A Russian Life
Houghton Mifflin 2011
New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in BiographyNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Literary StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network November 4, 2011 Marshall Poe
I vividly recall a time in my life–especially my late teens and early twenties–when I thought I could be anyone but had no idea which anyone to be. For this I blame (or credit) my liberal arts education, which convinced me that there was really nothing I couldn’t master but gave me little or no indication of what I should do (beyond platitudes like “discover myself” and “do good”). So I thrashed about, armed with an ounce of knowledge and a ton of arrogance. I was insufferable. I won’t go into details, but let me just say my quest to discover who I was ended rather badly, albeit not in the long term. Life taught me what my liberal arts education couldn’t: that I was who I was and not much more.
Having read Rosamund Bartlett‘s excellent Tolstoy: A Russia Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), I’m left wondering if Tolstoy ever came to this realization. Throughout his life, he searched for his true self. His launching pad was not a liberal arts education, but rather an aristocratic background, a flock of tutors, and a remarkable talent. The first taught Tolstoy that he could do anything he wanted (which was largely true as it concerned the serfs that Tolstoy’s family owned); the second gave him the cultural tools he needed to conduct his search; and the third gave him the ability to rise above all the other Russian aristocrats who were trying to figure out what they should do and where Russia should go. Tolstoy tried on Russian identities the way you try on cloths at a department store. He was, by turns, a student, a slacker, an enfant terrible, a rake, a soldier, a pianist, a slave master, a gambler, a journalist, a teacher, a bee-keeper, a patriarch, a national poet, a peasant, a pundit, and a child-of-nature. At the end of his life he became a holy fool, or monk, or cult leader–take your pick. Some see this identity as his final destination, his moment of Buddha-like enlightenment. I don’t think so. Had he lived another five years he would have become someone else. Tolstoy–perpetual adolescent.Thankfully for us, the common thread in his loosely woven life was writing. He was a always a writer, and one with preternatural descriptive and dramatic gifts.
Rosamund Bartlett is also a writer with considerable gifts, which explains why her grasp of Tolstoy is so solid and why her ability to vividly portray him so great. If you want to know Tolstoy, read Bartlett.