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Tolstoy: A Russian Life [Hardcover]

Rosamund Bartlett
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

11 Nov 2010

A hundred years ago in November 1910 Count Leo Tolstoy died on a remote Russian railway station, attended by the world's media, taken ill as he was finally attempting to escape his decadent (as he saw it), aristocratic family life.

Tolstoy has been universally recognised as a colossus of world literature whether by his contemporaries or critics. In this exceptional biography Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on the many fascinating new sources which have been published about Tolstoy since the collapse of Communism to write about one of the most compelling, maddening, brilliant and contrary people who has ever lived. She and we discover a remarkable and long life in one of the most fascinating and turbulent periods of Russian history, straddling the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tolstoy spent that life rebelling - not only against conventional ideas about literature and art but against traditional education and eventually against family life, organised religion and the state.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (11 Nov 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846681383
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846681387
  • Product Dimensions: 18.2 x 25.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 339,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'An accessible and scholarly biography of the troubled master of realist fiction' -- Evening Standard

'This biography has the sweep and vividness of literature itself' --Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

Book Description

Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina are considered two of the greatest novels ever written. Here at the 100th anniversary of his death is a fresh perspective on his extraordinary life and times, which is currently longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2011

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
By James
War and Peace and Anna Karenina are both in my top ten or so favourite novels, and my desire to learn more about their author was my main reason for reading this book. As a source of such information Bartlett's book didn't disappoint: it provides a fascinating account of a larger-than-life character. It's long (454 pages of text plus a further 90 pages devoted to footnotes, references, and a detailed and very helpful index) but not unreasonably so given the complexity of Tolstoy's life and work, and the enormous mass of paperwork which he produced during his life.

The book told me a lot of things that I hadn't previously known about both WAP and AK. For example, chapter 1 focuses on earlier generations of Tolstoy's family, which at first sight doesn't sound very interesting; but it emerges that Tolstoy's maternal ancestors, the Volkonsky family, provided the inspiration for WAP's fictional Bolkonsky family, with WAP's Princess Maria Bolkonskaya being modelled on Tolstoy's own mother, Maria Volkonskaya. Later chapters provide similar insights about how Tolstoy worked multiple experiences from his own life into both WAP and AK. All this is in the first half of the book. The second half focuses mainly on his philosophical and religious thinking. I initially knew much less about this, but I found it sufficiently interesting to want to follow some of it up in future reading. Likewise, Bartlett's book has motivated me to read or re-read some of his less well-known literary works, as well as to revisit work by Dostoyevsky and other Russian literary giants whom I haven't read for a long time.

Over and above his life's work, the book also provides a detailed portrait of Tolstoy the man, warts and all - and unfortunately there are some rather large warts.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
By Antenna TOP 500 REVIEWER
I don't know why this biography is described on the back cover as "unorthodox" unless it is because of the author's frank, but very well supported criticisms of Tolstoy.

It is a relief to find a biography of a widely revered writer which reveals him warts and all. I was intrigued to read that the author finds Tolstoy an unappealing young man, sanctimoniously writing over-ambitious lists of worthy resolutions, only to spend a few days in prison for failure to attend lectures, or weeks in a clinic to be treated for venereal disease.

When a young man, he was forced to sell villages along with serfs to pay for his gambling debts, and then used some of proceeds together with bail-outs from long-suffering friends, to lose still more money.

He is portrayed as promiscuous - apparently quite common for wealthy young men of his day - controlling, for instance of the long-suffering wife who was a teenager, half his age, when he married her, and very opinionated, prone to falling out with friends - once, he even challenged his friend Turgenev to a duel.

It is interesting to learn that Tolstoy cared more for his "ABC" primer for children than his most famous novels. Although he spent many months researching them and trying out different plots, he was bored with "War and Peace" before it was finished, and struggled with "Anna Karenina" which became for him, a "banal.. bitter radish".

