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Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy (2010)

by Anthony D P Briggs

Series: Brief Lives

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258752,453 (3.45)3
Born in central Russia in 1828, Tolstoy saw action as a soldier before becoming a writer. His two novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are among the best loved in world literature. Anthony Briggs compares these works and describes many others. He also considers why such a strong character as Tolstoy welcomed into his life three appalling individuals whose malign influence changed him and his literary career forever.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Hesperus Press has come up with another brilliant idea, commissioning experts to write a series of short (100 or so pages) biographies of famous literary figures, although this is the only one of the series that I have read so far, and, sadly, I didn't enjoy the experience much.

While I felt like I gained a little knowledge through reading Anthony Briggs's book, I came away ardently disliking Tolstoy, and not feeling much better about Briggs himself, as I found the tone in which the book was written almost insufferably stuffy; Terry Pratchett described a character in one of his novels as sounding 'like his bum was stuffed with tweed', and this book certainly brought that phrase strongly to mind.

I also felt that Briggs had a tendency to editorializing that I found irritating, especially in a book so short, and it seemed like he was sometimes more interested in giving his own opinions about the figures in Tolstoy's life, reviewing Tolstoy's works, or critiquing the writing of fellow critics and biographers.

Overall, then, I think the series is an excellent, original idea, and if you can get past Briggs's narrative style, this book is quite interesting, but, for me, it wasn't an overwhelming success. ( )
  felicityann86 | Sep 7, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Anthony Briggs is a true admirer of Tolstoy. Already on the first few pages, he talks about the genius of Tolstoy, author of the best book ever written, etc. This admiration doesn't keep him from being critical about the character of Tolstoy or about some of his minor works. In just over a hundred pages we get to know this great Russian author quite well. In short chapters (which I think is a style Briggs uses on purpose. He talks quite extensively about Tolstoy's writing and the way he uses short chapters in War and Peace to produce a readible book) Briggs leads us through Tolstoy's life, describing his most important works and giving us background information on the origins of every work. In this way the reader is able to understand Tolstoy and some of the more important choices he makes in life (for instance, the influence of Rousseau and Schopenhauer on his beliefs) and you are left with a desire to actually read the books Briggs has described. Very well done and the result is a book that is a very good introduction to the author and his work. ( )
  sneuper | Aug 10, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is part of a promissing new series about literary figures. In a little bit more than 100 pages Tolstoys live is told. Long enough to tell details and place his most important works. Short enough the read in a couple of evenings and not to be boring.

http://boekenwijs.blogspot.com/2010/08/leo-tolstoy-brief-lives.html ( )
  boekenwijs | Aug 8, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What a fantastic volume. One wonders what justice could be done to Tolstoy's prolific writing career in just 100 pages (i have had Wilson's 600+ page biography on my shelf for years and have not opened yet)-but Anthony Briggs does an excellent job in this Hesperus Press edition. It is a tempting work - a short easy read with just enough information and background to fill in the highlights of Tolstoy's career and make one want to explore some of the 20+ references in the bibliography.

Briggs does a nice job of chronologically displaying Tolstoy's life/career with the intertwining of key individuals and influencers (Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Chetkov) with works produced (novels, stories and essays) and with Tolstoy's personal philosophy. Briggs conclusion of Tolstoy's "dardk side" has me hooked to do further readings.

This is the only Herperus Press "Brief Lives" book I have read - but I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to others in the series ( )
  jsoos | Jul 26, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
There is an art to researching and writing biographies -- at least good biographies. Although a work's length and the amount of independent or original research may suggest how deeply a biographer delves into his subject, it certainly isn't determinative of quality. At the same time, it is a field where the shorter the book, the more likely it is to provide insufficient perspective. Thus, I must admit to a tad bit of skepticism when I saw this biography of Russian author Leo Tolstoy consists of roughly 100 pages. Yet Anthony Briggs accomplishes far more than expected with Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy.

Briggs, a professor of Russian and Russian Literature who has a published translation of War and Peace among his credits, does more than simply outline the basics of Tolstoy's life. The book, the latest in a series of short biographies of notable literary figures issued by the small, London-based Hesperus Press, gives us not only a view of Tolstoy as a person and a writer but a survey of his works and influences.

Briggs undoubtedly relies extensively on those who have researched and written more in-depth biographies of Tolstoy as well as the diaries of and extensive papers preserved by Tolstoy's wife, Sofia. But even if the basic elements of Tolstoy's life were merely a synthesis of basic history and prior works, the assessment of Tolstoy and his work makes clear this is more than a simple recapitulation. It is far more analytical and insightful than one would expect in a biography of this length. Whether any particular reader will agree with Briggs doesn't detract from his cogent rationale and commentary.

While Tolstoy's talents and literary output are, of course, a primary focus, Briggs wants to take the reader behind them. One of his main themes is recognizing, yet puzzling, over what Briggs sees as the influence of three "despicable men" with "unreasonably misanthropic and pessimistic beliefs." They are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a hero of a teen-aged Tolstoy, who Briggs sees encouraging a tendency toward self-hatred and influencing Tolstoy's work more than any other writer. In mid-life, Briggs points to "the malign presence" of pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, including the thought that life is essentially pain that can be eliminated only by overcoming the will to live. The final influence comes near the end of Tolstoy's life in Vladimir Chertkov, who became Tolstoy's secretary and essentially controlled Tolstoy and encouraged his more outlandish beliefs.

As this suggests, Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy is not a hagiography as short biographies can tend to be. Thus, while Briggs praises some of Tolstoy's work, he also recognizes weaknesses. "It is remarkable how the same writer could so easily write with distinction and descend to the depths of inanity almost without recharging his pen," he writes. This doesn't mean Briggs takes a dim view of his subject. Like good biographers, he attempts to provide an objective and detached assessment and does not hesitate to commend and celebrate Tolstoy and his talents where warranted.

Ultimately, what makes this so impressive is that Briggs conveys biography and discerning analysis with clarity in such limited space. Just as some people are hesitant or may not have the time to pick up a lengthy or in-depth biography of a noted author, very short biographies run the risk of giving short shrift to the author or insufficient perspective. This concise but never terse contextual account of Tolstoy's life not only avoids the latter risk, it satisfies readers who want to learn more than just the basics of the author's life.

(Modified version of review posted at A Progressive on the Prairie. ( )
  PrairieProgressive | Jul 19, 2010 |
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It is an awesome business that there should have a been a Tolstoy on this small planet. Each one of us is the richer for it. - George Steiner
Can it be that Schopenhauer and I are the only ones bright enough to appreciate the senseless evil of life? - Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
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One of the greatest achievements in world publishing was accomplished in the twentieth century by a team of Soviet scholars working for three decades on the 'Complete Works of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1928-58), which ran to ninety large volumes.
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Born in central Russia in 1828, Tolstoy saw action as a soldier before becoming a writer. His two novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are among the best loved in world literature. Anthony Briggs compares these works and describes many others. He also considers why such a strong character as Tolstoy welcomed into his life three appalling individuals whose malign influence changed him and his literary career forever.

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