Tolstoy: A Russian Life

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9780151014385: Tolstoy: A Russian Life

“Magisterial sweep and scale.”—The Independent (UK)

In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling against not only conventional ideas about literature and art but also traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state.

In this, the first biography of Tolstoy in more than twenty years, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy’s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved and the turbulent times in which he lived. Above all, Bartett gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has once again been discovered by a new generation of readers.

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Bonus Content: Images from Tolstoy
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Tolstoy and his Starley Rover Bicycle, 1895. Credit: Tolstoi: Dokumenty. Rukopisi. Fotografi, Moscow, 1995 The fourth draft of the opening of Anna Karenina, 1873 · Credit: Tolstoi: Dokumenty. Rukopisi. Fotografi, Moscow, 1995

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Rosamund Bartlett

Q: What drew you to Tolstoy?

A: Apart from a lifetime fascination with the great Russian writers at the personal and professional level, my interest was spurred by having previously written a biography of Chekhov and translated his stories and letters. One cannot avoid noticing Chekhov’s reverence for Tolstoy as a writer, thinker, and social activist—it crops up in numerous remarkable letters he wrote both before and after he became friends with the great writer. For Chekhov, Tolstoy was the most important person in Russia, and not just as an artist and father figure, but as a moral authority. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what it was that made Chekhov, and indeed the majority of the Russian population, look up to Tolstoy as a spiritual leader at the end of the nineteenth century, when his stature was greater than that of the tsar.


Q: Why write a new biography of Tolstoy now?

A: There are three main reasons. First, the centenary of Tolstoy’s death in November 2010 provided a great opportunity to assess his legacy, and second, there are surprisingly few other English-language biographies of Tolstoy. Third, and most important, the arrival of perestroika and glasnost, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, changed fundamentally and irrevocably how we write about Russia, including its great writers. Despite his worldwide fame as a novelist, Tolstoy was, like all other Russian writers, posthumously subject to ideological control, and the suppression of his monumental spiritual legacy after 1917 resulted in a skewed picture of his life. The relaxation of censorship introduced by Gorbachev, however, opened the floodgates to a mass of new material, upon which this biography draws extensively.

Q: What is different about your biography?

A: Today we have much more objective information about Tolstoy himself and about his family, his many followers, the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church (which excommunicated him in 1901), and the tsarist government. We can construct a much fuller and more accurate picture of Tolstoy’s life and, just as important, place it in a detailed cultural context. Moreover, this biography is written from Tolstoy’s own point of view, rather than that of the typical Anglophone reader. So instead of focusing most attention on the seventeen-year-period in which War and Peace and Anna Karenina were written, it places a great deal of emphasis on the last thirty years of Tolstoy’s life, when he became a social and religious crusader.

Q: Why did you choose the subtitle "A Russian Life"?

A: I see Tolstoy as a genius who embodied much of the Russian experience in all its intense and passionate extremes. Using the particular structure of my biography, I wanted to show that Tolstoy, in the course of his eighty-two years, actually lived many lives, most of which were deeply Russian archetypes: the reckless gambler, the repentant nobleman, the holy fool, the admired elder, the nihilist, and others.

Q: How did translating Tolstoy’s work inform the biography?

A: When I wrote my biography of Chekhov, I found it very fruitful to translate some of his greatest short stories at the same time. In fact, most of my inspiration for writing Chekhov’s biography came from the experience of engaging closely with the rhythms and cadences of his prose. I wanted to have the same experience with Tolstoy, and indeed I found that whatever insights I have of Tolstoy’s personality probably came from having completed half of my translation of Anna Karenina before embarking on my biography of its author. Translating Tolstoy means getting to know him from the inside.

Q:What were you most surprised to learn in your research?

A: I had not expected to discover how much love and devotion Tolstoy poured into his educational work, both as a founder of schools for illiterate peasantry in which he himself taught, and as the author of a pioneering primer designed to help all Russian children learn to read and write. Tolstoy’s educational ideas were rather unorthodox and anarchic, like all his thinking, but deeply original, and conceived with the Russian culture and the Russian language in mind. It is extraordinary to consider that after finishing the Homeric epic of War and Peace, Tolstoy literally went back to the letters of the alphabet.

Q:You write extensively about Tolstoy as a political figure in his time, but what is important to note about his legacy?

A: I was greatly surprised to discover the extent of Tolstoy’s importance as a political figure in Russia, beginning in the 1860s, before he wrote War and Peace, and culminating with the international media event of his death in 1910. But the story does not end there. In my epilogue, I discuss what happened to Tolstoy and his artistic and religious legacy after 1917—a story that has much to do with Russia’s signal failure to mark the centenary of his death in 2010 in any serious way, and which is crucial to our understanding of the man. In addition, Tolstoy’s enormous body of spiritual writings was only published once, in the complete collected works, with a tiny print run, so generations of Russians grew up in the twentieth century without any knowledge of them. Today Tolstoy remains a threat to the Russian establishment because of his anarchic ideas and his never-ending quest for truth.

Q:What’s the one thing you want everyone to know about Tolstoy?

A: Tolstoy may not have been as endearing a man as Chekhov, nor as compassionate and open as an artist, but he deserves our admiration for his fearless courage in standing up to a corrupt regime and refusing to be silent about its moral failures. He also fully deserves his reputation as one of the world’s great novelists for creating all those unforgettable characters with such closely observed psychological detail. As in all great works of art, their experiences transcend time and place, and articulate what it is to be human. A novel like War and Peace is universal and timeless, and offers rich rewards on a second, third, and fourth reading.

From the Back Cover:

Praise for TOLSTOY

"Rosamund Bartlett's new biography conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."—A. N. Wilson, Financial Times

"A splendid book—immensely readable, full of fresh details, and often quite brilliant in its perceptiveness about the greatest of Russian writers, and one of the stars in the Western firmament. This biography has the sweep and vividness of literature itself, and I strongly recommend it."—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

"Bartlett reminds us not only that the great man is not so very long dead, but also that his myth is being made and remade even now."—Claire Messud, The Telegraph (UK)

"Worth the wait . . . Her deep and easy familiarity with her subject and the period permits Bartlett to touch on both the thinkers and writers who engaged Tolstoy, while getting to the essence of the spiritual power that informs his work.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)

"An epic biography that does justice to an epic figure."—Library Journal (starred)

"Should become the first resort for everyone drawn to its titanic subject."—Booklist (starred)

"A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose."—Kirkus (starred)

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Book Description HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, United States, 2011. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Magisterial sweep and scale. The Independent (UK) In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling against not only conventional ideas about literature and art but also traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state. In this, the first biography of Tolstoy in more than twenty years, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved and the turbulent times in which he lived. Above all, Bartett gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has once again been discovered by a new generation of readers. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780151014385

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Book Description HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, United States, 2011. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Magisterial sweep and scale. The Independent (UK) In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling against not only conventional ideas about literature and art but also traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state. In this, the first biography of Tolstoy in more than twenty years, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved and the turbulent times in which he lived. Above all, Bartett gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has once again been discovered by a new generation of readers. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780151014385

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