Tolstoy by Rosamund Bartlett (thoughts)
As a general rule, I avoid biographies of authors I love; I’m always afraid that if I find out something unsavoury about their personal life, my future reading will be tainted. Plus, I’m simply not usually terribly interested in authors as human beings; I’d far rather get to know them via their books and leave our relationship at that (this is why I don’t follow any author blogs or twitter accounts). However, when I saw Tolstoy by Rosamund Bartlett, I couldn’t resist! As far as the first fear goes, I already knew about Tolstoy’s awful side from a class in college, so I was prepared. And his influence in Russia was great enough that I find him fascinating on his own, quite apart from his writing. Not to mention, the cover was just lovely! ;)
Bartlett did a wonderful job of bringing nineteenth century Russia to life: this was hands down my favourite aspect of the book. I felt like I could really see and feel the things Tolstoy would have seen, and she presented the complex social changes over a century of Russian history in a simple and interesting way. She also wonderfully describes all of the people in Tolstoy’s life: I could easily keep the ‘cast of characters’ distinct, and I got a sense of the personality of each of them, even if Barlett only discussed them for a few paragraphs. I was also glad to see she doesn’t omit his horrible behavior as a husband (unlike that film The Last Station, which despite its wonderful acting and cinematography deeply upset me with its ridiculously strong anti-Sonya narrative), although at times she does try to justify some of his more asinine beliefs/actions with, in my opinion, some flimsy excuses. Ahem.
However, I didn’t end up loving the book. It follows Tolstoy’s life in chronological order, and I found the beginning part the strongest; by the final third, the narrative began to drag. More importantly, I thought Bartlett relied too heavily on Tolstoy’s own words about his life; I would have liked to see a bit more skepticism, rather than constantly seeing his own stories from letters/diaries/etc. presented as definite fact. At times, I thought her own admiration for Tolstoy shined through a bit too heavily; especially towards the end, as the focus shifts to Tolstoy’s philosophy and ‘public works,’ the tone sometimes became too adulatory for my own comfort level. I often end up abandoning biographies because I think they’re too fawning, though, so obviously my own threshold is quite low.
That being said, I’m glad to have read this and I would recommend it to those interested in Russian history or Tolstoy (with the obvious caveat that Bartlett discusses the plots of all his major fiction works, as is standard I think in author biographies). The prose is lucid, the research quite extensive (lots of pages of endnotes and bibliography), and the subject interesting. I enjoyed it enough to put Barlett’s earlier biography of Anton Chekhov on my wishlist, although I don’t feel a burning desire to get to it straight away.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes (The subtitle, A Cultural History of Russia, pretty much explains why I’m suggesting this British book!)
- Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (If you’re in the mood for another author biography, this is my favourite ever. Must read more of Lee!)
- Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, and What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, trans. by Larissa Volokhonsky & Richard Pevear (I know, it’s way too obvious. But I couldn’t *not* include them! I haven’t read the latter two, but now they’re on my wish list.)