“Brilliant and maddening” – I’d like to give 6 stars

This is my review of Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett.

I don't know why this biography is described on the back cover as "unorthodox" unless it is because of the author's frank, but very well supported criticisms of Tolstoy.

It is a relief to find a biography of a widely revered writer which reveals him warts and all. I was intrigued to read that the author finds Tolstoy an unappealing young man, sanctimoniously writing over-ambitious lists of worthy resolutions, only to spend a few days in prison for failure to attend lectures, or weeks in a clinic to be treated for venereal disease.

When a young man, he was forced to sell villages along with serfs to pay for his gambling debts, and then used some of proceeds together with bail-outs from long-suffering friends, to lose still more money.

He is portrayed as promiscuous – apparently quite common for wealthy young men of his day – controlling, for instance of the long-suffering wife who was a teenager, half his age, when he married her, and very opinionated, prone to falling out with friends – once, he even challenged his friend Turgenev to a duel.

It is interesting to learn that Tolstoy cared more for his "ABC" primer for children than his most famous novels. Although he spent many months researching them and trying out different plots, he was bored with "War and Peace" before it was finished, and struggled with "Anna Karenina" which became for him, a "banal.. bitter radish".

As his social conscience developed, Tolstoy tried to free his serfs, only to discover that they mistrusted his intentions and refused to cooperate. Then, he was one of the first to found a school for his serfs' children. It was remarkably child-centred for its day. Yet, he left it after only a few matter of months to research educational practice in Europe, then closed it down completely in order to move on to other interests. This kind of flitting from one obsession to another was typical. To be fair, from the age of 7 X 7 = 49 (he was very superstitious), he was consistent in his attempt to lead an ethical life, passing through the phases of "religious maniac" to "Holy Fool". Tolstoy's run-ins with the ludicrous censor make fascinating reading. Eventually, he was excommunicated for his inflammatory writing in an extraordinary procedure in which he was declared "anathema" but this only aroused yet more interest in him, by then far more popular than the Tsar.

We are told that the only reason the Tsar did not consign the outspoken Tolstoy to a remote monastery in later life was because he did not want to give him the oxygen of the publicity.

Even Tolstoy ceased to deny, in fact came to revel in, his weaknesses which included self-absorption and insensitivity, in particular to the wife ground down by childbearing, domesticity and isolation in the countryside, with whom he vainly tried to practise "sexual abstinence" but totally refused to use contraception. Yet he was a visionary thinker, genuinely concerned with inequality and the meaning of life and possessed a rash courage. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened to this pugnacious individualist if he had been born into a poor family.

Although the book sometimes gives too much space to minor details – such as which relatives came for Christmas one year – it is mostly very clear and readable – not only concerning how Tolstoy produced his books – with his wife copying out "War and Peace" several times by hand – and the complexity of his personality but also in bringing to life C19 Russia in a period of dramatic change.

The author raises the intriguing question of the extent to which Tolstoy's anarchic views triggered revolution. She highlights the sad irony of the speed with which the Bolsheviks adopted a schizophrenic approach – revering Tolstoy's novels whilst condemning his anarchic views and persecuting his followers even more fiercely than the Tsar's regime had done. How would Tolstoy have reacted to Stalinism? As the author suggests, he would no doubt have been promptly shot.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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