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Tolstoy: a Russian life by Rosamund Bartlett
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Tolstoy: a Russian life (2010)

by Rosamund Bartlett

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As a history major in undergrad, I have some familiarity with history books such as this one. Many of them are painfully dry and dishearteningly long. Thankfully, since I was reading this for fun and not with the threat of a test to push me through, Bartlett's tome, while long (which is to be expected given the subject matter), proved to be pretty readable.

That is not to say, of course, that it was a speedy read. It was not, at least not for me. However, Bartlett is a good writer and she conveyed information in a logical order, something one does not always find in such books. Plus, Tolstoy's a pretty interesting guy to read about, even if he was a bit of a jerk (ex. his treatment of his wife, who was pregnant all the time from their marriage until she pretty much couldn't have kids anymore). Did you know his belief in nonviolent resistance was an inspiration to Gandhi? And that he was a huge proponent of vegetarianism?

Looking at this in terms of how useful it would be for a paper, I would give it pretty high marks, since, as previously mentioned, it is both well-written and a wealth of information. The one drawback I see is the construction of the chapters, many of which cover a couple different aspects of his life. For example, one chapter is entitled "Student, Teacher, Father" and another is "Landowner, Gambler, Officer, Writer." Honestly, I think it would have been better to break these up into their own chapters, since there tended to be a pretty obvious switch from one of the subjects to the next. This would serve two purposes: shortening the chapters and making it easier to locate what you're looking for in the text. Really long chapters are both depressing to a student and make it really hard to go back and locate that one quote that is crucial to proving your thesis.

Despite that, I would consider this a pretty awesome choice for your learning-about-Tolstoy needs, be they self-motivated or required for class. ( )
  A_Reader_of_Fictions | Apr 1, 2013 |
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) remodeled the modern novel with "War and Peace," making it as much a work of history as of literature. Historians may find fault with this or that detail, but in his handling of such crucial events as the battle of Borodino -- where Napoleon won the Pyrrhic victory that virtually doomed his invasion of Russia -- Tolstoy prevails as the colossal chronicler of the clash between major characters and events.

Then Tolstoy remodeled the modern novel again with "Anna Karenina," a searing portrayal of marriage and estrangement and love that brought new psychological depth to narrative prose. Opposed not only to adultery but to women's rights, Tolstoy -- himself the father of an illegitimate child -- nevertheless understood the passion and anguish of his heroine.

For these two novels alone, Tolstoy would deserve multiple biographies probing his contradictions and contrarian behavior. A nobleman (he was Count Tolstoy) proud of his ancestry, he identified with his peasants and invented a one-piece costume for himself patterned on their clothing. A fervent hunter, he reluctantly relinquished his sport because it conflicted with his humanitarian beliefs. An army officer, he later transformed himself into a teacher of peasant children and the author of primers designed for peasant children. A habitual gambler, he racked up enormous losses. Tolstoy was also a self-absorbed writer who quarreled with nearly everyone (even staunch supporters like Ivan Turgenev), and a rather boorish husband who kept his wife constantly pregnant (even as she copied out his manuscripts and contributed telling details to his famous novels). And the list could go on -- as it does in Rosamund Bartlett's absorbing and pitch-perfect biography.

As Bartlett points out, there are actually few really good biographies of Tolstoy written in English. The most recent notable one, she says, is A.N. Wilson's, published in 1988. But Bartlett, besides writing well, is also a translator of Russian and author of a well-received biography of Chekhov. As such, she is able to situate Tolstoy in his milieu, a strategy that results in a breathtaking exploration of his unique position in pre-revolutionary Russia. There was simply no one like him, willing to take on every aspect of Russian life and demanding reform.

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. He played the imperial despot even as he decried the outdated and decadent czarist regime. But Bartlett is not in the business of name-calling. Rather, she lets the man and his work and his 19th-century Russia emerge in compelling and authoritative detail. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Oct 19, 2012 |
In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling not only against conventional ideas about literature and art but also against traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state.

In this exceptional biography, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating new material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy’s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya, a subject long neglected; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved. Above all, she gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has, once again, been discovered by a new generation of readers.
  SalemAthenaeum | Nov 29, 2011 |
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Book description
Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina' are considered two of the greatest novels ever written. This title offers a fresh perspective on his extraordinary life and times. It helps you 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.
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Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating new material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy's remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya, a subject long neglected; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved. Above all, she gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has, once again, been discovered by a new generation of readers.… (more)

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