Retro Review: The Uncrowned Tsar of Russia

I was in Dubray’s bookshop today, browsing the biography section downstairs, when saw that Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy biography is finally out in paperback. I reviewed the hardcover for the Irish Examiner just over a year ago (and have some oddly vivid memories of reading the book on a bench outside the bus station in Limerick City in late November) so it was nice to see a quote from that piece  inside the cover of this edition. Not a bad time to archive said review to the blog here so!

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett

Profile Books

Review: Val Nolan

Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy: a womanising nobleman who became a holy fool, a soldier who invented war reporting, a teacher dedicated to the poorest children, and a novelist capable of articulating the ever-changing depths of human behaviour. Leo Tolstoy’s long life coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of Russian history but he never allowed himself to be overwhelmed by it. If anything, the opposite is true.

Published one hundred years after Tolstoy’s death, Rosamund Bartlett’s new biography traces the maddening twists and turns of this contrary life. While there have been other Tolstoy biographies, Henri Troyat’s sweeping 1965 effort and A.N. Wilson’s more opinionated version from 1988, Bartlett’s book enjoys certain advantages over both for the reader who knows little about the subject. She eschews literary analysis in favour of Tolstoy the man, and is particularly strong on the intimate relationship between his work and the ordinary Russians who inspired it.

Scion of a distinguished family, Tolstoy was born into a childhood of privilege and staggering wealth. By the age of 19 he was already an affluent landowner, having his way with serf girls and squandering his inheritance on games of cards. Often he had to sell off whole villages to pay his enormous debts, fritting away years of ‘crude dissolute living in the service of ambition, vanity, and above all, lust’.

At university he spent more time in the venereal disease clinic then he ever did in lectures. An idle, reluctant student, his search for distraction and adventure led him to the Caucasus where he signed up with the army, the traditional moral obligation of Russian noblemen.

Passed over for promotion and decoration, Tolstoy buried his sorrows in writing, honing the dedication to realism which would become his hallmark. Greatly moved by the heroism of fighting men, and horrified by the futility of war, he produced ‘Sebastopol in December’, a bleak depiction of army life which propelled him into the realm of national celebrity. He was still only 27.

The social and literary milieu to which Tolstoy returned from the war is wonderfully evoked by Bartlett, who weaves a colourful tapestry of hangers-on out of those who sought the young Count’s company despite his being ‘not a particularly attractive person’. Indeed, Tolstoy alienated most of his fellow writers with his combative nature and eccentric views. While he often challenged his friends to duals, he always found a way of escaping the obligation.

With such abrasive manners, it is no surprise that his attempts to find a wife always ended in failure. His many flings with gipsy women were one thing, but Tolstoy, now in his mid-30s, sought the emotional stability of marriage. It was only when he met Sonya Andreyevna, an impressionable girl of 18, that he found the necessary cure for his vices. Their first years together, which included the composition of War and Peace and the birth of their first four children, were some of the happiest of his life.

Above all else, Sonya wanted her husband to be a writer. She emerges from this biography a more fully realised person then Tolstoyans typically like to admit. Yes she was resentful of her husband’s flights of fancy, but she also proofed all his writing and produced fair-copies of his novels by hand, no small task when you consider that the drafts of War and Peace ran to over 5,000 manuscript pages.

An epic about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, War and Peace required furious work and research, numerous false starts, several different titles and six years of Tolstoy’s life, but the response was electric. It was a novel which engrossed not just Russia, but the world.

In its aftermath, Tolstoy took himself out ploughing fields with his serfs and embarked on a lengthily but productive detour into pedagogy, setting up schools and assembling his ABC, a reading guide for children. While he considered the ABC a greater work than War and Peace, it brought in very little money, and, at Sonya’s insistence, he began work on a new novel, Anna Karenina.

Again the accolades were plentiful, but the book’s success had an altogether unexpected effect on Tolstoy, prompting an existential despair which consumed him in the wake of its publication. Not content with wealth and fame, or even an adoring family, his life was about to undergo another of its periodic U-turns.

Repudiating orthodox religious doctrine, Tolstoy made his own translations of the Gospels which stripped them down to just their moral messages. Desiring to simplify his life, he relinquished his title and property, even the copyrights on his fiction. He rejected the immoral institution of serfdom, became a vegetarian and advocated manual labour and non-resistance to violence.

One of the great virtues of Bartlett’s writing is that this transformation is handled without the judging tone of Wilson’s biography. These were decisions which Tolstoy took willingly, and the latter half of Bartlett’s book presents a convincing and genuine engagement with his growing radicalism, doing so on the terms which, by the 1890s, saw Tolstoy become the most famous man in Russia.

A political rebel and a religious heretic, Tsar Alexander III branded the novelist a ‘Godless nihilist and a dangerous figure who needed to be stopped,’ while, in a P.R. disaster, Russia’s Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy just to be rid of him. An increasingly unhappy Sonya also begged her husband to desist, but it was too late.

The nobleman now aspired to be a Yurodivy, or a Holy Fool, seeking to challenge social and religious conventions wherever he found them. In his final years he began to dress in rags and led an ascetic life, welcoming spiritual pilgrims from all across the nation. He received over 50,000 letters from admirers, almost 10,000 of which he responded to personally.

Even in death he was a thorn in the side of Imperial Russia. Though Lenin rejected pacifism, Tolstoy nonetheless became a patriarch for the Bolshevik movement. By highlighting social inequality and advocating the abolition of private property, his writings earned a place as set school texts throughout the Soviet period.

A readable, rigorously researched introduction to one of the world’s greatest writers, Bartlett’s biography draws on many sources which have been published since the collapse of the USSR. Scholarly, but never off-putting, she succeeds in bringing to life a controversial and contradictory figure for whom art was part psychology and philosophy was part religion, a moral leader to a nation and a man who lived a life as epic as any in his fiction. For readers who have wrestled with Tolstoy’s great novels, this is a logical and worthy next step.

  • Dr. Val Nolan lectures on literature at NUI Galway.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 11th December, 2010.

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