Tolstoy: A Russian Life
“Tolstoy: A Russian Life” is, fittingly, nearly as capacious and baggy a work as those of its subject. Delving into everything from Tolstoy’s ancestors to the fate of his children after his death to recipes of favorite desserts cooked by his wife, this biography meanders charmingly back and forth through Tolstoy’s life, illuminating him as a person, author, and political lightning rod.
As can be guessed, this is not a short work, nor should it be. During his rich life, Tolstoy managed, on top of penning two of the most significant (and longest) prose works to come out of the 19th, or maybe any, century, to serve in a war, father 13 legitimate children and maybe some illegitimate ones as well, get excommunicated, and found a moral and spiritual movement that would go on to have empire-shaking consequences in the 20th century. Bartlett’s biography delves into all that, as well as Tolstoy’s quarrels and reconciliations with Turgenev, his even more contentious quarrels and reconciliations with his wife Sofya Andreyevna, who thought she had married an intellectual aristocrat, not a cantankerous saint, his enormous labors to create primers and textbooks for peasant children, his frequent trips to take kumys cures, and all the other things that filled up Tolstoy’s 82 years.
Despite its length, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life” is quite readable, with a clear conversational style that brings Tolstoy, with all his magnificent virtues and equally magnificent flaws, to life. Readers will probably not want to plow through it in a couple of sittings–it’s best enjoyed slowly, rather like Tolstoy’s novels themselves. But anyone interested in Tolstoy as a literary or philosophical, or just as a curiosity of late-Romanov Russia, would do well to read this book. And if, having read it, they decide to pick up a copy of “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina,” so much the better.
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