Book Reviews - Winter 2012

Identity Crisis

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Who was the real Tolstoy?

By Marshall Poe

November 29, 2011


Tolstoy: A Russian Life, By Rosamund Bartlett, Houghton Mifflin, 544 pp., $35

It takes some moxie to write a biography of Tolstoy. His favorite subject was himself, and so he might be said to have written his own biography, though without ever writing a formal autobiography. His earliest works—especially Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1856)—are transparently about himself. His most famous works—War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877)—are not exactly about himself, but rather about people just like him. And his later works—the preachy ones like The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) and Resurrection (1899)—are about the person he wanted to be (and thought you should want to be, too). Tolstoy loved attention, though he never seemed to get enough of it, and he encouraged people to talk and write about him. A mountain of Tolstoyana accumulated during his lifetime, and his many biographers have picked through it all. What, then, is left to say about Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy that hasn’t already been said?

Rosamund Bartlett had to consider this question before she embarked on Tolstoy: A Russian Life. She gives two answers in the pages of this excellent book. One is implicit and refreshing: we know every significant thing of a factual nature about Tolstoy. We can almost say, for example, where Lev Nikolayevich was every day of his life. We also know a lot about what he was thinking, what he was doing, whom he was talking to, and what he ate on each of those days. Bartlett’s is not a book of revelation. Which brings us to her second, explicit answer: anything new to say about Tolstoy must be interpretive. “The greatest task facing the biographer,” she writes, “is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life.” I’m not sure anyone is really larger than life, but Tolstoy needs to be made sense of because he was not like the rest of us in many interesting ways.

At the center of Bartlett’s interpretation is the idea that Tolstoy doesn’t really seem like one person. From the moment he came to consciousness, he was wondering—usually with pen in hand—who he was and what he should do. He was not alone in this, as Bartlett points out. Nineteenth-century Russia was like a ball spinning on a roulette wheel (Tolstoy was seriously addicted to gambling): no one knew where it was going to land, but everyone knew it would land eventually and was frightened by the prospect. If Russian literature of the period has a main theme, it is this worried expectation, this existential uncertainty, this fear of the inevitable unknown. Maybe Russia would miraculously morph into a Western-style liberal monarchy. Or maybe the serfs would rise up and murder every member of the aristocracy, man, woman, and child. No one in Tolstoy’s privileged (and anxious) class knew what would happen, least of all the congenitally hypersensitive, self-critical, ever-searching Tolstoy himself. Perhaps it was this uncertainty that drove him to try on various selves, looking for the right fit: student, slacker, enfant terrible, rake, soldier, pianist, master, gambler,  journalist, teacher, beekeeper, patriarch, peasant, pundit, child of nature, ascetic, holy fool, and cult leader. But none did fit. And all the while he wrote, and wrote beautifully, about the many personalities he inhabited.

Bartlett’s most profound insight is that these personalities followed established national patterns:

[Tolstoy] embodied at different times of his life a myriad Russian archetypes, from “repentant nobleman” to the “holy fool.” … From the time that he was born into the aristocratic Tolstoy family in the idyllic surroundings of his ances- tral home at Yasnaya Polyana to the day that he left it for the last time at the age of eighty-two, Tolstoy lived a profoundly Russian life.

Tolstoy was not, as literary critics have said, a universal genius who peered unflinchingly into the inky blackness of the tortured human soul. No, he was a rich, well-educated, insecure Russian with a remarkable gift for observing, dramatizing, and serially adopting the lives of his countrymen. Although he became the guru of a worldwide religious movement (the “Tolstoyans”), he never really transcended his surroundings—in either his writing or his life. This does not diminish his artistic and spiritual accomplishments. Drawn directly from life, his stories and novels evoke the agony Russia and Russians experienced in the mid- to late-19th century. And although his moral philosophy was a muddle of derivative, simplistic, and unrealistic platitudes, he came to a conclusion that is hard to argue with: we should help each other, and it is only through helping each other that we can enjoy any lasting serenity on this earth.

Bartlett does a fine job of tracing Tolstoy’s journey of self- and national discovery, and she clearly enjoyed the trip herself, as she tells us in a charming aside. Noting that Lev Nikolayevich had no sense of humor, she admits that this deficit is “the single thing which sometimes makes the study of Tolstoy’s life and works slightly hard-going.” Happily, nothing in her book is at all hard-going. Quite the contrary.


Marshall Poe is the editor-in-chief of the New Books Network and host of the podcast New Books in History.


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