sabato 27 novembre 2010

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett: review


An engaging Life of Leo Tolstoy reminds us that his myth is being forged even today, says Claire Messud.
By Claire Messud

This month marks the centenary of Tolstoy’s death. It seems hard to fathom that only 100 years have passed, not least because of the mythical stature of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, considered by many to be the greatest novelist ever.

This icon of the 19th century, grandfather of literary realism and messianic leader of his own Christian sect died only three years before the publication of the Futurists’ manifesto, and weeks before the month in which, according to Virginia Woolf, “human character changed” and modernism was born.

Born in 1828, Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a venerable 82 when he expired – almost twice the age of his younger compatriot Anton Chekhov, who predeceased him by six years, dying of TB at the age of 44 – and above all extraordinary for the reach and longevity of both his literary and spiritual influence.

As Rosamund Bartlett makes amply clear in her engaging and readable biography, “the greatest task facing the biographer of Tolstoy is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life”, who was “as much a part of Russia… as the Kremlin itself”, and of whom Chekhov himself wrote, in 1900: “I fear the death of Tolstoy… In the first place, there is no other person whom I love as I love him. Secondly, when literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer… What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature… Were it not for him the world of literature would be a flock of sheep without a shepherd, a stew in which it would be hard for us to find our way.”

That Tolstoy was complicit in the creation of this myth is clear from Bartlett’s account: he was, in spite of the peasant garb and egalitarian Christian ideals of his later years, an entitled aristocrat to the core, whose remarkable achievements were possible only with the help of many minions, and who thought nothing of the sacrifices he demanded of others – including, primarily, his long-suffering wife Sonya and his daughters Masha and Alexandra (his sons appear to have been more rebellious on this score).

He experienced enormous, but often short-lived, passions. In youth, these included peasant women and disastrous gambling: his gaming habit was so severe that in 1854 he was forced to sell off the main house of his beloved birthplace and family estate, Yasnaya Polnaya, to pay his debts. It was dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, leaving behind two wings with a gaping hole between them.

In midlife, reformed, the highly successful author turned his attention to the education of his former serfs and thence to the drive for popular literacy. He produced a highly influential primer and wrote extensively about his educational ideas. He also undertook, for several lively years, the settlement of a new estate in Samara, dragging his wife and children great distances to a dusty and eventually famine-stricken plain.

In maturity, he donned his cotton smock and launched the spiritual revolution – Tolstoyanism – that would inspire Mahatma Gandhi and, some say, the Bolsheviks, and would prompt his excommunication from the Orthodox Church in 1901.

His vociferous pacifism, his urgent support for sectarian freedoms and his tireless efforts to bring food to the starving masses during various famines – each of these endeavours was of itself as time-consuming, and arguably as significant, as his literary production.

In this sense, Bartlett rightly assesses her challenge: in an age of bloated biographies, the continence of her volume, at less than 500 pages, is impressive; but given the particular variety and the eventfulness of Tolstoy’s long life, it is only just enough.

The immense importance of Tolstoy’s spiritual influence both inside and outside Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been largely overlooked since his death, not least because it served the Soviet Union to claim only the literary half of his heritage. Bartlett sets out to rectify this oversight.

Tolstoy, following a prolonged existential crisis that culminated initially in religious conversion in 1877, spent the second half of his life in the fervent articulation of his personal faith against the Orthodox church. He renounced almost all of his pleasures, including hunting, meat, alcohol and tobacco; and struggled mightily, and for a long time unsuccessfully, to overcome his lust. From the 1880s onwards, in his capacity as spiritual father, Tolstoy welcomed many devoted visitors to Yasnaya Polnaya and entrusted to numerous disciples, chief among them his close confidant Vladimir Chertkov, the dissemination of his religious message abroad.

While he did not entirely abandon fiction, he viewed the art with suspicion and approached it with didactic intent: “The Death of Ivan Ilych” famously marks the beginning of this late literary period. His literary output thereafter was comparatively sparse, although it includes such masterpieces as “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Resurrection”. After Anna Karenina, his primary focus was on his spiritual and religious tracts, and on the practical undertakings that ensued from his beliefs.

Bartlett charts with considerable sympathy the plight of Tolstoy’s wife Sonya, who spent most of her youth and middle age either pregnant, nursing, or both; she had 13 children, of whom eight lived into adulthood. She also endured the Spartan facilities and rural isolation of Yasnaya Polnaya for many years only to find herself, towards the end, supplanted as her husband’s assistant (she had long been his copyist) by the devoted – and hostile – Chertkov. And she struggled to protect the family finances against Tolstoy’s Christian urge to divest himself of all property, including his literary royalties.

Bartlett’s brief but telling quotations from Sonya’s letters to her sister Tanya reveal, over the years, considerable contained desperation. The story of Tolstoy’s banal death in the stationmaster’s house at the Astapovo railway station while in petulant flight from his wife of almost 50 years, attended by his personal physician and by Chertkov, is as pathetic as his life was noble. Sonya was not permitted to visit him on his deathbed until he was no longer conscious.

That Tolstoy was petty and foolish should not surprise us; and yet inevitably, with each retelling, it does not fail to. Bartlett’s final chapter charts Tolstoy’s legacies, both literary and spiritual, through the 20th century, and the struggles of the keepers of his flame.

In her revelations about the immense difficulties of producing the definitive Collected Works (a task that, under Soviet Communism, proved almost impossible) and in her elucidation of the suppression of Tolstoy’s spiritual influence, Bartlett reminds us not only that the great man is not so very long dead, but also that his myth is being made and remade even now.

* Tolstoy: a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett is published by Profile at £25

Buy now for £23 from Telegraph Books

Claire Messud is the author of The Emperor’s Children (Picador)

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