A fascinating look at Tolstoy

The word "genius" tends to be overused, but it's hardly controversial to apply it to Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Even if you know him only by way of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and are ignorant of the rest of his 100-volume collected works, Tolstoy's talent dazzles. As a writer, he's regarded as being right up there with Shakespeare in the Western canon. Many critics rate him the greatest novelist ever.

While giving Tolstoy his due as an author in Tolstoy: A Russian Life, British biographer Rosamund Bartlett rates him equally high as a humanitarian. One of his many causes was popular education: While writing Anna Karenina, he mounted a spirited crusade for literacy. In a vast country with an impoverished and illiterate peasantry, Tolstoy was a hands-on champion of education for the masses. He devised his own teaching system, published his own ABC and primers and taught himself Greek in order to bring Aesop's fables to Russian children. He, his wife, Sonya, and their older children instructed peasant pupils on their estate. One of their sons later recalled the gamy smell of the sheepskin coats of the students and the "delightful anarchy" that reigned in the schoolroom.

Such evocative details are among the pleasures to be found in this fascinating account of a huge, mercurial, charismatic and exasperating life. Tolstoy lived from 1828 to 1910, a giant straddling two centuries. Researching War and Peace, he interviewed old soldiers who had beaten back Napoleon at Borodino in 1812. In the second half of his life, he embraced self-abnegation and non-violence, an example that influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The biography begins, like a fat Russian novel, with a map, a chronology and multiple family trees. Bartlett, a scholar of Russian cultural history, approaches her subject through the angle of his essential Russianness, finding in the context of Russian history, politics, literature and the arts the key to his multiple and often contradictory personas of aristocrat, landowner, soldier, war correspondent, gambler, writer, teacher, farmer, beekeeper, holy man, apostate, reformer, anarchist, ascetic and visionary. By the end of his life, he was revered both inside and outside Russia as its foremost citizen.

In this first English biography of Tolstoy since the fall of communism, Bartlett traces the ins and outs of his reputation in Soviet and post-Soviet times. For instance, he is admired by Chechens today, because during his army days in the Caucasus he treated its natives with respect and presented them in a positive light in his war reports.

All this background is interesting, but as one of those readers who comes to Tolstoy's life by way of the two great novels, what gripped me was the personal story, rather than the contextual surround. How did a shy, ungainly orphan bred in the old patriarchal traditions of the nobility on an estate on which serfs were bought and sold like chattel come to question most of the received wisdoms of his time and place, and forge his idiosyncratic path?

The short answer is, genius; the longer one takes 544 pages of small print. An indifferent student, he was a voracious reader from an early age. Obstinate and headstrong, he resented authority, but responded readily to the simple goodness of his Aunt Toinette, one of the great influences of his life. He began to keep a diary when he was 18 - Bartlett considers this, rather than the completion of his first piece of fiction at 23, as having been the beginning of his "turbulent creative journey." His youth was profligate: he lost his virginity at 14, and defined the next 20 years of his life as "crude dissolute living in the service of ambition, vanity and, above all, lust." (He readily exercised the droit de seigneur over peasant girls on Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate on which he was born and lived the bulk of his life.)

He married for love at 34, a woman 16 years his junior. Sonya Tolstaya devoted herself to Lev and tried to live up to his exacting standards for womanhood. This meant being in a perpetual state of pregnancy and lactation, while simultaneously acting as his amanuensis, decoding and copying out his illegible manuscripts. This regime worked for about eight of the 48 years they were together. It broke down in part because of his outrage at the idea of contraception. They had 13 children, eight of whom survived. The last was born when Sonya was 44 and he was 60.

They were happiest during the six-year period he worked on War and Peace, an activity to which he surrendered with pleasure. Writers and aspiring writers should note that in the period between War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy attempted a historical novel on Peter the Great 33 times. (He eventually abandoned the project.) Anna Karenina, his greatest artistic achievement, gave him a terrible time. He described it as "vile" and "disgusting" while writing it, and only completed it because he needed money.

Lovers of Tolstoy will enjoy this book. But if you haven't yet read him, do that first.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

by Rosamund Bartlett Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review published in

January 21, 2012

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