Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation
The unique thing about Tolstoy as a writer is that he found it intolerable to be one. Many writers hate writing, or find it impossibly difficult, or can only write about what it means to be a writer. Tolstoy not only had literary genius but could use it with ease. His sense of himself was so great that it extended to everything else: nothing seems more natural as we read him than to become, as it were, Tolstoy. He writes so naturally that we seem to be doing it for him.
And yet he hated writing. Is this perhaps what made him so uniquely good at it? He is devoid of the self-approval that invisibly permeates so many good novelists—Turgenev, Flaubert, George Eliot, even Proust and Henry James—novelists whose work displays a masterly sense of art well done, style achieved, the magnificent conquest of the insuperable problem. Tolstoy’s problem is nothing to do with art. It is to do with being Tolstoy: a Russian, an aristocrat, a married man, a seeker after God. In Isaiah Berlin’s memorable phrase, it is to do with being a fox who passionately wanted to be a hedgehog.
One of the many paradoxes about him is that although everything he wrote is about his own enormous, egocentric dilemma, the enthralled reader is only rarely conscious of the fact. Yet in War and Peace Tolstoy is obsessed with his childhood, with the recovery of a joyous, innocent time, with the vision of a great, splendid, self-liberating Russia, in which he can feel wholly at home. It is the reader who finds the book as large and as varied as life itself. Everybody knows that Tolstoy put himself into Anna Karenina as Levin, the seeker, the simple gentleman, the family man, but that likeness is a formal one, even in a sense a falsifying one. Levin is a convenient but very misleading idea of Tolstoy concocted by himself: in reality he should have said, as Flaubert said about Madame Bovary, “Anna Karenina, c’est moi.” It is Anna who finds life impossible, and who embarks on a solitary, passionate, and ultimately sterile journey which ends in suicide at the railway station. It is Anna, even more significantly, who finds when it is too late that she cannot live without the society she grew up in, without her son and family—all the things she had abandoned in order to be with her lover. No wonder Tolstoy said of his many drafts of the plot of the novel that whatever he planned or altered he could do nothing to stop Anna’s suicide.
It is the great merit of A. N. Wilson’s new biographical study that he manages, against all the odds, to destabilize Tolstoy, to rescue him from admirers and detractors alike, to make us see the man and the writer as if for the first time. This is no small achievement. Tolstoy has been written about, one would have thought, to the point of stalemate. From Aylmer Maude…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.