Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

Rosamund Bartlett's books include Wagner and Russia and the acclaimed Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. An authority on Russian cultural history, she has also achieved renown as a translator of Chekhov.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Tolstoy: A Russian Life, and reported the following:
Page 99 in my life of Tolstoy finds my hero setting off on a momentous journey from the Russian heartlands of the north, across the steppe and down to the heady mountain scenery of the Caucasus on the country’s southern border. It will be the making of him. He is twenty four, feckless, dissolute, wayward, intellectually curious but lacking in discipline, and prone to mercurial decisions, such as the one which prompts him on a whim to accompany his elder brother Nikolay, an officer in the army, who is due to rejoin his battalion at the end of his leave in the spring of 1851. Tolstoy confesses with characteristic honesty in his famous diary when he arrives that he has no idea why he is there, but soon gets caught up in skirmishes with rebellious Chechens as a volunteer. When he leaves the Caucasus two and a half years later, he is a commissioned officer, and, more importantly, a published writer hailed as a rising new talent.

I was concerned in my biography of Tolstoy not just to tell the story of his life, but to convey a sense of how it fitted into Russian history, for at the time of his death, he was not just a writer but a celebrity - a moral and spiritual leader known throughout the world whose standing with the Russian people was far greater than that of the Tsar. I chose as the subtitle of my biography, ‘A Russian Life’ advisedly, as to me Tolstoy personifies so much of the Russian experience. In keeping with the country’s size, the quintessential Russian quality is perhaps extravagance, be it of commitment (as exhibited by all those great musicians, sportsmen and ballet dancers), corruption, spirituality or brutality. Tolstoy had this quality in spades, and he lived more than one life during his eighty two years, embracing not just traditional rites of passage typical for his social class, but specifically Russian and sometimes mutually exclusive archetypes, such as the ‘holy fool’ and the ‘repentant nobleman’. He came from the landed gentry, but identified with the peasantry; he was an anarchist and an apostate who was revered as the equivalent to an ascetic Russian Orthodox ‘Elder’; he was a ‘nihilist’ and a ‘sectarian’. Each of my chapters tells the story of one of more of Tolstoy’s lives. Page 99 comes from chapter 5, entitled ‘Landowner, Gambler, Officer, Writer’ in which Tolstoy begins to take responsibility for his life. As well as talking about what Tolstoy was doing in the spring of 1851, with the aid of what I hope are illuminating details, I seek to provide a historical and cultural context for Russian aggression in the Caucasus by tracing it back to Catherine the Great’s ambitions. So on the whole, what Ford Madox Ford says is probably pretty accurate for my book as a whole.

The received view of Tolstoy, and certainly the view that is entrenched in the West, is that he was primarily a great writer, who in latter life became a second-rate religious thinker. If Russians today tend to subscribe to that view, it is only because Tolstoy’s enormous spiritual legacy was suppressed in the Soviet Union. Tolstoy spent the last thirty years of his life propagating his own idiosyncratic brand of Christianity, a longer period than he spent as a full-time fiction writer, and I have tried to tell his story from his own point of view. It may seem odd not to spend more time going into works like War and Peace, but I wanted to encapsulate Tolstoy’s whole life, as it appeared to Russians while he was alive, and account for his extraordinary and lasting influence on figures as diverse as Wittgenstein and Gandhi. His unceasing campaign against poverty and the use of violence, coupled with his calls for people to go back to a simple life lived on the land have never been more timely than they are now, in our mechanized, individualistic age of social inequality, which has spawned both corporate greed, and a backlash against it, as we have seen in the numerous ‘Occupy’ protests around the world, and the increasingly popular urge to ‘downsize’.
Visit Rosamund Bartlett's website and learn more about Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

Writers Read: Rosamund Bartlett.

My Book, The Movie: Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

--Marshal Zeringue