A Russian Life
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 544 pp., $35
Count Lev Tolstoy is one of those writers who was as fascinating and complex as his novels and stories. A man so awful and quarrelsome to those around him, especially his long-suffering wife, was nonetheless able to produce masterpieces of serene introspection and humane insights. How could Tolstoy, a loner, a quintessential outsider all his life, understand and evoke the glittering social whirl and intricacies of fashionable salons? How could someone so masculine through and through somehow plumb sympathetically in his fiction the female psyche, which seemed, in real life, to perplex him at times beyond endurance? In short, he is a dream subject for a literary biographer.
But with such richness comes the inevitable difficulty of writing about a man whose life was so messy and destructive, so tormented and tormenting to those around him, and reconciling all this mayhem with the lapidary literary products of his head and heart. The good news is that in “Tolstoy: A Russian Life” British Russophile Rosamund Bartlett, author of a fine biography of Anton Chekhov, has managed to reconcile the contrarieties and produce a marvelously judicious, insightful study.
Fundamentally sympathetic to Tolstoy, she is also adept at identifying events in his youth, like the early deaths first of his mother, then his father, that destabilized his personality: The result is a clear-eyed biography that never minimizes its subject’s faults while not losing sight of his better nature. Nor, all-important, of his artistic genius, with its protean imagination and prodigious talent for putting into deathless prose everything from historical and philosophical speculation to the simplest, most essential features of human characters and existence.
Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy is not one of those overburdened with literary criticism, which might dismay those who like a lot in biographies of writers, but she is so attuned to his creative process that little is lacking in her portrait of how he was able to compose all that amazing prose. She has a new translation soon to appear of what may well be the acme of his fiction, “Anna Karenina,” and it is significant that her excellent chapter on the intricacies of his struggles to perfect the huge task of writing it is simply titled “Novelist.”
Nowhere is the intimacy of her understanding of her subject more apparent than in her painstaking reconstruction of how Tolstoy was able to produce this prose miracle. A result that, she reports, left even its author “fairly nonplussed” to learn that “most recent reviews were hailing him to be a writer as great as Shakespeare, and that even Dostoyevsky was waving his arms about and calling Tolstoy a ‘god of art.’”
If there is one central insight running through Bartlett’s life of Tolstoy it is his essential Russianness. As if this was not sufficiently clear from the biography’s subtitle, she is hardly into beginning her story before she tells us that “Tolstoy lived a Russian life … exhibiting both the ‘natural dionysism’ and ‘Christian asceticism’ which the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev defines as characteristic of the Russian people.”
Soon we hear about him “exhibiting Russian ‘maximalist’ tendencies” and living up “to the reputation of the depraved Russian landowner”! When she rightly talks about his becoming a member of the intelligentsia, she cannot refrain from defining this by now universal term as “the peculiarly Russian class of people.” Only a couple of pages into the book, the reader may well be crying out “Enough already! We get the idea!” A unifying theme is a useful quality in a biography, but Bartlett comes perilously close to beating hers to death. But of course it has great validity and is a key to the universality of Tolstoy’s appeal: The deeper he delves into Russian society and the more his fiction mirrors its specifics, the more resonance it has for readers the world over.
Anyone who has seen the 2009 movie “The Last Station” will be familiar with the way Tolstoy’s life ended in what Bartlett pithily calls “a frenzy of international publicity,” the first great celebrity mass media event of the 20th century, acted out in the glare of newsreel cameras in a provincial Russian train station. Her account is, I would guess, deliberately brief and compressed, perhaps to put this incident in its proper place in Tolstoy’s life, to make his other feats and achievements rightly dwarf it.
Her judiciousness in so doing is an example of the fine biographical methodology that distinguishes the entire book and makes it a true pleasure to read.
Rubin is the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”