For Leo Tolstoy, penning brilliant masterpieces known the world over even in his own time was never enough—nothing was ever enough. Married to a devoted beauty who spent her life begging only for more chances to be his slave, he slept around with ugly peasant girls. Born with the wealth of a medieval noble, he lived like a monk, sleeping alone on a hard bed with a single leather pillow, dressing in plain farmer’s clothes. And though he was blessed with incredible literary talent (in addition to the work ethic necessary to realize that talent), after the immense successes of War and Peace and Anna Karenina Tolstoy began devoting himself increasingly to the lifestyle of the illiterate peasant. This was the answer to all life’s problems, for Pierre Bezhukov in War and Peace and Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, two nobles who correctly answer the eternal question of how should a man live? by drawing themselves closer to nature, to the earth, and to the peasantry.
Tolstoy followed his characters and attempted to produce everything life required by himself, just as a peasant would. He began with shoes. A decent man, Tolstoy reasoned, ought to be able to make a pair of shoes from scratch by himself. And so he visited the local cobbler, watched him work, followed his instructions, and struggled to produce a pair of shoes that would fit him comfortably and allow him to work his own fields: day after day he sweated, cutting wood to measure and hammering it to leather, but his creations always broke apart when he tried wearing them. They were too big or too small, unbearably uncomfortable, perfectly useless when the cobbler himself could churn out a decent pair for anyone in a few hours.
Still, Leo Tolstoy runs from nothing and no one. He kept at it, week after week. His literary production stopped as he obsessed himself all day with making a good pair of shoes. Here was the key to living the life of a good man: if only he could make a usable pair of shoes, everything else would take care of itself. He would cease yearning for perfection.
He worked and worked, and failed and failed, and one day one of his literary friends stopped by to inquire as to why Tolstoy, the thunder-god of writing, the father of literature, the wizard of storytelling, had ceased producing novellas and articles and short stories and tracts against eating meat or the Tsarist government or the corrupt Orthodox church, and he found Tolstoy sweating over his shoes in his study, next to a shelf lined with twelve volumes of Leo Tolstoy’s Collected Works.
Finally Tolstoy finished yet another pair of shoes, deficient as always, the product of many hours of desperate effort, and his literary friend picked up his shoes and placed them on the shelf beside the twelve volumes of collected works, and said:
“There! After all these weeks you’ve finally produced volume thirteen!”
His friend laughed, and Tolstoy sighed. Soon after he gave up on making shoes.
(This story is adapted, more or less from memory, from Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy, which is overflowing with stories like this—Tol-stories—How Tolstoy Learned Ancient Greek, Why Tolstoy Gambled Away His Family’s Estate While Planning To Write An Expert’s Guide To Card-Playing, Tolstoy’s Turnip Nose, The Suspicious Resemblance of Tolstoy’s Servants To Tolstoy Himself, Tolstoy’s Herculean Physical Strength, Tolstoy’s Adventures In the Crimean War, How Tolstoy Lost His Virginity To a Prostitute And Cried About It, Tolstoy’s Childhood Attempt To Fly, and on and on…)