Notes on Tolstoy


by Henri Troyat
Fayard, 888 pp., $13.00


by Henri Troyat, translated by Nancy Amphoux
Dell, 762 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

Doubleday has published a translation of Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy. This translation by Nancy Amphoux seems competent, but it is smoother in the French, which makes the conflicts and vicissitudes of the tumultuous Tolstoys run off at a very rapid pace—although the French version, as a piece of bookmaking, is of a clumsiness quite foreign to the French tradition. One would have expected a paperbound two volumes like Troyat’s biography of Pushkin, but what we get is a hardbound monstrosity, six by almost nine inches and almost three inches thick, which is nearly impossible to handle without a reading rack.

This huge volume is introduced on the jacket as follows in a blurb signed Jean Bassan:

Tolstoy and Troyat suggest an easy parallel: two names that begin with T, two Russians at least in origin [Troyat is actually Armenian], two stout and solid fellows (deux gaillards solides et larges), two mountains of blackened paper, two authors of romans-fleuves, of historical novels, two great novelists of the Russian land, the same classical predisposition for simplicity and work well done. All this goes without saying.

The writer then goes on to point out certain differences, among them that Tolstoy was born in 1828, whereas Troyat was not born till 1911. This idiotic ballyhoo should not, however, prejudice one against M. Troyat’s book, which is, so far as I know, the best presentation of Tolstoy’s whole career that is at present available in English. Aylmer Maude’s The Life of Tolstoy is still an indispensable work—I am sorry to see that it no longer appears in the list of the World’s Classics—because Maude was one of Tolstoy’s secretaries as well as a trusted translator, and is able to give a firsthand account of Tolstoy’s domestic relations and of the difficulties caused by the interference of Chertkov, the old man’s tyrannical disciple.

What M. Troyat has put together is a record of Tolstoy’s life from the copious letters, diaries, and memoirs of Lyov Nikolaevich himself, his wife, his children, and his friends. Has ever an eminent writer been so documented by written evidence? The number of members of the family who kept diaries seems from our point of view incredible. One of the daughters, Tanya, started hers at twelve. The conflict between Tolstoy and his wife over Chertkov, against whom she developed, not, it would seem, without cause, a mania of jealousy, over the right to publish her husband’s writings, on which she was partly dependent for the income to support the family, and over the possession of his later diaries, in which she felt she had been maligned—all this has been pieced together in a depressing but absorbing narrative.

The comic aspects of Lyov Nikolaevich’s life from the moment of his religious conversion are too obvious and too well-known to be described here at length. While preaching chastity, poverty, and the inescapable obligation to…

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