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TOLSTOY by Rosamund Bartlett Kirkus Star


A Russian Life

by Rosamund Bartlett

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-15-101438-5
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Cultural historian and translator Bartlett (Chekhov: Scenes from a Life, 2004, etc.) unravels the ornate and complicated tapestry of the life of the great Russian writer.

Count Tolstoy (a title he later eschewed) lived more than several lives, and Bartlett explores them all with understanding and a sympathetic but also critical eye. Born into a privileged class, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910) did not distinguish himself early on and seemed determined to investigate all the sordid alternatives available to a young man of property—alcohol, gambling (he had to sell entire villages to pay his considerable debts), lassitude and lust. At university, he neglected the curriculum and pursued his own interests—he was smitten with Pushkin, Dickens, Trollope, Rousseau and, significantly, Diogenes). For some of his early years, Bartlett can offer only speculations (few records exist), but when he went off to war in the early 1850s, the narrative accelerates. Tolstoy was a fine soldier, though he later renounced violence of all sorts (he became a vegan, quit hunting and took up bicycling). While in the military, he continued writing, and the flow of words surged ever more thickly for the next half-century. Bartlett does not linger overlong on any of his most celebrated works, though she does point out that he used family members in War and Peace and employed an actual case of suicide under a train to inform Anna Karenina. The author is most attentive to the growing celebrity of Tolstoy—and the emergence of groups of devoted followers, especially when he began to embrace his own form of Christianity, dress like a peasant, advocate education for the masses and assail violence, the government and the Orthodox church. Bartlett also highlights the great difficulties faced by his wife and attends fully to his postmortem status.

A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose.