Coming after the centennial of Tolstoy's (1828–1910) death, this biography is worth the extra year's wait. The cliché "larger than life” only begins to describe Tolstoy's complexity: something of a saint, though excommunicated by the Orthodox Church; animal-rights advocate who early on hunted for sport; champion of married chastity, though he fathered a string of children; master of an estate while dressing like a peasant. Bartlett (Chekhov: Secrets from a Life) has no problem compacting all this while also scrupulously examining Tolstoy's understandably rocky relationships with family members. His revolutionary ideas on class and culture caused a serious rift with his wife, Sonya, before a series of partial and tragic reconciliations. Given the volume of Tolstoy's literary production, Bartlett wisely avoids evaluating the work beyond what is necessary to telling the life and situating it in its time. Her deep and easy familiarity with her subject and the period permits Bartlett to touch on both the thinkers and writers who engaged Tolstoy—such as Rousseau, Dickens, and Schopenhauer—while getting to the essence of the spiritual power that informs his work. Bartlett is particularly adept at assessing Tolstoy's impact, from the role his work played in bringing about the fall of the Romanovs, an image the Soviets highlighted, to how Tolstoy remains subversive in Russia today. 16 pages of photos, map. (Nov.)
Longlisted for the UK's BBC Samuel Johnson Prize
"[Bartlett's] deep and easy familiarity with her subject and the period permits Bartlett to touch on both the thinkers and writers who engaged Tolstoy...while getting to the essence of the spiritual power that informs his work. Bartlett is particularly adept at assessing Tolstoy's impact..."
-Publishers Weekly, starred
"A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose."
"Bartlett’s book is an exemplary literary biography."
-Library Journal, starred
"[Bartlett's]Tolstoy biography should become the first resort for everyone drawn to its titanic subject."
"Rosamund Bartlett's new life of Tolstoy is a splendid book -- immensely readable, full of fresh details, and often quite brilliant in its perceptiveness about the greatest of Russian writers, and one of the stars in the western firmament. This biography has the sweep and vividness of literature itself, and I strongly recommend it."
-Jay Parini, author of The Last Station
"It is difficult as a reader to take in the sheer scale and extent of Tolstoy’s interest and achievement. For the biographer to put all this into less than 500 pages is an achievement in itself. But Bartlett never seems hurried and she gives herself time to paint the scene for us, bringing the scent of Russian earth and grass to the nostrils."
-Financial Times (UK)
"The extraordinary character of the giant is captured better by Bartlett than by any previous biographer, and this is partly because she knows Russia so well... Superbly well written."
Cultural historian and translator Bartlett (Chekhov: Scenes from a Life, 2004, etc.) unravels the ornate and complicated tapestry of the life of the great Russian writer.
Count Tolstoy (a title he later eschewed) lived more than several lives, and Bartlett explores them all with understanding and a sympathetic but also critical eye. Born into a privileged class, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910) did not distinguish himself early on and seemed determined to investigate all the sordid alternatives available to a young man of property—alcohol, gambling (he had to sell entirevillagesto pay his considerable debts), lassitude and lust. At university, he neglected the curriculum and pursued his own interests—he was smitten with Pushkin, Dickens, Trollope, Rousseau and, significantly, Diogenes). For some of his early years, Bartlett can offer only speculations (few records exist), but when he went off to war in the early 1850s, the narrative accelerates. Tolstoy was a fine soldier, though he later renounced violence of all sorts (he became a vegan, quit hunting and took up bicycling). While in the military, he continued writing, and the flow of words surged ever more thickly for the next half-century. Bartlett does not linger overlong on any of his most celebrated works, though she does point out that he used family members inWar and Peaceand employed an actual case of suicide under a train to informAnna Karenina. The author is most attentive to the growing celebrity of Tolstoy—and the emergence of groups of devoted followers, especially when he began to embrace his own form of Christianity, dress like a peasant, advocate education for the masses and assail violence, the government and the Orthodox church. Bartlett also highlights the great difficulties faced by his wife and attends fully to his postmortem status.
A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose.
…a full-length portrait of Tolstoy, sure to become standard, that is almost exclusively Russian in its sources and preoccupations…Bartlett's prose is limpid, even if her paragraphs are sometimes outsized; she has no theoretic ax to grind and is guilty of remarkably few longueurs…Bartlett is thorough and even-handed in her treatment of Tolstoy's marriage, and of all other aspects of his representative life. Her epic and astutely indexed biography is so good that I shouldn't be surprised if, for the edification of Tolstoy's direct cultural descendants, it were translated into Russian.
The Washington Post
Lev Tolstoy did nothing halfway. He was respected as much for his impressive aristocratic pedigree as his outspoken political views, brave and courageous military career, prodigious literary output, and, nearer the end of his life, religious austerity. As a national icon, he was celebrated; as a political dissenter, untouchable. He was the biggest celebrity in Russia. Tolstoy the family man was dictatorial, his larger-than-life personality intimidating. His wife, Sonya, ran the household and, it's reported, found time to revise the entire manuscript of War and Peace seven times. Apparently, running Tolstoy's life demanded as much from his family as from the writer himself. Bartlett (Wagner and Russia), an authority on Russian cultural history, objectively explores all facets of Tolstoy's life, from youth to looming public persona to controlling family man, producing an epic biography, tapping into newly available sources, that does justice to an epic figure. VERDICT Many books have been written about Tolstoy, but few give his family life its due. Written for both the curious, educated reader and the academic scholar, Bartlett's book is an exemplary literary biography. [See Prepub Alert, 5/16/11.]—Lisa Guidarini, Algonquin P.L., IL