TOLSTOY: The Ultimate Reconciliation by Martine de Courcel

TOLSTOY: The Ultimate Reconciliation

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A dense, dark, tangled, but at times keenly informative and forceful new life of the great pre-Revolutionary Russian novelist, rebel and mystic, by a former French Ambassador to London. De Courcel begins by positing what she considers to be the central problem of Tolstoy's life: why, in the middle of the night in the fall of 1910, at age 82, did Tolstoy, the universally celebrated ""conscience of humanity,"" run away from his ancestral home, passionately devoted wife and family, and gaggle of admirers to die alone in a monastic outpost called Optina-Pustyn? De Courcel looks for the answer in Tolstoy's lifelong conflict between his beliefs--in the virtues of poverty, in renunciation of pleasure, in commitment to a new age of anti-Orthodox Christian spirituality and politics--and his way of living--on a huge (beloved) inherited estate, with a demanding, aristocratic wife and 13 children, and servants, carriages, armies of guests and hangers-on, grand dinners, and constant infighting about the disposition of his works--and especially the profits from them, which Tolstoy was constantly trying to donate to ""mankind,"" but, because of machinations (and expenses), never could. De Courcel describes the origins of this conflict: in Tolstoy's early loss of mother and father and longing for God; in his exceptionally lusty nature, which expressed itself in compulsive whoring, gambling, and ""debauchery"" in his youth, especially during his military service in the 1850's; and in his extreme ambivalence about marriage--being wildly in love with his wife, on the one hand, and hating his family for preventing him from living according to his ascetic principles, on the other. Death--preceded by one final day of solitude and freedom--was the ultimate, and only, reconciliation of the two strains of Tolstoy's genius. A fine--if not exceptionally clearly delineated or original--thesis, fully documented, especially with respect to details of the stormy 50-year marriage of Tolstoy and Sofia. Less impressive as an analysis of Tolstoy's thought and work.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Scribners