably.

‘You have no convictions and never had any, you only want to coddle your own vanity.’ ‘Well, splendid, then leave me alone!’

‘And so I will! And it’s high time, and you can go to the devil! I’m very sorry I came!’

No matter how Levin tried afterwards to calm his brother down, Nikolai would not listen to anything, saying that it was much better to part, and Konstantin saw that for his brother life had simply become unbearable.

Nikolai was already on the point of leaving when Konstantin came to him again and asked him in an unnatural manner to forgive him if he had offended him in any way.

‘Ah, magnanimity!’ Nikolai said and smiled. ‘If you want to be in the right, I can give you that pleasure. You’re right, but I’m still leaving!’

Only just before his departure Nikolai exchanged kisses with him and said, suddenly giving his brother a strangely serious look:

‘Anyhow, don’t think badly of me, Kostya!’ and his voice trembled.

These were the only sincere words spoken. Levin understood that they implied: ‘You see and know that I’m in a bad way and we may never see each other again.’ Levin understood it, and tears gushed from his eyes. He kissed his brother once more, but there was nothing he could or knew how to say to him.

Three days after his brother’s departure, Levin also left for abroad. Running into Shcherbatsky, Kitty’s cousin, at the railway station, Levin amazed him with his gloominess.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Shcherbatsky asked him.

‘Nothing, it’s just that there’s not much cheer in the world.’

‘Not much? Come with me to Paris instead of some Mulhouse. You’ll see how cheerful it is!’

‘No, I’m finished. It’s time for me to die.’

‘A fine thing!’ Shcherbatsky said, laughing. ‘I’m just ready to begin.’

‘I thought the same not long ago, but now I know that I’ll die soon.’

Levin said what he had really been thinking lately. He saw either death or the approach of it everywhere. But his undertaking now occupied him all the more. He had to live his life to the end, until death came. Darkness covered everything for him; but precisely because of this darkness he felt that his undertaking was the only guiding thread in this darkness, and he seized it and held on to it with all his remaining strength.


  1. Tenant farmers. ↩︎

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 243