Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Farmer, Novelist, Guru, Ascetic

Tolstoy: A Russian Life


Profile Books 516pp £25

Every decade needs a reinterpretation of Tolstoy’s life and work, which is how A N Wilson justified his own biography of the writer some twenty years ago. More plausibly, Tolstoy is the biographer’s Everest, the slopes of which are littered not just with the corpses of biographers who ran out of oxygen before they got to the top, but with new aspiring conquerors. To understand Tolstoy, ideally, requires the biographer to read not just the 100 volumes of his collected works, but everything he read (50,000 letters, and possibly 20,000 books, and in many languages too), to go everywhere he went, examine everyone he met, and then find the energy to synthesise those eighty-two years of frenetic and contradictory searching into a coherent narrative. The biographer is also faced with disenchantment: when Tolstoy renounces his own art, takes his new faith to its logical and absurd extreme, and rejects love, meat, music, family, and common sense, it is hard not to be disenchanted and not to pass that disenchantment on to the reader, even though Tolstoy’s last thirty years are still lit up with flashes of genius and insight (for example the most Caucasian of his stories, Hadji Murat, or the most free-thinking of Russian dramas, The Living Corpse). Ultimately, readers of Tolstoy might ask what a biography might be for, when the whole of Tolstoy’s output, fiction and correspondence, is just one long self-critical diary, and the heroes of his novels – Pierre Bezukhov, Konstantin Lyovin and Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov – are alter egos of the author.

The canonical 1,000-page biographies, such as Aylmer Maude’s or Ernest Simmons’s, are painstaking, often pious, acts of homage. Some of the most entertaining shorter biographies, such as A N Wilson’s or Cynthia Asquith’s Married to Tolstoy, wield the hatchet all the more wildly when the biographer is untrammelled

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend