Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett
I bought this in Blackwells just before going on holiday to the Dolomites with Jacqui and could not resist it. It is utterly the type of book that generates a physical pleasure within me.
Needless to say I found it captivating, very readable and it taught me a lot about someone that I have always been interested in.
Tolstoy’s journey from aristocrat to author to leader of a social movement which deeply troubled the secular and religious authority in Tsarist Russia is fascinating.
I was interested that many of the works of literature that influenced Tolstoy were, ‘The Queen of Spades’, ‘The Overcoat’, and various Gogol and Lermontov stories. The first two are things I’ve read recently, and Lermontov is an old favourite.
I found the discussion of the Orthodox religion and it’s role in Russian society very interesting. The large number of non-conformist sects are interesting, in some ways a parallel to the protestant sects that followed the reformation. Tolstoy was interested in these and they played a role in his journey. I was also amazed at how late the first official bible in colloquial Russian was, 1876. The idea of bibles in Russian being smuggled into Russia, had obvious parallels with the Soviet era. I was also interested in the comment about how Tolstoys ‘Gospel in Brief’ had been chanced upon by Wittgenstein in a bookshop in Galicia and had kept him alive in World War 1.
Tolstoy was obviously very intelligent and had very wide ranging interests as well as being very restless and difficult. In 1876 he met Tchaikovsky, and this was how Tchaikovsky related the experience.
‘No sooner than had we met than he straightaway started expounding his views on music. According to him Beethoven lacked talent. And that was his starting point. So this great writer, this brilliant student of human nature began, in a tone of the utmost conviction, by delivering himself of an observation which was both fatuous and offensive to every musician. What is one to do in circumstances such as this? Argue? … Although my acquaintance with Tolstoy has convinced me that he is a somewhat paradoxical, but good and straightforward man, even, in his own way, sensitive to music, all the same, my acquaintance with him, as with anyone, has brought me nothing but wariness and torment.’
Music was very important to Tolstoy and despite what he told Tchaikovsky about Beethoven, apparently he liked his Violin Sonata No 9, and used its name for a novel, the Kreutzer Sonata, which I don’t know.
I also found the general discussion of Russian cultural life fascinating.
Finally, the description of Tolstoyans under the Soviet times is interesting as ever. Any non-conforming behaviour in such circumstances shows real moral courage.
I think I’ll be re-reading this and referring to it for some time to come. I’d like to read many of his works.
I’d also like to read more by the author, her biography of Checkhov, and her books on Russian culture (music and literature) are probably interesting.