As his social conscience developed, Tolstoy tried to free his serfs, only to discover that they mistrusted his intentions and refused to cooperate. Then, he was one of the first to found a school for his serfs' children. It was remarkably child-centred for its day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars VERY SOLID LIFE OF COUNT LEO TOLSTOY 19 April 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a life (450 pages) of Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910 - aristocrat, soldier, novelist, farmer, thinker, social campaigner) with an epilogue about his influence in Russia since 1910 (and the Soviet attitude to Tolstoyanism). It's by Rosamund Bartlett, an expert on Russian cultural history and Fellow of King's College (London).

It's about the development of key books e.g., "Anna Karenina" and "ABC" (an educational text) but also about Tolstoy as educationalist and thinker. The boldness and range of his religious/philosophical thinking about how to live was tremendous. A centrepiece was "The Gospel in Brief" (based on the Sermon on The Mount) which - a radical re-examination of Christianity - drew conclusions he lived by. He became a non-violent pacifist, but also anti-state, anti-militarist and arguably anarchist, which explains why the Soviets and Orthodox church were so hostile.

Dr Bartlett's thorough book is well-researched , but I'd have liked more opinions (in addition to chronology) about the literature and philosophy; e.g., why is Anna Karenina so highly regarded and writers e.g., Chekhov in awe, ... what are the merits/demerits of Tolstoy's "anarchistic" ideas? Was he right? Perhaps such discussion could have been in footnotes? Perhaps Dr Bartlett felt such judgements were provided by others in the literature.

The portrayal of (Tolstoy's wife) Sophia - central but in shadow - seemed understated; perhaps the marriage was a drama (tensions of a woman married to a radical genius) Dr Bartlett didn`t want to major on. Tolstoy and Sophia married in 1862 when she was 18 (he 34), she bore 13 children (8 survived childhood), and died 1919 at Yasnaya Polyana (the Tolstoy estate south of Moscow). She attempted suicide when told (at the end of his life) Tolstoy had left Yasnaya Polyana.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps it would be better to pay tax
Outstanding good book but if Amazon paid tax it would get 5*: meanwhile we have to accept a quality book just gets 3*.
Published 13 months ago by Mr. R. Reade
4.0 out of 5 stars An incredible story-well told
I found this biography very well researched and especially interesting as it devotes a great deal of space to Tolstoy's writings on religion, spirituality and pacifism. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Drejem
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolstoy: A Russian Life, Rosamund Bartlett
This has had very good reviews and it will be interesting comparing it with the other biography about Tolstoy by AN Wilson.
Published 18 months ago by alisa barstow
5.0 out of 5 stars Just as wanted.
Great book, excellent price and very quick service. Thank you will use your service regularly as very quick to come.
Published on 22 Feb 2012 by kjs
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolstoy: je ne sais quoi!
Lev Tolstoy has always played a special denominator in the spiritual, intellectual, and
political lives of Russian readers. Read more
Published on 24 Jan 2012 by Dag Stomberg
4.0 out of 5 stars Larger than life
Rosamund Bartlett has made a remarkable job in this biography, depicting Tolstoy in all his contradictions and excesses: as a genie and a holy fool, as a selfless person devoted to... Read more
Published on 27 Dec 2011 by VM
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book; excellent value
Derek Longden has a lovely way with words. He has a very strong sense of humor, and a self depreciating view on his own extensive talents. Read more
Published on 17 Dec 2011 by Rowena
4.0 out of 5 stars A Russian afterlife...
In biography, it is always difficult to deal with a subject whose entire way of life has been swept away by the forces of history. Read more
Published on 28 Mar 2011 by Dr. G. SPORTON
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful, scholarly and very human
I would not be put off by the previous reviewer. This is an excellent book which brings to life a figure who has become an icon of 19th century Russia. Read more
Published on 30 Dec 2010 by cdc22
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a struggle sometimes but worth it in the end
I must admit that this took a bit of getting through. But then, given the subject matter this was only to be expected. Read more
Published on 16 Nov 2010 by Big Jim
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