January 11, 2012
There are two principal models for biography in our culture, and perhaps the first decision the biographer has to face is which of the two will best suit the subject in question. First, there is the Boswellian model: the massive tome (or tomes) containing as much material as can be garnered, following the philosophy that the more we know about the great man -- or woman -- the more fully we are able to view him or her in the round. The second model was developed by Lytton Strachey in reaction to what he called the Victorian "Standard Biographies" in "two fat volumes," full of irrelevant detail; Stracheyan biography is slim and sleek, communicated through carefully chosen points and characteristic anecdotes.
With a life as long, important, and public as Tolstoy's -- a life rightly described by Rosamund Bartlett, in Tolstoy: A Russian Life , as "gargantuan" -- the Boswellian approach would appear the natural one. And prior biographers have indeed followed this path. Tolstoy's former secretary Nikolay Gusev embarked on the definitive Russian-language life in the 1950s but died after a mere four volumes. The work was taken up by Lidiya Gromova Opulskaya, who produced a further two before dying in her turn, so that to date the last eighteen years of Tolstoy's life remain uncovered. Ernest J. Simmons's Leo Tolstoy (1946), now out of print, is probably still the most inclusive and definitive English-language life. Henri Troyat's 1967 Tolstoy totals 900 pages; A. N. Wilson's 1988 biography of the same title is shorter but still sizable at 625.
So what about all those readers who are interested in Tolstoy's life but might not want to commit the time demanded by such comprehensive accounts? Great figures require the Boswellian treatment, there's no doubt about it, but biographies that deliver lives in more digestible portions are clearly necessary, as the recent success of Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life indicates. Bartlett has skillfully compressed the eighty-two years of Leo Tolstoy's intensely active life into a smoothly written and very readable 450-page narrative.
Much, inevitably, has had to be left out in order to achieve this streamlined effect. Tolstoy -- in Anton Chekhov's words a "giant, a Jupiter" -- was possessed of superhuman energies that drew him into myriad interests and passions. According to his wife, Sofya,
Bartlett, a lifelong scholar of Russian cultural history, has another agenda, and that is to put Tolstoy into his specifically Russian context and to show him as the exemplar of several key Russian archetypes. In this she is quite successful. Western readers of Tolstoy's two major novels have always remarked on how European, how specifically Francophile, his Russian aristocrats are; Bartlett, in contrast, shows us their roots in the land, a rural civilization infinitely more foreign to us than anything in Western Europe. After all, at the time of Tolstoy's birth in 1828, his father, as the proprietor of the grand estate of Yasnaya Polyana, was the owner of 1,600 serfs -- quite literally the owner. Young men like Tolstoy and his brothers were not infrequently presented with the gift of a peasant girl for their "health." During Tolstoy's youth he was aware of an illegitimate, poverty-stricken half brother, who hung round the estate and looked far more like their father than Tolstoy or his brother did. The writer, in turn, was to father a son of his own on a peasant girl and later to employ the child of this union, Timofey, as a coachman. It is at least as strange, heartrending, and ironic a tale as anything in his fiction. Only in the contemporaneous, slaveholding American South can one find comparable stories.
And what stories they are! Tolstoy's grandmother was the possessor of one Lev Stepanych, a blind storyteller. Lev Stepanyich
His genius as a writer was also pressed into service. Tolstoy spent years on a four-volume, 700-page ABC and reading primer, a work he regarded more highly than War and Peace. (Upon its publication in 1872 it received neither good reviews nor official approval, but with its republication thirteen years later it became a bestseller, thenceforth having a powerful influence on Russian primary education until the 1917 Revolution.) Eventually, in the 1880s, he fully assumed the mantle of prophet with a tetralogy he thought his most important life work: Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, Union and Translation of the Four Gospels, Confession, and What I Believe . He was the leading guru of vegetarianism, nonviolence, and anti-materialism. His moral authority seemed boundless: some called him Russia's true tsar. Some went further: speaking of Tolstoy's relationship with God, Maxim Gorky likened them to "two bears in one den." When Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901, it was the Church's prestige that declined, not his own.
Saint or crank? His fellow artists resented time taken away from what they considered his true vocation. From his deathbed, Ivan Turgenev harangued the errant novelist: "My friend, return to literary activity! This gift has come to you from where everything else comes from. Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! I am a finished man…. I can't walk, I can't eat, I can't sleep, but so what! It's even boring to repeat all this! My friend, great writer of the Russian land -- heed my request!" Chekhov sometimes felt considerable distaste for Tolstoy in his chosen role of priest. "To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals and as rude and insensitive as generals, because they are confident of their impunity." In the role of artist, though, he believed the older author to be unsurpassed: "What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature….