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.
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Bartlett also does a good job of narrating the development in the 1870s of Tolstoy’s "Azbuka," an ABC book and reader for children, which he devoted himself to revising at the expense of delaying the serial publication of "Anna Karenina" (the writing of which was an almost constant grind and struggle). But, depressingly, Bartlett can’t discuss any of Tolstoy’s fiction with any interest. It’s as if she were working from second-hand notes – not of the novels but of somebody else’s ideas about them.Skip to next paragraph
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“Toinette’s general view, that one should hate the crime, but not the person, was essentially Tolstoy’s, and holds the key to why 'Anna Karenina' is one of the most compelling and complex literary characters ever created.” Bartlett is offering tour-chatter here; that’s not the key.
She simply dashes through the last years of Tolstoy’s life (tour’s over!), as if those years are not in themselves illustrative again of his character. She dedicates the last 10 percent of the “life” to discussing his posthumous influence on the forgotten Tolstoyans of the Soviet era. Tolstoyans had the audacity to believe in individual conscience, independent communities, and pacifism – all prosecutable offenses. They, unlike their hero, were trying to follow his proscriptions about food, sex, and conflict. Tolstoy himself, however, was never a Tolstoyan; he was too vigorous a thinker and too physically active to bind himself to yesteryear’s resolutions. He never wanted ideological followers; he thought they were mentally deficient. He made himself write boldly and clearly and then would decide if he still agreed with himself. His real followers have always been readers and every novelist of manners and morals, war and peace, love and hatred, among them his younger friend, the short-story master Anton Chekhov.
With Tolstoy – unlike Thoreau or Lincoln or Chekhov – his letters and journals do not give us the great man. If we want Tolstoy the man there’s no substitute for a thorough familiarity with his fiction. If we can’t learn about Tolstoy and marriage from "Anna Karenina" and "The Kreutzer Sonata," if we can’t learn about Tolstoy’s deepest very mixed feelings about warfare from "War and Peace" and "Hadji Murad" and decide only to listen to his public pronouncements, we’re leaving out of account the artist who gave himself personal insight through his fiction, the one who makes us feel he knows our consciousness better than we know it ourselves. Tolstoy is the greatest artist of fiction who ever lived, and if that doesn’t put us in our place as readers and biographers, what does?
His political and religious influence after the 1880s was enormous, but he would have had no influence at all had he not been an unprecedentedly tremendous artist.
Whenever he tried to get sex, war, and religion sorted out in polemical articles and stories – we know because he tells us and shows us elsewhere – he has left out something of his feelings or knowledge. In most of his fiction and narrative writing, he doesn’t leave out anything; he discovers everything any one person has ever been able to dramatize about human consciousness. He was the most complete and conscious person who ever lived.
As for what the “A Russian Life” subtitle is supposed to suggest, I have no idea. Tolstoy was no more typically Russian than he was typically human. There has been exactly, let’s calculate … one of him. There is no non-Russian Tolstoy. There have been millions of Russians and billions of earthlings, but there’s only been one Tolstoy. His artistic creations extend his biography; this means, if you don’t know Anna Karenina, his greatest character, you don’t know him. Anna’s reality, down to her fingertips, is as real as we’re going to know anybody on this planet, and the anybody who created her should be the awe-inspiring, inconsistent, infuriating, incredible subject of this biography. His public moments and social influence make him seem almost just another great man.
Bob Blaisdell edited "Tolstoy as Teacher" and "Tolstoy’s Classic Tales and Fables for Children."