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Tolstoy: A Biography Paperback – March 17, 2001

4.7 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Of this "major new biography," PW commented: "Without debunking, Wilson never lets his titanic subject off the hook; the result is the most human portrait of Tolstoy to date. This biography is a magnificent achievement, a work of seamless scholarship. It is also a pleasure to read." Photos.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Admirable. . . . Absorbing. . . . Superb. -- Anthony Burgess

Must surely rank among the most impressively intelligent biographies ever written. -- Zena Sutherland, The Economist

Stands as a model of the biographer's art: intelligent and opinionated, yet judicious--and, what's more, deliciously readable. -- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (March 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393321223
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393321227
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #788,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Thomas J. Brucia on August 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
A. N. Wilson writes idiosyncratic books. The author states (p. 207), "This book is the story of Tolstoy, as a writer and thinker." When I began reading, I mistakenly thought I was reading biography. As I plowed on I discovered that Wilson's "Tolstoy" is only about 30 percent biography. It is also a book of literary criticism, 19th century Russian history, character and psychological analysis, and ruminative essay. In short, it is "an intellectual history." Wilson includes all the helps a reader could ask for: photographs (53 of them!), an extensive bibliography, and a handy time line, (as well as the usual aids like the index, foreword, notes, acknowledgements, and table of contents).
Wilson states: "This book is primarily the story of a novelist... a great genius whose art grew out of his three uneasy and irresolvable relationships: his relationship with God, ... with women, ... with Russia. In all cases, the relationships were stormy, full of contradictions." Hmmpf, gross understatement!! While many readers may have no image whatsoever of Tolstoy, some (like me) visualized an icon: a saintly, dreamy, old man at odds with a lowbrow wife, and persecuted by a corrupt government. How wrong I was! His wife was for many years a full partner in his productivity. Only toward the end did Tolstoy and she become each other's torturers. The government forgave Tolstoy, a well-connected aristocrat, much that would have (and did) put other dissidents in czarist labor camps (e.g. poor Dostoyevsky!). [Though Tolstoy was a contemporary of Dostoyevsky, the two men made a deliberate point of never meeting each other.] - - - - One of the fascinations of this book is that one gets to know Leo Tolstoy "with all the warts".
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Format: Paperback
Tolstoy is one the greatest writers during what must be considered the heroic age of novel writing. He never makes a wrong move in his writing, but probably was one of the most unpleasant people ever to live. Wilson here gives us a view of both the sublime artist and the opinionated gad fly of his friends, family and country and presents a fairly complete picture of a divided man. This is a tell all book, but not in the usual sense. Wilson focuses on the inner life of Tolstoy rather than his day to day experiences which probably were not as meaningful to him as what went on inside. This probably is the best biogrpahy of Tolstoy in English. It is good for those who are familiar with Tolstoy's works and for those who are not.
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Format: Paperback
Wilson's book is similar to books published by an author such as Robert Payne in that its entertaining and informative, but isn't the sort of book that would be very helpful in conducting graduate research or something of that sort. Much like the biographies of Robert Payne, there's a number of factual inaccuracies that would be patently obvious to scholars of the era.

If you're searching for a brisk and entertaining read, and aren't too hung up on some small detail that Wilson got wrong, then I would definitely recommend Wilson's book. But if you're trying to write a MA thesis, and need the most thorough and accurate information on Tolstoy available, you might want to look elsewhere; as this would probably fit more into the genre of popular biography. Unfortunately, no book exists that is analogous to Joseph Frank's 5 volume biography of Dostoevsky, that focuses on his counterpart Leo Tolstoy, so the best option for someone doing a research paper would probably be Henri Troyat's.
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Format: Paperback
This book is something you can easily read over the span of several sittings, as it is sectioned into several chapters that chronicle each era of Tolstoy's life, making it easy to read. An excellent source of both research and simple enjoyment.
Being a lover of Tolstoy's literature and philosophy, and having read brief snippets of Tolstoy's life in the preface of his novels, I was interested in learning more about the man himself. Wilson has produced a well researched biography that is informative and interesting to read. What I especially like is its clarity on what is fact and what are speculations based on his erratic diaries, using painstaking quotes, footnotes, literary excerpts, and bibliography to back up the author's and literary community's theories.
The result is a portrait of a man at odds with himself, who like Dostoevsky was a living representation of the duality of man. No wonder these writers were so profound at portaying the the human condition, mind, spirit, and soul. If only we could go back in time and walk with these men and speak with them personally, how rich we would be.
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A.N. Wilson's biography of Tolstoy is quite different from a traditional by the dates hagiography. Instead, Wilson succeeds both in telling the story of Tolstoy's life and placing it in the turbulent times in which he lived. The result is a very satisfying work that ranges widely in Russian history, Russian literature and a touch of Christian theology. Wilson's writing also departs from the typical just-the-facts narrative of so many biographies; his own observations and wit are laced through the book. Mostly that style is very effective, although occasionally I felt like Wilson was simply showing off his erudition.

Beyond simply reporting the details of Tolstoy's life, Wilson offers an overview of most of Tolstoy's fiction and some additional analysis of his non-fiction work, particularly his later life essays on religion and government. One of the great insights in the book is how carefully Wilson ties the events and characters in War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the people who shaped Tolstoy's life. While it is a commonplace to say that novelists recycle themselves in their work to some degree, Wilson demonstrates how Tolstoy's life and fiction were thoroughly interwoven. For me, Wilson's analyses of Tolstoy's other fiction was so compelling that I immediately added a number of them to my short-term reading list.

It is not possible to discuss Tolstoy without considering the era in which he lived and his own role in 19th century Russian history. Tolstoy lived through the period in which Russia awoke from centuries of torpid slumber as the nascent intelligentsia and later the radicals sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution and the tragedy that became 20th century Russia.
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