Sunday, 14 November 2010

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett – review

The state of Tolstoy's health was closely monitored by the press during the final phase of his life. Years before his death in 1910, people worried about what it would mean. 'I dread Tolstoy's death', Chekhov wrote in a letter in 1900 – partly, he explained, because he loved the man, partly because he admired his beliefs (without sharing them) and partly because Tolstoy's immense authority seemed to justify 'all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature'. While Tolstoy lived, Chekhov said, 'crude, embittered vainglory' was kept in the outer darkness; 'without him the literary world would be a flock without a shepherd, or a hopeless mess.' The symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok, writing in 1908, went further: 'everything is still straightforward and not fearfully relativistic so long as Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is alive … The morning is still dewy, fresh, unfrightening, the vampires are drowsing, and thank God, Tolstoy walks … And if the sun sinks, Tolstoy dies, the last genius departs – what then?'
For these two writers, and for many other men and women in Russia and around the world, Tolstoy was something more than a literary figure, and something more, too, than a sage and/or crank – his main occupation after his spiritual crisis in the early 1880s. "If the world could write by itself", Isaac Babel said, "it would write like Tolstoy"; and though on one level this was romantic hyperbole (Tolstoy, as Babel knew, was exhibit A in the great critic Viktor Shklovsky's work on literature as technique), you can still see, while under the spell of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, what Babel meant. Tolstoy had a complicated relationship with God: the pair of them famously reminded Maxim Gorky of "two bears in one den", a den not big enough for both. But if, at around 1900, you wished to feel that, somewhere, a tremendously bearded character was underwriting the world's solidity and comprehensibility, the novelist might not have been your second choice.
The Observer