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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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.