The state of Tolstoy’s health was closely monitored by the press during the final phase of his life. Years before his death in 1910, people worried about what it would mean. „I dread Tolstoy’s death“, Chekhov wrote in a letter in 1900 – partly, he explained, because he loved the man, partly because he admired his beliefs (without sharing them) and partly because Tolstoy’s immense authority seemed to justify „all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature“. While Tolstoy lived, Chekhov said, „crude, embittered vainglory“ was kept in the outer darkness; „without him the literary world would be a flock without a shepherd, or a hopeless mess.“ The symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok, writing in 1908, went further: „everything is still straightforward and not fearfully relativistic so long as Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is alive … The morning is still dewy, fresh, unfrightening, the vampires are drowsing, and thank God, Tolstoy walks … And if the sun sinks, Tolstoy dies, the last genius departs – what then?“
For these two writers, and for many other men and women in Russia and around the world, Tolstoy was something more than a literary figure, and something more, too, than a sage and/or crank – his main occupation after his spiritual crisis in the early 1880s. „If the world could write by itself“, Isaac Babel said, „it would write like Tolstoy“; and though on one level this was romantic hyperbole (Tolstoy, as Babel knew, was exhibit A in the great critic Viktor Shklovsky’s work on literature as technique), you can still see, while under the spell of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, what Babel meant. Tolstoy had a complicated relationship with God: the pair of them famously reminded Maxim Gorky of „two bears in one den“, a den not big enough for both. But if, at around 1900, you wished to feel that, somewhere, a tremendously bearded character was underwriting the world’s solidity and comprehensibility, the novelist might not have been your second choice.
Tolstoy’s ability to deal, late in life, with the likes of God and the tsar on equal terms came from his acknowledged creative mastery. Yet it also owed something to his aristocratic background, a background he shared with all the major Russian writers from the first half of the 19th century except Dostoevsky, and which Rosamund Bartlett puts a lot of weight on in Tolstoy: A Russian Life.
Family histories and childhoods are usually the dullest parts of biographies; Tolstoy’s, in Bartlett’s book, aren’t, partly because the relative scarcity of evidence makes it easier for her to pick out telling details, but mostly because they help to put her subject’s impregnable self-assurance in perspective. It’s one thing to know that the landed gentry owned most of Russia’s population until 1861, another to know that Tolstoy’s grandmother owned a blind man who served as a human audio book, or that Tolstoy’s father, aged 16, was given a peasant girl „for his ‚health'“.
Born in 1828, Tolstoy was brought up in a moderately enlightened noble household, which meant in this context that their serfs were rarely flogged. Yasnaya Polyana, the main family estate, with wooden stands in the park for musicians to play Haydn from, and a coachman who „smelled pleasantly of manure“, was soon fixed in his mind as the centre of the universe. When the future writer was five or so, his eldest brother, Nikolay, announced that the secret of human happiness had been written on a little green stick and buried in their woods; in old age Tolstoy arranged to be buried at the indicated spot. But in spite of the piety of some of their guardians (Tolstoy’s mother died when he was one, his father when he was eight), the male children were essentially raised as hard-riding landowners. Drinking, gambling and chasing peasant girls were Tolstoy’s main activities as a very young man, and though he was ashamed of his rakish youth later, some of these habits were difficult to break.
His career as a fiction writer, his early reformist efforts, and, from 1862, his stormy marriage to Sonya Bers: all these are bigger problems for a biographer. There’s a lot of political and intellectual background to fill in and personal material to process – the Tolstoys were obsessive diarists – before you even get to the published works. Bartlett’s solution, as her subtitle indicates, is to treat him as an actor in Russian history rather than, say, an artist or a thinker. As he’d have wished, his philanthropic projects get as much space as the fiction he’s remembered for, fiction that isn’t discussed in any depth. Naturally, there’s much interesting information: I hadn’t known, for example, that Tolstoy not only fell out with Turgenev (as did Dostoevsky, whom Tolstoy never met) but also challenged him to a duel. But the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you’re interested.
After Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis – which caused him to give up meat, hunting and smoking, give away his copyrights, denounce his earlier writings as immoral and preach a pacifist, anarchist, highly personal Christianity – the biographer’s job doesn’t get any easier. Yasnaya Polyana was soon filled with disciples who wrote down everything Tolstoy said and did. The chief of these, Vladimir Chertkov, was hated by Sonya, and the adult children began to take sides in a struggle between Tolstoys and Tolstoyans. Meanwhile, translations of Tolstoy’s books made him a global celebrity. Heroically pounding the enormous paper trail, Bartlett patiently unpicks her subject’s quarrels with church and state, suggesting that his grand connections protected him as much as his moral authority. Exhaustion, however, manifestly sets in, and after disposing of Tolstoy’s flight from wife and home and his death at Astapovo station in under a page, she seems happier writing a chapter-length epilogue on the Soviet handling of his legacy. Better access to the Soviet end of the story is this biography’s main advantage over AN Wilson’s Tolstoy, published in 1988, which it’s billed as superseding.
But if you’re after something more portable than Henri Troyat’s exhaustive, elegantly written 1960s life, Wilson’s book still stands up pretty well. Although she’s less eccentrically opinionated than Wilson, Bartlett is less engaged with Tolstoy’s work and writes with considerably less flair; half translated-sounding idioms („a matter of life importance“) and cliches („the flame-haired femme fatale“) litter her text. Wilson was openly contemptuous of Tolstoy’s moralising, which had, to be sure, a dark, life-despising side. Bartlett aims for even-handedness but ends up scolding her subject anyway, grumbling in asides about his humourlessness, vanity and „self-righteous hypocrisy“, and even getting impatient with him for writing „very long“ letters about the meaning of life, which is surely a case of telling off Lassie for barking.
It’s hardly fair to compare her book with Joseph Frank’s 50-years-in-the-making life of Dostoevsky, but in terms of English language biographies, at least, Tolstoy’s great rival currently has the upper hand.