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Tolstoy: A Russian Life.


A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett

Profile Books 544pp 25 [pounds sterling]

ISBN: 978 84668138 7


Leo Tolstoy was a man who 'left giant footprints in every area of his life'--as writer, educator, thinker, political activist and guru--a man large in presence and ideas, bestriding a century, a country and its literature. Yet this giant among men was also deeply flawed and conflicted, often at war with his art as much as his wife, as well as with the political system in a Russia that he loved with his whole heart.

To take on such a literary giant in the context of so much dramatic personal and creative change over 82 years is a tall order and in this, the first major study of Tolstoy since A.N. Wilson's of 1998, Rosamund Bartlett presents a detailed gazetteer of the writer's life in Russia, the inspiration for his work and his ever-changing relationship with this, his family and friends.

The young Tolstoy was the archetypal, well-born reprobate--a womaniser and inveterate gambler who received his baptism of fire in the catastrophe of the Crimean War. Bartlett takes us briskly through his irresponsible early life, charting his many and hair-raising gambling losses, presenting a restless and rootless man who, despite his early successful forays into literature with Childhood, Boyhood and Youth and the Sebastopol Sketches, found no sense of personal fulfilment till he temporarily abandoned literature for his real love--pedagogy. From his position of privilege at his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy set out on a programme of educational work among the peasantry whom he revered, setting up schools and producing a reading primer in which ironically he took greater personal pride than in any of his literary achievements. It left his reading public highly frustrated--they wanted more of Tolstoy the best-selling novelist, a demand that he stubbornly resisted.

After years of aimless sexual adventure Tolstoy finally found love in his thirties with 18-year-old Sonya Behrs. Theirs was a remarkable but highly-charged marriage during which Sonya became not just the mother of 13 children (the role of endless brood mare imposed by a sexually voracious husband who did not believe in contraception), but also her husband's devoted copyist and amanuensis. Sparks flew when Sonya fiercely protected her husband's valuable literary legacy against perceived predators, which brought her into conflict with Tolstoy's manipulative secretary Vladimir Chertkov, whom Sonya despised.

For 48 years the couple, loved, fought, made up and fought again, between times mourning the loss of five of their 13 children. Through it all Tolstoy maintained a prodigious output of novels, stories, philosophical, educational and religious writings, as well as endless polemical tracts in support of his interests in vegetarianism, pacifism and religious freedom. His unpredictability as a writer was legendary: one moment he would give his readers great, all-embracing novels such as Warand Peace and Anna Karenina--in the latter case making them wait four years for its completion--only to abandon literature for years at a time to digress into long--and from a frustrated Sonya's point of view, uncommercial--periods of self-castigation and philosophical questing into the meaning of life, art and religion. His persistent challenges to established Russian Orthodoxy brought enormous controversy and, finally, excommunication. So much relentless conflict in his personal and creative life, heightened by an endless stream of pilgrims to his door and the histrionic Sonya's constant challenges, in the end prompted Tolstoy into retreat from celebrity into a simple, pared-down existence.

Bartlett's crisp, well-researched narrative takes the reader through the highs and lows of Tolstoy's turbulent life and career, describing the genesis of his books though without discussing their literary merits. She is strong on the detail of Russia at the time and on tangential subjects such as Tolstoy's visits to Samara, his interest in the Chechens and his support for the Dukhobors. His friendship with Turgenev is also well charted, but the book never really engages with the compelling cornerstone of the story--Tolstoy's complex personality and the intensely volatile relationship with his wife. His tragic end, fleeing home and dying at the lonely railway station at Astapovo, is strangely hurried and emotionally disengaged, failing to capture the magnitude of the moment. Nevertheless this is a readable biography for those looking for an essential overview.

Helen Rappaport is the author of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (Windmill Books, 2010).
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Author:Rappaport, Helen
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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