The Magazine

Leo the Great

The novelist makes room for the celebrity.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH
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History’s greatest novelist has not received the definitive scholarly biography he deserves. Why not? I put this question to Joseph Frank of Stanford, the author of a celebrated five-volume biography of Dostoyevsky, but even Frank admits he has “no simple answer” to the question. Perhaps, he suggests, the mass of material on Leo Tolstoy has been too formidable for any lone author to attempt to summarize.

Photo of Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908

Tolstoy’s writings run to 90 volumes of small Russian print, with an additional 10 volumes due in a post-Soviet edition. No complete collection exists in English at all. And yet, volume is not the difficulty that Rosamund Bartlett identifies in Tolstoy: A Russian Life. She manages to survey an impressive array of sources, quoting liberally from Russian-language journals, books, and newspapers. Instead, she writes, “The greatest task facing the biographer of Tolstoy is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life.”

But of course, Tolstoy was not truly larger than life—he was simply a man, even if he was also a phenomenon. And many other individuals who also lived as spectacles, from Socrates to Sarah Palin, have received their biographical due. Tolstoy remains an exception. Bartlett’s effort is the first since A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy, published 23 years ago. The late Russianologist Ernest J. Simmons completed a well-regarded set on Tolstoy in the 1940s, but all three installments are out of print. As it stands, Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy (1967) is probably the best single-volume biography, but it, too, is dated. As Bartlett shows, much important material has been released in the past few years.

Whatever the reason, perhaps we should be grateful that new attempts are at least made to document and interpret Tolstoy’s life. An Oxford-based scholar, Bartlett has a terrific grasp of Russian history and culture. Particularly impressive is her ability to situate Tolstoy within the national canon. As its subtitle indicates, Tolstoy: A Russian Life presents the novelist as a uniquely Russian author: Tolstoy’s seriousness, radicalism, and experiences were of a kind only 19th-century Russia could produce. “He began to be identified with his country soon after he published his national epic War and Peace,” Bartlett writes, noting that Tolstoy was recognized as a national symbol by both foreigners and Russians themselves. Upon his death, thousands flooded the trains trying to get to his 4,000-acre estate, where he was buried. Schools, universities, factories, offices, and theaters closed to recognize a national day of mourning. It remained unofficial only because Tolstoy had been a fierce critic of the government, which did its best to alternately ignore and censor him.

Indeed, one has to return, perhaps, to Voltaire to find a writer with Tolstoy’s combination of fame and national/moral influence. No author since has equaled his stature, perhaps because he died in 1910, before radio drowned out print as a form of entertainment and information. Bartlett also does impressive work cataloguing the humanitarian and social-political aspects of Tolstoy’s life and career that are frequently overlooked. By 1861, he had established 21 makeshift schools for peasant children, where students learned in a free-spirited environment, with little coercion, note-taking, or memorization. Tolstoy wrote the most popular textbook in pre-revolutionary Russia, filled with stories and fables that sold over a million copies by the time of his death.

Similarly, on several occasions he wrote about famines across Russia and set up relief efforts such as large soup kitchens and donation collections to assist victims. All of this was on behalf of peasants, whom most other aristocrats enslaved and ignored. One of Tolstoy’s friends called him a “spiritual czar” and Chekhov called him not just a man but a “giant, a Jupiter.”

“It was when Tolstoy spearheaded the relief effort during the widespread famine of 1892 that his position as Russia’s greatest moral authority became unassailable,” Bartlett writes. “The result was a constant stream of visitors at his front door in Moscow, many of whom simply wanted to shake his hand.”

Tolstoy formed a distinct strain of Christian anarchism. Deciding that Christ was best embodied by the Sermon on the Mount, this former officer in the czar’s army declared his opposition to any violence (even in self-defense) and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church and the Russian government. The church excommunicated him and the government persecuted him. Tolstoy the egotist, of course, welcomed imprisonment, but the czar knew this would only convert the international celebrity into a martyr. A cult of Tolstoyans emerged in the last decade of his life, dedicated to his principles of pacifism, vegetarianism, asceticism, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and sex. Gandhi corresponded with him; Martin Luther King was an admirer. Wrote Chekhov: “You need the courage and authority of a Tolstoy to swim against the current, defy the prohibitions and the general climate of opinion, and do what your duty calls you to do.”

This points to Bartlett’s greatest shortcoming. Tolstoy’s authority derived from his greatness as an artist; Bartlett seems to forget that Tolstoy’s most lasting legacy was his fiction. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina is underplayed here in favor of the towering national presence. Little time is devoted to the origins, process, content, and influence of the works. No attempt is made at cataloguing Tolstoy’s influence or analyzing his brilliance. Tolstoy: A Russian Life notes in passing what Tolstoy read, but the reader is given no assistance in understanding the formal innovations he pioneered. For those wondering why Tolstoy is sometimes regarded as the greatest writer of fiction in literary history, look elsewhere.

Yet we can, at least, be grateful that ample coverage is given here to Tolstoy’s legendarily contentious relationship with his wife, Sonya. Thanks to numerous recent biographies, the republication of her diaries, and a film, Sonya’s image has been rehabilitated. Instead of the portrait publicized by Tolstoyans who despised her for wanting the artist to focus on his art (and his family), she is now seen as a sympathetic, long-suffering figure. Bartlett adds evidence to the case. Sonya was usually required to obey Tolstoy’s whims, which were regularly changing and always demanding. His preaching of celibacy did not prevent him from impregnating her 16 times—or from sexually violating one of his serfs before his marriage.

It was extremely difficult being the wife of a world-famous novelist, Sonya once complained, and it surely was. Tolstoy yearned late in life to be a poor, unattached drifter-ascetic, and at age 82, with only the clothing he was wearing, he sneaked out of his house on foot, departing in the middle of the night “so he would not be pursued by Sonya,” and died days later of pneumonia in a railway station. His widow remained dedicated for a time to copying and publishing Tolstoy’s diaries, letters, and fictions. But, Bartlett writes, “After she returned home, Sonya steadily lost interest in life.” She took to sitting in an old chair her husband had liked, waiting for the end to come.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer to Salon.