Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011
Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Rosamund Bartlett
This fascinating biography of Tolstoy, the first since the fall of the Soviet Union, draws on newly accessible information. Cultural historian Rosamund Bartlett carefully reconstructs each era of Tolstoy's personal history, from his aristocratic childhood to his final days as "Patriarch of the Bolsheviks." Throughout the narrative, she connects major events in Tolstoy's life with their influence on his literary works. Bartlett writes, "The greatest task facing the biographer of Tolstoy is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life." Her thesis is that Tolstoy's was a distinctly "Russian life"—the competing forces of "natural dionysism" and "Christian asceticism" warring within his heart, she says, are "characteristic of the Russian people." It remains to be seen whether this approach will win the hearts of her non-Russian audience, who may prefer to view Tolstoy as a soul whose gifts, eccentricities and timeless struggles make him relatable across cultures and generations. Nevertheless, the biography is a must-read for any fan of this literary giant.