Tolstoy: A Russian Life, By Rosamund Bartlett
A writer's story, a nation's war and peace
Published 03/12/2010 | 13:06
Lev Tolstoy is in every way a giant of the 19th-century: a giant – or, as Chekhov described him, a Jupiter – of Russia, of Europe, of the world.
You might reasonably argue that if anyone deserves a doorstopper of a biography, it is he. I doubt, though, that I will be alone in having approached this weighty volume with trepidation and not a little ill-will. Why, if you have spent a portion of your life grappling with the great novels of 19th and 20th-century Russia, is it somehow presumed that you will be amenable to spending another portion on biographies that match them for length, page by page?
Thank goodness, in terms of pages at least, Rosamund Bartlett's magnum opus is more Anna Karenina than War and Peace. But it is also, as the subtitle suggests, much more than a biography of Tolstoy – though it is that as well. It is a highly accessible and intelligent account of Russia's history, society and culture from the late 18th to the early 20th-century – the duration, in fact, of Russia's pre-revolutionary literary life.
Lev Tolstoy, of course, spans the whole. But Bartlett begins, in a sense, before the beginning, with a neat and illuminating account of his forebears. And she ends after the end, looking ahead not only to the Bolshevik revolution that Tolstoy's iconoclasm helped, in many ways, to foment, but to the way his legacy was treated, or mostly mistreated, in the Soviet Union.
In between, she charts Tolstoy's long and eventful life against the background of Russia's cultural development and the cataclysmic political and social changes the country experienced, as successive tsars lurched from repression to freedom and back again.
Bartlett's biography is worth tackling for four qualities alone. The first is her insight into the many contradictions of Tolstoy's character, which she traces from his earliest days. He is the aristocrat who strove to become a peasant but could never truly conceal his origins. He was poor when he needed to be rich and vice versa, after War and Peace made him a wealthy man. He embraced Russian Orthodoxy only to denounce it and, eventually, when the Church authorities summoned up the courage, he was excommunicated – something that, she notes, damaged the Church far more than it damaged him. He was at once a Puritan and a hedonist, a 'wild' non-conformist who also had a childlike streak to his character.
Its second merit is the way Bartlett places Tolstoy in the much wider cultural context. It is easy for Tolstoy to dominate his biographies to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. While preserving his centrality, Bartlett fits him into the complex fabric of the times. She charts his initially rocky relations with the journal editors on whom he depended for his early income, so illuminating the workings of 19th-century Russian publishing. She notes the wariness with which Tolstoy regarded the other great novelist of the age, Dostoevsky, the contrasts between them, and the curiosity that they almost met, but actually never did. She traces the on-off friendship between Tolstoy and Turgenev, whose estate was, in Russian terms, practically next door, and the generally warm relations between Tolstoy and Chekhov, who shared his zeal for social criticism and reform.
The third great strength of Bartlett's biography is the weight she gives both to his philosophical writings, and to his social activism, which is a salutary corrective to those, including his Soviet critics, who concentrate on the great novels to the exclusion of all else. Some might feel that – partly because of this – Bartlett devotes less detailed attention to the major novels than might be expected in a biography of this length and scope. But if there was a conscious judgement here, it was right. The major novels are the known quantities, and Bartlett usefully points up what Tolstoy incorporated from his experience and what he embellished. It is not the novels, but the ideas and activism that have been neglected.
The fourth distinguishing feature, and a considerable one, is Bartlett's relatively sympathetic treatment of the women in Tolstoy's life, chief among them his put-upon and increasingly resentful wife, Sonya. It was unfair of Tolstoy, she writes, "to expect her to follow him meekly on his quest to lead a more spiritually enlightened ascetic life just because he decided it was time to change". Admirably, however, Bartlett resists the temptation to superimpose today's mores on earlier, and different, times. She does not exaggerate the social possibilities that were open to them. She gives a realistic, not a campaigning, account.
A bonus throughout is Bartlett's pleasant, unimposing style that makes her 450-plus pages far less of a chore than they might otherwise have been. For those with the interest and patience to persist, there are extensive notes. Unusually, there is a generous amount of the right sort of apparatus, such as maps, family trees, a chronology, and contemporary illustrations.
For readers who might feel they already know as much about Tolstoy as they need or want to, I suggest – quite irresponsibly – that they make haste to the final chapter, "Patriarch of the Bolsheviks" - a term coined by the writer's early, and distinguished English translator, Aylmer Maude – charting what happened to Tolstoy's work after 1917.
Initially hopes were buoyed by the lifting of censorship and Lenin's personal commitment to the publication of a complete edition of his work. It was not long, however, before even the Russian Jupiter suffered the same fate as most lesser cultural figures. Those of his heirs who did not quickly go into emigration found themselves increasingly on the wrong side of the authorities. The estate at Yasnaya Polyana, first looted by the Bolsheviks, then protected, then nationalised, fell into disrepair, the project for a complete edition languished, and unsubtle reinterpretation placed Tolstoy's work remarkably soon at the service of the new rulers. The Bolsheviks were even less kind towards those who elected to follow Tolstoy's ideology and way of life. By 1978 she notes, "fewer than 50 original Tolstoyans were left alive in Russia; hundreds had been thrown into prisons, concentration camps and lunatic asylums and more than 100 had been shot dead for the sake of their beliefs".
Bartlett hails the cultural renaissance that followed Gorbachev's "glasnost" and the fall of the Soviet Union, and rightly lauds the Russian scholars who are preparing new editions and finding out what happened to his followers, while noting that the least forgiving institution has been the Orthodox Church. But it is a pity, I feel, that her very last sentence is a political jab that suggests Tolstoy's work is again under threat. "To a church and state," she writes, "once again forging close bonds in today's authoritarian Russia, Tolstoy's teaching must seem as problematic and dangerous as ever". This is a judgement, I believe, that is both inaccurate and ephemeral, and it detracts – if only a little – from the magisterial sweep and scale of everything that went before.