BIOGRAPHY REVIEW: "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 2:06 PM

Tolstoy, father of the modern novel: An impeccable biography of a great modern novelist and quintessential Russian figure.

TOLSTOY: A RUSSIAN LIFE By: Rosamund Bartlett.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) remodeled the modern novel with "War and Peace," making it as much a work of history as of literature. Historians may find fault with this or that detail, but in his handling of such crucial events as the battle of Borodino -- where Napoleon won the Pyrrhic victory that virtually doomed his invasion of Russia -- Tolstoy prevails as the colossal chronicler of the clash between major characters and events.

Then Tolstoy remodeled the modern novel again with "Anna Karenina," a searing portrayal of marriage and estrangement and love that brought new psychological depth to narrative prose. Opposed not only to adultery but to women's rights, Tolstoy -- himself the father of an illegitimate child -- nevertheless understood the passion and anguish of his heroine.

For these two novels alone, Tolstoy would deserve multiple biographies probing his contradictions and contrarian behavior. A nobleman (he was Count Tolstoy) proud of his ancestry, he identified with his peasants and invented a one-piece costume for himself patterned on their clothing. A fervent hunter, he reluctantly relinquished his sport because it conflicted with his humanitarian beliefs. An army officer, he later transformed himself into a teacher of peasant children and the author of primers designed for peasant children. A habitual gambler, he racked up enormous losses. Tolstoy was also a self-absorbed writer who quarreled with nearly everyone (even staunch supporters like Ivan Turgenev), and a rather boorish husband who kept his wife constantly pregnant (even as she copied out his manuscripts and contributed telling details to his famous novels). And the list could go on -- as it does in Rosamund Bartlett's absorbing and pitch-perfect biography.

As Bartlett points out, there are actually few really good biographies of Tolstoy written in English. The most recent notable one, she says, is A.N. Wilson's, published in 1988. But Bartlett, besides writing well, is also a translator of Russian and author of a well-received biography of Chekhov. As such, she is able to situate Tolstoy in his milieu, a strategy that results in a breathtaking exploration of his unique position in pre-revolutionary Russia. There was simply no one like him, willing to take on every aspect of Russian life and demanding reform.

Bartlett does not ignore the quirks and even the inhumanity of Tolstoy the man, who had a personality -- Rebecca West once declared -- akin to those found among the lower criminal classes. He played the imperial despot even as he decried the outdated and decadent czarist regime. But Bartlett is not in the business of name-calling. Rather, she lets the man and his work and his 19th-century Russia emerge in compelling and authoritative detail.

Carl Rollyson is professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York and the author of several biographies, including forthcoming lives of Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath.

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  • TOLSTOY: A RUSSIAN LIFE

    By: Rosamund Bartlett.

    Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $35.

    Review: Bartlett's examination of Tolstoy's life is impeccable and pitch-perfect, showing him to be a man riddled with contradictions.

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