Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Biographer Rosamund Bartlett shies away from examining Tolstoy as a writer – but has some interesting details to offer about Tolstoy the man.
A biographer of Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) faces more questions than a novelist: Can he or she recount Tolstoy's early years – so well described in his novella "Childhood" – in the same detail? Is it necessary to narrate the last year of his life, already so well documented by himself, his family, his friends, and onlookers? Is his difficult marriage – so fully covered by the testimony of the couple and their children and their friends and dramatized in various ways in his fiction – able to be presented in all its partisan confusion? Finally, given that Tolstoy evokes his own life and the lives of his fictional creations so vividly and deeply, how can a mere biographer compete?Skip to next paragraph
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“From the outset, Tolstoy conducted his self-analysis on the page,” notes Rosamund Bartlett in Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Bartlett, a Russophile Brit, Chekhov expert, and translator, is referring here to Tolstoy’s diaries, which he wrote in fits and starts with years-long gaps, but she really should be referring to his fiction, where Tolstoy lays himself out in mesmerizing super-consciousness: Tolstoy is never greater or bigger than when he’s creating.
His art usually transcended his tremendous and sometimes bullying intellect; critics and philosophers, however, love to show how they’ve out-thunk Tolstoy and show up what they believe are his mistaken ideas and his character flaws, but nobody has ever out-created him or dramatized a deeper consciousness. It’s easy to condescend to Tolstoy if you don’t take him at full-power, which is as an artist, the creator of the most extraordinary fiction in literature.
There have been plenty of good biographies of Tolstoy, though not for a while. Some are by people who knew him (Aylmer Maude and Tolstoy’s youngest daughter Alexandra) and others by people who didn’t (Ernest Simmons and Viktor Shklovsky). Yet they continually give us the sense that Tolstoy is the best presenter of Tolstoy. They trust that his own words and actions reveal him. The biographers who want to interpret and subsume our perceptions of him, including Henri Troyat and the abominable A. N. Wilson, have a lot of gall.
So Bartlett – a good, lively writer – introduces the book with an engaging overview of Tolstoy’s life and concludes with an interesting review of his posthumous influence on the Russian Revolution and the consequent Soviet suppression of his followers. Not unusually for a biographer, Bartlett seems to have wearied of her subject by the time she finished assembling her materials and rereading his fiction, and she’s much less taken with Tolstoy as a revelatory artist than she is by his extraordinary and unique social and political influence. While Bartlett’s Tolstoy is less a person than a phenomenon, there are several warm spots in the biography, and several aspects I’d never known or appreciated.
For one, Bartlett presents the long-overlooked sibling, Tolstoy’s sister Masha, who, we learn, left her husband, went abroad, had a baby with another man, and later became a nun. Tolstoy doesn’t seem to have ever scolded her for living Anna Karenina’s life and not throwing herself under a train. He himself was going to see her on his own final train ride. In the wake of Alexandra Popoff’s recent biography of Tolstoy’s wife Sophia and Michael Hoffman’s fine movie of Tolstoy’s painful last year, Bartlett also does a real service in making, of all people, Tolstoy's secretary and disciple Vladimir Chertkov – whom nobody I’ve ever read liked (except Tolstoy) – likable and admirable.
“… it was in Vladimir Chertkov, who came to visit Tolstoy in Moscow in October 1883, that he found his greatest kindred spirit and most devoted disciple. From this point until Tolstoy’s death Chertkov would occupy an ever more important role in his life as his closest friend and partner in their shared mission to disseminate what they saw as true Christianity.” Like Sophia Tolstoy, I had enjoyed despising Chertkov – but now I can’t, and I’m the better for it: “Chertkov had found his messiah and Tolstoy had found the confidant he had longed for.”