8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
More a biography of an extraordinary man than a "literary biography",
This review is from: Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Hardcover)
Of all the great writers, Lev Tolstoy probably was the most famous worldwide while still living. In TOLSTOY: A RUSSIAN LIFE, Rosamund Bartlett does a good job explaining how that came to be. It was only in part due to his literature - "War and Peace", "Anna Karenina", etc. Even more than that, it was because in the last thirty years of his life he became the conscience of Tsarist Russia, defied the Russian Orthodox Church, and, beyond Russia, challenged broader Christianity and the realms of aristocratic privilege and bourgeois comfort. People who had never read any of his fiction -- peasants in Russia as well as socially and economically disaffected people around the world - understood that Lev Tolstoy was a modern-day preacher of the Sermon on the Mount and a spokesman for them. Moreover, he practiced what he preached - among other things, promoting education for the laborer and the illiterate, giving of his own time and toil to help relieve famine, and even disavowing almost all worldly possessions (though many stuck to the fingers of family members).
I have not read any other biographies of Tolstoy, but I suspect that the most distinctive aspect of Bartlett's is that it gives so much attention to the NON-literary aspects of Tolstoy's life. Not that she ignores his writings. They receive due attention, but the book is not a "literary biography"; it is much more a biography of a man - an extraordinary man, at that.
Still, Lev Tolstoy was by no means a saint, and TOLSTOY: A RUSSIAN LIFE is not an exercise in hero worship. The reader gets the bad with the good, the ugly with the beatific. As Bartlett summarizes it, and then explicates it, Tolstoy's "whole life was a bundle of contradictions." Perhaps his worst failing was his treatment of his wife Sonya. Though he never completely abandoned her (as did many famous authors their wives), he abused her psychologically, emotionally, and even sexually (impregnating her - after numerous children already - when her health was fragile).
Bartlett's biography is well-written, but rather conventional, with its share of clichéd formulations. The organization is a little loose at times, more so in the latter half of the book. It is thoroughly competent but never scintillating or intellectually exciting (hence, the four stars). As a physical artifact, the hard-cover edition of the book is exemplary and sturdy, worthy of a library and numerous readings.
I don't know how TOLSTOY: A RUSSIAN LIFE compares to other biographies of Tolstoy in English. But having read it, I now have a good sense of the man and I feel no need to read further about him - which, really, is what one looks for most in a biography.