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Tolstoy by Rosamund Bartlett (thoughts)

November 21, 2011


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.)
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 10:32 am

    Tolstoy is one of those authors whose work and life I know very little about. I’ve always found him quite intimidating in a number of ways (as I do a number of Russian authors). I’m glad this one worked for you in part. I think the view of a changing Russia sounds really interesting!

    • November 22, 2011 4:09 pm

      If you’re intimidated, start w one of his novellas! :) The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the most famous; I haven’t read any of his short stuff, so I can’t personalise the rec.

  2. November 21, 2011 1:48 pm

    I used to avoid biographies for the reasons you mention (primarily your first concern), but at some point my feelings changed and now I feel secure that that knowing the darker pieces of an author’s character will not ruin my enjoyment/appreciation of their work. Guess I just came to terms with the idea that there are great artists who weren’t good people (or weren’t consistently good people), and I don’t need an artist to be someone I’d like to have over for dinner. And also, I think now that I’ve made some bad mistakes myself, maybe I’m a bit more compassionate.

    Anyway, this sounds like it has a lot to offer on Tolstoy. It’s always a balancing act re: how much of the subject’s own words to include, especially if they left extensive diaries, letters, etc. I can certainly understand the temptation to include more rather than less, although I’ve also read a number of bios that fall into the “take the subject at face value” trap.

    • November 22, 2011 4:10 pm

      I hope my feelings change eventually too! I have noticed I’m becoming more understanding as I get older, so maybe it’ll happen. :)

      It’s not so much extensive Tolstoy quotes that are the problem but retellings of stories he wrote in letters/published diaries/etc. as if they were fact. But it’s still worth a read!

  3. November 22, 2011 4:46 pm

    I really enjoy biographies of authors I love, but I’ve not been drawn to the Russians…just the Victorians. Someday I’ll get to it all. And WHAT? some Tolstoy you haven’t read?! I thought you’d read them all in the original, etc already.

    • November 23, 2011 10:44 pm

      HAHAHAHAHA

      Nope. I’ve only read War & Peace and Anna Karenina (2 or 3 times) completely in English.

      In Russian, I’ve read big chunks of AK, a little volume of letters, and a handful of short stories.

      I focused far more on ‘political’ Russian than literary Russian in college, so most of my classic Russian lit reading has been for fun in translation. 19th century Russian is v different from what I primarily studied, so I’d have to learn a ton more vocabulary. Since I planned to join the Foreign Service, I preferred to spend my time/brain energy adding more to my contemporary Russian vocab.

      Other authors I’ve read in Russian include Chekhov (my fave! his writing’s so straight forward), Pushkin (The Bronze Horseman; I also memoried a couple chunks of it), selections of Lermentov, and a variety of Soviet short story authors during my study abroad program that I no longer remember. Not very much, I know! But I can read a newspaper and do a presentation about politics without any problems. ;)

  4. November 23, 2011 3:47 am

    I also tend to stay away from the private lives of authors. Perhaps, I’m scared of what I might find? I say let them have their lives but leave us their books ;).

    • November 23, 2011 10:44 pm

      That’s a great way to put it Kinna!

  5. November 28, 2011 4:07 pm

    That is a beautiful cover. This looks like something I’d be very interested in – I’m going to add it to my library list!

  6. Herman Wilson permalink
    June 30, 2012 1:31 pm

    I have read all Tolstoy—his Death of II is amazing, so too are the following:Hadji Murat, Master and Man(my personal favorite) and all the rest in Pevear/Volokonsky translation—udachi(good luck)

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