Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
When novels were written with a serious purpose and read as avidly all across the world Tolstoy was a doyen in the same class as Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Poe, Scott and Dosteovsky. Literary tastes have since changed. Tastes of readers are weighted on the side of best sellers and since writers who sell are more a product and who are geared to cater to the lowest denominator we see the kind of books that is touted in each season as best sellers. I would not be surprised if Tolstoy’s moral passion and Dosteovsky’ delving into darkness human soul are now dubbed as top heavy or elitist by modern readers who have grown up with Dan Brown or John Grisham.
Nevertheless according to the English writer Virginia Woolf, ‘he with his observational powers elicited a kind of fear in readers’ and she granted that Tolstoy was “the greatest of all novelists.”
The scion of prominent aristocrats, Tolstoy was born at the family estate, about 130 miles south of Moscow, where he was to live the better part of his life and write his most important works. Having lost his parents at a tender age Tolstoy and his four siblings were then transferred to the care of another aunt in Kazan, in western Russia. From his diaries we know the agonizing spiritual ambivalence that plagued him and he well into his mature years lived a loose life as customary with nobility of his times in debauchery. . Educated at home by tutors, Tolstoy enrolled in the University of Kazan in 1844 as a student of Oriental languages. His poor record soon forced him to transfer to other areas. Thus he drew towards literature. The writings of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a deep impact on him. (in place of a cross, he wore a medallion with a portrait of Rousseau). In 1851 he joined his older brother Nikolay, an army officer, in the Caucasus and then entered the army himself. He took part in campaigns against the native Caucasian tribes and, soon after, in the Crimean War (1853–56).
Concealing his identity, Tolstoy submitted Childhood for publication in Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), a prominent journal edited by the poet Nikolay Nekrasov. Nekrasov was enthusiastic, and the pseudonymously published work was widely praised. During the next few years Tolstoy published a number of stories based on his experiences in the Caucasus, including “Nabeg” (1853; “The Raid”) and his three sketches about the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War: “Sevastopol v dekabre mesyatse” (“Sevastopol in December”), “Sevastopol v maye” (“Sevastopol in May”), and “Sevastopol v avguste 1855 goda” (“Sevastopol in August”; all published 1855–56).
After the Crimean War Tolstoy resigned from the army and was at first hailed by the literary world of St. Petersburg. But his prickly vanity, his refusal to join any intellectual camp, and his insistence on his complete independence soon earned him the dislike of the radical intelligentsia. He was to remain throughout his life an “archaist,” opposed to prevailing intellectual trends.
The period of the great novels (1863–77)
Happily married and ensconced with his wife and family at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy reached the height of his creative powers. He devoted the remaining years of the 1860s to writing* War and Peace. This was followed up with his other great novel, Anna Karenina(1875–77). These two works share a vision of human experience rooted in an appreciation of everyday life and prosaic virtues. In 1899 Tolstoy published his third long novel, Voskreseniye (Resurrection).
Tolstoy’s rejection of religious ritual contrasts markedly with his attitude in Anna Karenina, where religion is viewed as a matter not of dogma but of traditional forms of daily life.
His search was increasingly straining his married life since his wife yearned for a settled life with the rightly earned fame and material affluence while his attitudes and beliefs were creating enemies inside Russia. His religion upset the Orthodox Church and pacifism, the State.
With the notable exception of his daughter Aleksandra, whom he made his heir, Tolstoy’s family remained aloof from or hostile to his teachings.
Tormented by his domestic situation and by the contradiction between his life and his principles, in 1910 Tolstoy at last escaped incognito from Yasnaya Polyana, accompanied by Aleksandra and his doctor. Within a few days, he contracted pneumonia and died of heart failure at the railroad station of Astapovo.
In contrast to other psychological writers, such as Dostoyevsky, who specialized in unconscious processes, Tolstoy described conscious mental life with unparalleled mastery. His name has become synonymous with an appreciation of contingency and of the value of everyday activity. Oscillating between skepticism and dogmatism, Tolstoy explored the most diverse approaches to human experience. Above all, his greatest works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, endure as the summit of realist fiction.
Most readers will agree with the assessment of the 19th-century British poet and critic Matthew Arnold that a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life; the 20th-century Russian author Isaak Babel commented that, if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy. Critics of diverse schools have agreed that somehow Tolstoy’s works seem to elude all artifice. Ultimately he remains by such diverse works as War and Peace, Resurrection, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Anna Karenina the living symbol of the search for life’s meaning.
• War and Peace
The work’s historical portions narrate the campaign of 1805 leading to Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, a period of peace, and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Contrary to generally accepted views, Tolstoy portrays Napoleon as an ineffective, egomaniacal buffoon, Tsar Alexander I as a phrasemaker obsessed with how historians will describe him, and the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov (previously disparaged) as a patient old man who understands the limitations of human will and planning. Particularly noteworthy are the novel’s battle scenes, which show combat as sheer chaos. Generals may imagine they can “anticipate all contingencies, ” but battle is really the result of “a hundred million diverse chances” decided on the moment by unforeseeable circumstances. In war as in life, no system or model can come close to accounting for the infinite complexity of human behaviour.
The novel’s other hero, the bumbling and sincere Pierre Bezukhov, oscillates between belief in some philosophical system promising to resolve all questions and a relativism so total as to leave him in apathetic despair.
Tolstoy’s belief in the efficacy of the ordinary and the futility of system-building set him in opposition to the thinkers of his day. It remains one of the most controversial aspects of his philosophy.
(Copyright © 1994-2011 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc./ Gary Saul Morson)