Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review of Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

I will resume my discussion of Danilevsky shortly, but in this post I wanted to ruminate about Rosamund Bartlett's recent Tolstoy: A Russian Life, which I recently finished reading. Interestingly, this is the first biography of Tolstoy that I have read, so I cannot compare it against earlier efforts. But I will say that much is familiar from what I have gleaned in my other readings about Russian literature, and I have read something independently about the life and photography of Tolstoy's wife, Sofia, in Bendavid-Val's Song Without Words: The Photographs and DIaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy. (I can wholly recommend this latter book; it would be a fascinating album even if most of the photos did not feature the great Russian writer, since Sofia was extremely diligent in taking so many photos of life at Yasnaya Polyana and providing posterity with captions and comments. She presents a rich historical record of what life looked like on a nineteenth-century Russian estate, even if Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana could hardly be termed a typical estate).

The great question about Tolstoy's life for me (and probably for many others) has always been why Tolstoy, given his talents, wrote two outstanding works of literature, namely War and Peace in the 1860s and Anna Karenina in the 1870s, only to never take up fiction on such a scale again afterwards fiction on such a scale again afterwards. Granted, I do like the writings from the latter part of Tolstoy's life (in particular The Death of Ivan Ilych and Kholstomer, the story told from the perspective of a horse). I also own an early edition of Resurrection replete with interesting marginalia that was printed by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov's press, which was set up in England with the express purpose of printing Tolstoy's later religious writings. So I do not mean to sound like a philistine. But I am sure anyone can appreciate the difference in sheer significance between W&P and AK, on the one hand, and The Kreuzer Sonata and Resurrection, on the other.

The answer to my question, of course, lies in Tolstoy's initial religious conversion of the late 1870s and early 1880s, and his decision to devote himself to writing for the peasantry and eventually developing the body of tracts, essays and short parables that would come to make up the core body of Tolstoyan doctrine. I appreciate that these writings are perhaps magnitudes more interesting than some of the non-fiction to come from Dostoevsky's pen, for example (namely the latter's jingoistic writings in the Diary of a Writer on the Russo-Turkish War of 1878). I also appreciate the historical significance of the Tolstoyan movement, and I was unaware of all the Tolstoyan communes that have sprout up around the world, even in the Soviet Union.

But I nonetheless sympathize with the attitudes of many contemporary Russian writers who believed that Tolstoy could have better devoted his talents by continuing to produce sophisticated long-form fiction (or novels, but it is a matter of classic debate whether Tolstoy wrote in this genre, or if his writing defies such classification). Take, for example, Ivan Turgenev, who on his deathbed wrote a letter to Tolstoy entreating him to return to writing novels for the educated public.

Bartlett describes the process of Tolstoy's religious conversion and then eventual rejection of the Orthodox church well enough, particularly considering that this is a one-volume biography published by a trade press and does not treat Tolstoy's life in such meticulous and critical details as Joseph Frank does in his five-volume biography and study of Dostoevsky. Yet Bartlett can offer no really satisfactory reasons for the fundamental changes in Tolstoy's written output after the end of the 1870s other than to say that Tolstoy's headstrong and defiant attitudes towards his society and social caste became stronger and more dominant as he grew older, and that these interests dominated over his wish to be a novelist. Bartlett shows that Tolstoy's non-conformist personality traits may also have their roots in other members of the Tolstoy clan, such as the wild Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, who returned from a combined sea voyage around the world and land trek from Alaska to St. Petersburg in 1805 with tattoos that he received in Hawaii.

Some of Bartlett's research about Tolstoy's self-education and development as a writer did strike me as particularly interesting and perhaps without parallel among his other peer writers from the Golden Age of Russian Literature. For example, Tolstoy had a particular enthusiasm for language learning that remained a constant through his life. Whereas most all members of the Russian educated classes and nobility had fluent French (the famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky was a notable exception since he could only speak and write Russian), Tolstoy also knew German, wrote frequently in English to his American and British correspondents, and learned Greek and even the invented internationalist language, Esperanto.

There is a notable lack of discussion in Russian literary criticism about the reception of the literary heritage of classical civilization, and in light of this it is all the more striking that Tolstoy learned Greek expressly so that he could translate Aesop's fables for inclusion in his ABC primer for Russian peasants. Tolstoy also read Homer's Illiad and Odyssey and Xenophon's Anabasis in the original during the early 1870s, which was an experience that had great influence on him. Bartlett reports Tolstoy's remarks to Afanasy Fet at the height of his interest in reading the classics: "I'm completely living in Athens. I speak in Greek in my dreams."