An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
One of the pivotal figures of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and radicalism, Tolstoy was (as we must surely expect by now) vocally opposed to the majority of both.
❧ Full name and titles: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy [lĕv nĭ-kø-lä-yĕ-vĭch or nĭ-kø-lä-ĭch tõł-stȏi; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 9 Sept. 1828-20 Nov. 1910
❧ Areas active: Russian Empire (modern Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine), France, Belgium
❧ Original language of writing: Russian
❧ Exemplary or important works: Война и Миръ [Voyna i Mir] (“War and Peace”); Исповедь [Ispoved] (“Confession”); Смерть Ивана Ильича [Smert Ivana Ilyicha] (“The Death of Ivan Ilyich”)
Leo (or in its native form, Lev) Tolstoy was born in 1828, into a Russian aristocratic house; he lost both of his parents while he was still a child, and grew up in the care of relatives. At the age of 16, he began studying at Kazan University,* but he soon left and began to lead a hedonistic life in the more populous cities further west. Under the pressure of gambling debts, Tolstoy joined the Russian army, just in time to participate in the Crimean War.**
Though promoted for bravery, he was horrified by what he saw in the war, and by witnessing a public execution during a trip to Paris in 1857; he also established contact with a number of important radicals in Western Europe, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Victor Hugo, and Pyotr Kropotkin. He soon converted from an idle member of the Russian gentry to a strongly pacifistic, heterodox, and outspoken Christian; he even had a correspondent in British India whom he influenced in favor of nonviolence, a young man named Mohandas Gandhi. In 1862, he married Sophia Behrs, known thereafter as Sonya Tolstaya; for some time, the marriage was reasonably successful, and the couple raised eight children to adulthood (in fact, there are still Tolstoys living today, chiefly in Russia, Sweden, and Great Britain); Sonya also served as her husband’s amanuensis for the writing of War and Peace, and supported several of his political campaigns. In later years, however, thanks in part to his increasing wish to divest himself of all property—which meant impoverishing his family as well—the marriage became highly strained, to the point that it has been called “the most famously unhappy marriage in literary history.”†
Speaking of War and Peace, which begins to sound like a description of the Tolstoy household, let us turn to his work—and the novel of that name seems a sound place to begin. Set during Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, the book follows several families and a handful of more isolated characters from among the upper class; it begins as something like a soap opera, but the wars in France, Italy, and the Low Countries unexpectedly become wars in Germany, Austria, and Poland, and finally press their way directly into the characters’ lives. Large portions of the novel, especially in the later chapters, consist in philosophical discussions, with a particular focus on the value of human beings (as contrasted with both the massacres of battle and the “great man theory” of history that would make most people pawns) and the problem of how we are to live just lives in an unjust world.
Eight years later, in 1877, Tolstoy published his second full-length novel, Anna Karenina, which has one of the most famous opening lines in history: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.”‡ The plot is, like most Russian novels’, polyphonic; the principal story is that of the titular Anna, who divorces her husband in order to marry her lover, Count Vronsky. (Divorce at the time was both highly scandalous and difficult to obtain.) Despite her ex-husband’s attempts at reconciliation and the recent birth of their daughter, Anna and Vrosnky leave Russia for Italy, only to return when they fund themselves isolated and unhappy abroad. Having already lost her former social standing, Anna comes to believe that she has also lost Vrosnky’s affections, and that he is being faithless to her as she was to her first husband; in a fit of anger, jealousy, and despair, she throws herself under a train. War and Peace and Anna Karenina alike have come to be considered archetypal Russian novels: lengthy, intricately plotted, and tragic in both theme (unqualified happy endings are not on the menu) and technique (the ill fates of the principals are caused by their own uncorrected flaws of character).
For reasons of space, we must pass over his third novel (Resurrection), most of his shorter fiction and essays, and all his plays. We may next pause to consider the most beloved of his short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The story, rather unusually, opens with an announcement of the death of its title character and protagonist; the bulk of the action then takes place in a kind of flashback. Taken unexpectedly ill by a slow, wasting illness, Ivan has an unusually clear and aware path to death. At first he grows resentful, but slowly, aided by the exemplary kindness and simplicity of a household servant named Gerasim, he comes to realize that he has never really grasped what life is about in the first place, and realizes that he now has a chance to do so. He finds compassion for everyone in his life, and in so doing, loses his fear of death.
Tolstoy’s religious beliefs—while emphatically Christian—were neither mainstream nor acceptable to the Russian Orthodox Church, which finally excommunicated him in 1901. Given his severe criticism of war in an age of Russian imperial expansion, it is possible that he would have attracted censure from the Orthodox hierarchy in any case; but he also advocated practices such as complete abstinence from sex, alcohol, and meat, as general duties all Christians should observe rather than rigorous disciplines recommended for monks; he was also a pacifist and an anarchist, two things which neither the Romanov crown nor the Most Holy Synod’s miters would tolerate. Significant works expressing his views directly in theoretical terms include The Gospel in Brief, Church and State, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Lastly, we may touch briefly upon Tolstoy’s contribution to artistic and literary criticism. One of his most developed works on the subject is the straightforwardly-titled book What Is Art? In it, he offers a theory of art that is heavily moralistic. He begins by defining art as anything which communicates feeling, taking the bold step of considering and banishing any role for beauty in the definition of art. While allowing that art which falls short of his ethical standards does still qualify as art, he will not let anything be called “good art” unless it is morally good; he therefore summarily dismisses creative giants (such as, bafflingly, Dante and Shakespeare, who are not known for their indifference to morals!) as basically worthless—and, to be fair, equally dismisses a majority of his own work on the same grounds. He also calls for the best art to be universal, i.e., accessible to everyone by expressing emotions common to humanity; he deplores artificiality, obscurity, imitation of other artists, and reliance on striking effects and juxtapositions. It is a curious and dreadful thing to declare that one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century, when it came to artistic theory, was a fool; and so, having placidly observed that fact, apropos of nothing, we may conclude.
*Kazan lies far in the east of European Russia, due north of the Caspian Sea; founded in the eleventh century, it was an important point of exchange between Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Far East.
**The Crimean War was fought between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. It was in this war that Florence Nightingale founded modern nursing. The allies achieved their goal of limiting Russian expansion southward; however, the war’s diplomatic consequences, especially the alienation of Russia and Austria, contributed to the outbreak of World War One.
†This memorable line comes from British writer Peter Bradshaw, reviweing a biopic about Tolstaya, who was a fascinating author in her own right. In stark contrast to Tolstoy’s reputed jealousy, after his novella The Kreutzer Sonata was published—which advocates total sexual abstinence, and in which the protagonist murders his wife—even though the public took it to be a commentary on the Tolstoys’ marriage (which incensed Tolstaya), and though she wrote two books in response to it, she personally obtained an audience with the Tsar to remove a ban placed on The Kreutzer Sonata by state censors.
‡It is excellent—nearly as good as “There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” (the first line of C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
Gabriel Blanchard has a baccalaureate in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a proud uncle to seven nephews. He came to work for CLT in 2019, where he is the editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
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Published on 13th November, 2023. Page image of the Cathedral of St. Vasily (a.k.a. St. Basil), one of the most celebrated landmarks of Moscow (source).