Richard T Kelly is the author of the novels Crusaders (2008) and The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (just published). Before turning to fiction he wrote several interview-based studies of filmmakers: Alan Clarke (1998), The Name of this Book is Dogme95 (2000) and Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004). Richard is a contributing editor to Esquire magazine, and editor of Faber Finds, a publishing imprint that reissues classic but neglected books across all genres. He also writes three blogs, one about Faber Finds, one about Doctor Forrest, and one on general interests. Here he writes about Leo Tolstoy's The False Note.
Richard T. Kelly on The False Note by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy's novella of 26,000 words known in English as The False Note or The Forged Coupon (I prefer the former) is among the last fictions that the great man completed in his lifetime. His Diaries show that he was contemplating the work from 1897; he didn't start writing in earnest until late 1903, finishing in 1905, but the novella was only published posthumously in 1911.
In those Diaries Tolstoy described The False Note as something of a formal departure for him, its tone notably 'sobre' (as he put it in the French). For sure it is a narrow canvas next to the Homeric majesty of his major novels; yet it might be compared to other shorter productions of 'Late Tolstoy', such as The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) – inasmuch as George Steiner has hailed the 'intensity' of these works as arising from 'the violent energies of compression'.
I find The False Note an endlessly involving piece, and I feel it ought to be more widely known and celebrated. It is a kind of parable about money (we might better say 'currency') and the problem of evil: how a simple exchange of tainted money introduces a current of malevolence into social relations. Yet it resists a straightforwardly materialist analysis. As the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia read it, Tolstoy exhibits 'a strange conviction that every society creates evil according to some kind of natural secretion, as certain molluscs produce pearls'.
The story's instigating act is that of a government tax inspector and 'gloomy liberal' named Smokovnikov: his feckless adolescent son Mitya seeks an advance of three rubles on his usual pocket money so that he might settle a debt, but Smokovnikov won't hear of it, dismissing the boy with 50 copecks and a voucher on a government bond worth 2½ rubles. However, at the prompting of a louche school-pal, Mitya hand-amends that voucher to the value of 12½ rubles and fobs it off for change on the wife of photographic goods supplier Yevgeny Mikhailovich.
An irate Mikhailovich duly swaps the voucher with an unwitting peasant (muzhik) firewood seller, Ivan Mironov, who tries to cash it at an inn, only to get himself arrested. The matter is brought before police but Mikhailovich denies his deceit and suborns his yard-keeper Vasily to the same ends. 'Master,' the offended Ivan addresses Mikhailovich solemnly, 'be sure your sins will find you out. One day we all must die.' But the merchant sticks by his lie, and Ivan is sentenced to three months in prison.
So far, so unpalatable. Worse, as Tolstoy writes, 'No-one perceived what had really happened - something far more grave than what could be perceived by human eyes.' The reader may come to consider this invisible process as the dark obverse of George Eliot's famous proposition in Middlemarch that 'the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts'. Tolstoy, in at least the first of The False Note's two parts, is concerned only with a mounting evil.
Vasily the yard-keeper had hitherto subscribed to the wisdom of the village from whence he came: 'Live with your wife according to the law, work hard, don't eat too much, don't give yourself airs.' But having observed his master's fraudulence, Vasily decides that henceforth everything is permitted. Meanwhile Ivan, out of jail, becomes a horse thief, making one audacious steal from a previously fair-minded landowner Pyotr Nikolayevich, who wrongly blames his peasants and proceeds to mistreat them so badly they will end up doing him to death. Ivan is brought to heel in due course by a mob of aggrieved muzhiks, but their leader Stepan Pelageyushkin is so incensed by Ivan's insolence that he kills him - an offence for which Stepan will serve a year's jail-time.
Possibly you see where all this is heading. But hold on. Tolstoy being Tolstoy, i.e. fiction's grandest of all masters, he didn't just leave the game in the shape of some linear pass-the-parcel. Widening ripples in the pool made by that first offence of 'the false note' are carefully traced; thus we meet the pompous priest Father Misail, determined that others be compelled 'to believe the things he had compelled himself to believe'. We meet bourgeois radical Katya Turchinanova, whose interests tend unwisely toward political violence. And we meet pious Maria Semyonovna, an old widow who lives resolutely by the Golden Rule and helps others selflessly for little or no thanks. 'All I know', she tells sceptics, 'is that it's better to live this way.'
In fact Maria's fate is a terrible one, for she runs into Stepan Pelageyushkin: released from that year in prison during which his wife died, now transformed into a scarily implacable cut-throat. He murders Maria and her family, but she dies so bravely that he is shaken, changed. Thus ends Part 1, but the pendulum of the piece has swung decisively.
Stepan is compelled to confess his crime to the nearest policeman. And, alone in prison, haunted by black devils of remorse, he repents. Vasily, sharing a cell with Stepan, will be moved to repent in turn, assisted by a lay preacher called Chuyev whose readings from the Gospels persuade Stepan that, in this life and on the whole, 'everyone had better be merciful...' Stepan becomes an evangelist, so devoutly so that the prison hangman loses the savour for his work and goes on strike. Hearing that rumour, the widow of Pyotr Nikolayevich (remember him?) is so affected she writes to the Tsar requesting mercy for her husband's killers.
Anyone with a feel for the religious in art will have gathered by now that Tolstoy is showing us the phenomenon of grace, which 'bloweth where it listeth' and alters the affairs of men in mysterious ways. Tolstoy was no backward sky-god worshipper but famously he did come to embrace religion as what his great scholar, R.F. Christian, called 'a moral code of practice'. Tolstoy's chief regard, like Maria Semyonovna's, was for the Golden Rule and an attendant life of austerity.
Of course, contemporary readers may find this to be thin gruel. In his consummate reading of War and Peace George Steiner asserted that 'the fairy-tale conceit, "from that day on he was a new man", plays too broad and uncritical a role in Tolstoyan psychology'; and that criticism might be said to count double for a short work, a parable, in which characters might be read as mere 'types'.
But for me The False Note has the feel - the force - of an Everyman story or pageant-play in which we are all, basically, each other. And no one should underestimate Tolstoy's inimitable power, even in the short form, to imagine all of human society, from its ostensible heights to its supposed depths. A few years ago in an Observer essay on the state of the British novel, Hanif Kureishi was quoted lamenting that unlike in Dickens's time there was not one writer around today who 'had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary'. But Tolstoy remains the supreme model of the panoptic novelist, and if we are lucky then he will always have literary disciples.
The simplest proof of Tolstoy's breadth comes by a passage near the end of The False Note, wherein the Tsar himself is found in contemplation of that plea for clemency from Pyotr Nikolayevich's widow. In fact the executions were carried out before the petition was presented; and the Tsar tells associates ruefully that the law is the law. That same night he awakens with an uneasy conscience. But he will not change, for Tolstoy shows us the Tsar has the wisdom acquired so dearly by leading politicians: 'he could not give himself up to the demands of the human being because of all the demands that are made on a Tsar from every side; as for admitting that the demands of the human being might be more binding than the demands made on him as a Tsar - he did not have the strength to do that.'
Those words always put me in mind of Tony Blair's much-noticed comment (in the Telegraph on Easter Sunday of 1996) that the dilemma of Pontius Pilate constitutes 'a timeless parable of political life' in its contest over whether to 'do what appears principled or what is politically expedient'. Tolstoy knew all of this and so much more; and while his major novels are obviously the essential expressions of his greatness I do firmly recommend to any reader the ingenious construction and scything moral vision of The False Note.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]