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Hero or villein?

Tolstoy A.N. Wilson

Atlantic, pp.572, 25

‘Not one word’, exclaimed Turgenev of Tolstoy, ‘not one movement of his is natural! He is eternally posing before us!’

The recurrent underlying theme of A.N. Wilson’s prize-winning biography of Tolstoy, now re-issued after a quarter of a century, is the novelist as grand impersonator. Wilson (a prolific novelist himself) believes that there is a strong impulse in novelists to don masks or test alter egos, and that this impulse rioted in Tolstoy’s character.

Throughout his long life Tolstoy switched between playing at sad orphan, landowner, libertine, crazed gambler, spiritual elder, holy fool, paterfamilias, historian, village idiot, cobbler and dissident. Sometimes he postured as a bearded prophet, doling out portentous maxims, or as a scruffy bumpkin, mowing ineptly in his fields. He also starred as a haughty, straight-backed nobleman, riding over his coverts with proprietorial eyes which spotted broken fences; sometimes as a callous, jaded metropolitan who exulted in those salons and court antechambers which are evoked in War and Peace, but who also flitted querulously amidst the intelligentsia.  

It was as if Tolstoy was author, scene-shifter, actor-manager, usher, spell-bound audience and know-all critic of an endless drama in which a new act was performed every week.  His hectic self-display reminds one of Auden’s lines in The Age of Anxiety:

Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting, and the mad who do not.

By this definition Tolstoy, who was self-obsessed but not self-knowing, was quite mad.  

All the necessary dates, sequences, landscapes and emotions are laid out by Wilson in due order. He depicts Tolstoy as a coxcomb, bedevilled by gambling and whoring, until in 1851 he went to the Caucasus, where he became involved in campaigns against Chechen hill tribesmen. Thereafter, in The Raid, Sevastopol Sketches and War and Peace, Tolstoy’s fictions delved into military tactics, brutality, courage, heroism, leadership and the essence of historical truth. Although the novels are extolled for their heart-stopping discoveries of shared human sympathies or redemptive empathy between antagonists, Wilson shows that indifference and denial are hinges in their plots. Some of the strongest moments, he argues, were Tolstoy’s fictive versions, written in idealised form, of how he wished he had behaved at crucial moments of his life, intended to assuage memories which mortified him with shame — such as deserting the squalid deathbed of a consumptive brother to preen at smart parties.  

At the age of 34, Tolstoy proposed marriage to the 18-year-old Sofya Behrs. ‘He found her strange and fascinating’, writes Wilson. ‘She found him monstrous and frightening. There was a strong sexual attraction between them’. So urgent was his lust that he stipulated they were married within a week. He insisted before the wedding that he and his bride should read each other’s diaries, so as to begin marriage without secrets between them. She never stopped reeling from her discovery that he had been sexually initiated in a brothel, aged 14, that he had deflowered countless serf wenches on his estate and that he had indulged a phase of itching curiosity about other young men.  

When Sofya wept in her mother’s arms, just before mounting the carriage that was to take her away with her new husband, Tolstoy snapped: ‘If leaving your family means such great sorrow to you, then you cannot love me very much.’ Thus began what Wilson calls ‘one of the most closely documented and one of the most miserable marriages in history’. The eldest child was born nine months after the wedding: Sofya bore seven more children in the next seven years, and altogether endured 13 childbirths (only eight of the children survived to adulthood). In 1884, soon after she had the difficult birth of their youngest child, Tolstoy became aroused by their hysterical quarrelling and asserted his conjugal rights so inconsiderately that Sofya suffered a severe haemorrhage.  

‘Both Tolstoys were vile-tempered, narcissistic, moody and extravagantly domineering’, writes Wilson. Throughout 48 years of marriage they persisted in the psychic invasion and mutual torment of reading each other’s diaries. But, as Countess Tolstoy appreciated, in showing his diaries to her, her husband gave her privileged access to his ideas and feelings. Diary-reading was the unbreakable fetter which bound them together, even when they dreaded one another most.  

Wilson tries to prevent the scandalous histrionic strife from dominating his book.  He is at his happiest in tracing the mainsprings of Tolstoy’s creativity, in applauding the dozen years after 1865 when Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and then Anna Karenina, and in celebrating those novels’ compelling richness of detail, characterisation, plots and ambition. After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reacted to his position as the most famous Russian after the czar by developing an anarchic brand of Christianity.

This culminated with his renunciation in 1881 of earthly wealth, his preaching of political non-resistance to evil, vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and copulation. Henceforth, he was ‘always wasting his time in tomfool attempts to be like the peasants’, writes Wilson, who gives a horrible account of him firing a drunken swineherd, taking charge of the hogs, starving them in experimental cruelty and curing his hams so badly that they all rotted. One of his sons said that if Tolstoy had not been his father he would have wanted him hanged for sedition.   

Wilson is a playful biographer, whose pithiest points are made with a frivolity in gratifying contrast to Tolstoy’s odiously sententious disciples. Readers rejoice when he compares his subject’s fitful, despotic enthusiasms to those of Toad of Toad Hall, and his showiness to Alec Guinness in the Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, playing cameo roles as eight different members of a ducal family. There is a mismatch between Wilson’s sprightly, shrewd text and its infuriating, obtuse subject. With his insistence that Shakespeare was an inferior writer, that Jesus wasn’t a Christian, that folk music is preferable to Beethoven, that property is theft, Tolstoy really was a most jealous, perverse and conceited old party.

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