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A Russian Life

A-TolstoyBritish Russophile and translator Rosamund Bartlett is an authority on Russian culture and history and the author of a critically acclaimed biography of celebrated Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov, Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (2004). She recently completed a new translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

The Topic: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), the literary genius behind such works as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, continues to astonish readers with his psychological acuity and philosophical meditations. Tolstoy the man, however, led a life mired in contradictions and conflict. He espoused the abolition of personal property while living in luxury on his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana; he preached celibacy but fathered 13 children with his wife; and he embraced pacifism despite his proud, distinguished military service during the Crimean War. In later life, years of existential questioning and depression gave way to an obsessive quest for moral perfection that caused him to renounce the magnificent novels he'd penned. Tolstoy's life, argues Bartlett, is every bit as fascinating and complex as his fiction.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 560 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780151014385

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars"Tolstoy: A Russian Life is a charmingly phrased and probing work. ... [Bartlett] notes that Mikhail Gorbachev's relaxation of censorship has ‘opened the floodgates to a mass of new material, upon which this biography draws extensively.' The result is one of the most readable, and stimulating, biographies of the year." John Greppin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"The good news is that in Tolstoy: A Russian Life British Russophile Rosamund Bartlett, author of a fine biography of Anton Chekhov, has managed to reconcile the contrarieties and produce a marvelously judicious, insightful study. Fundamentally sympathetic to Tolstoy, she is also adept at identifying events in his youth, like the early deaths first of his mother, then his father, that destabilized his personality: The result is a clear-eyed biography that never minimizes its subject's faults while not losing sight of his better nature." Martin Rubin

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"Bartlett does not ignore the quirks and even the inhumanity of Tolstoy the man, who had a personality--Rebecca West once declared--akin to those found among the lower criminal classes. ... Rather, she lets the man and his work and his 19th-century Russia emerge in compelling and authoritative detail." Carl Rollyson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"Bartlett is thorough and even-handed in her treatment of Tolstoy's marriage, and of all other aspects of his representative life. Her epic and astutely indexed biography is so good that I shouldn't be surprised if, for the edification of Tolstoy's direct cultural descendants, it were translated into Russian." Thomas L. Jeffers

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars"Not unusually for a biographer, Bartlett seems to have wearied of her subject by the time she finished assembling her materials and rereading his fiction, and she's much less taken with Tolstoy as a revelatory artist than she is by his extraordinary and unique social and political influence. While Bartlett's Tolstoy is less a person than a phenomenon, there are several warm spots in the biography, and several aspects I'd never known or appreciated." Bob Blaisdell

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars"She too often tells rather than shows, distancing Tolstoy with analysis rather than explaining him in stories or in his own words. ... The result is a strangely detached look at this most impassioned writer." Bruce Watson

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars"Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy's latest biographer, admires his achievements as a novelist, but she underrates them. ... Far from offering new insight into Tolstoy's work, Ms. Bartlett seems content to trace the real-life prototypes of characters and events." Gary Saul Morson

Critical Summary

The first full-length biography since A. N. Wilson's 1988 chronicle of the famous novelist, Tolstoy: A Russian Life places the man--as soldier, husband, father, friend, aristocrat, and spiritual guide--squarely within the context of late 19th- and early 20th-century Russian history. Though the Los Angeles Times declared approvingly that Tolstoy is not "overburdened with literary criticism," other critics took issue with Bartlett's unwillingness to discuss or analyze his works. Instead, she explores, in lucid prose, the real-life characters and events from which Tolstoy drew his inspiration, simultaneously reconciling his innate inconsistencies to produce an absorbing biography. Tolstoy may not be the final word on the taciturn writer--indeed, a few critics pointed out some factual errors and others felt removed from the subject--but its insights and findings should appeal to fans of Tolstoy and classic literature.