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.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life By Rosamund Bartlett Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 544 pp.

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?

“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.”

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.

“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."

Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.