How best to live? Tolstoy’s answer was ceaseless writing and chaotic family life


AN Wilson

Atlantic Books; £25

Review: Mary Leland

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy died in 1910; later, his widow Sofya said that she had lived with him for 48 years, “but I never really learned what kind of man he was”.

In this reissue of his biography of 1988, AN Wilson explains why the novelist still eludes classification and understanding. In more than 500 pages, Wilson examines the question asked by Tolstoy: “How best to live?”

The answer seems to be that there isn’t time in one life to find out. Not even in a life as long, as various and as driven, as Tolstoy’s, who has given the world not only his novels, but an enormous store — at least 90 volumes — of fact and opinion transformed, although not by him, into something like a legend.

Wilson is not debunking this legend. On the contrary, he wants to reinforce it: “As for those who think that Tolstoy the prophet was so different from Tolstoy the novelist, I’d ask them to consider our world, and then look at his works.”

And look at his life. Tolstoy, especially in the fervent patriotism he seems to present in War and Peace, is still a potent icon in Russia.

Although, in Tolstoy’s later years, he was officially regarded as an enemy of the state, and indeed of the church, protected from meaningful sanction by his irritating popularity, he bequeathed to the Russian people not so much his ideas of reform and social justice, but a notion of their invincibility as a nation. That remains, but it may not have been his intention.

In these days of the Russian Federation, Wilson finds the oligarchs “bubbling with money”, western shops in all the Russian cities, the churches and monasteries re-opened and apparently more popular than ever. “From the bright glade where Tolstoy is buried, I seem to hear a growl from beneath the earth,” Wilson writes.

That glade was the hiding place of the green stick which, as a child, Tolstoy had been told contained the secret of peace and happiness. There is a glade at Tolstoy’s home at Yasnaya Polyana, there may even be a green stick, but there is no secret.

Yet the search consumed him. It also consumed others, most famously his wife, Sofya, who said that she had been demented by the controversies of his life, and how he and his disciples handled them.

The most zealous of those disciples was Vladimir Chertkov, but, initially, and for many years, they included Sofya, who not only produced 13 children but worked tirelessly as Tolstoy’s copying clerk.

Sofya’s contribution to his life is enormous; she administered it not only by writing and rewriting (she copied out War and Peace seven times), but by dealing with publishers and editors, and with his legal obligations as a landowner and as a self-exiled absentee member of the ruling aristocracy.

Theirs was, as Wilson says, “one of the most impressive partnerships in literary history”. The hysteria of their later relationship was fuelled by his egocentric demands, by his loyalty to a series of acolytes, by the irreparable family feuds they both sustained, and, above all, by the sometimes dangerous contradictions of what could only be described as her husband’s desperately tormented inner life.

Thus Tolstoy’s search for peace and happiness, or even just for peace itself at Yasnaya Polyana, was to remain unsuccessful.

His marriage had begun brightly, but there were always jealousies, initiated by his characteristically selfish decision, just before the wedding, to ask his 18-year-old bride to read his diaries of youthful debaucheries. Shattered by their revelations, she nonetheless went through with the ceremony, understanding, according to Wilson, “Tolstoy’s need for absolution through the written word.” That was their bond, and their thoughts — or rather his thoughts and her reactions — were confided to the diaries which both kept almost as rivals to each other.

Theirs was a home, Wilson says, in which the most constant sound was that of pens on paper. But what were they writing? Tolstoy, of course, was producing some of the most important prose of the 19th century. His vocation was reform, not literature, but he made literature his tool. Away from the immense novels, his life in Russia was directed by his intensely critical awareness of the privilege which comes with the ownership of people.

As a landlord, even of diminished estates, he, like everyone else in his class, inherited the serfs who worked on the land.

In general terms, Wilson is particularly good, first, at explaining the structure of Russian society in the century known to Tolstoy, and then at suggesting the influence which power, with its injustices, brutality, poverty, famine, apathy and superstitions, had on his own imaginative consciousness.

The monarchy, the aristocracy, the military and the church were all bound up together and ruling a vast territory and enormous population: these were both Tolstoy’s context and his conflict. The novels War and Peace, and, more particularly, Anna Karenina, were his first important steps to defining the struggles of his later life, at one point identified as his desire to stamp the universe with God’s signature, although, eventually, this was a God more or less of his own invention. God as he should have been.

Tolstoy was not the only writer of his time trying to do something of the kind. Dostoevsky was also railing against the spiritual despotism of the era; Chekhov took a gentler but no less resonating stance against the human cost of social change.

And Lenin was waiting in the wings of the century, the railway trains of Anna Karenina now merely paused in a siding. Wilson doesn’t miss much of Tolstoyan symbolism, linking the writer’s final insistence that he could not be silent to the later books, including The Kreutzer Sonata and Resurrection. Although it can be quarrelled with, this exposition is convincing.

But Tolstoy as prophet is something else.

Yet, this is the possibility which has caused Wilson to reissue his biography, thinking it originally “flawed by its failure to see how true are Tolstoy’s later writings”.


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