Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat

Second paragraph of third chapter:

One hundred and thirty miles – a surface of packed, crusted snow going across barren plains and through frail birch groves. At every relay they drank scalding tea at the inn, hung thick with the smell of smoke, leather and cabbage. Grandmother's coach was in the lead, hoisted up on its high wheels, as comfortable as a house. There was food inside to last for ten days, a medicine kit, dressing case, and a night commode, so that the passengers might relieve themselves without getting out of the coach. Frozen by the wind, footmen clung to jutting platforms on either side of the box. The carriage was so monumentally big that it could not get through the archway of the post-house at Serpukhov, but apart from that, the trip went off without incident. They slept in the upstairs rooms of the inns, which were cold and full of bedbugs. The next morning – for the last lap of the journey – Papa invited each of his sons in turn to sit with him in his sledge. It was at his father's side that Leo entered Moscow at last, after a four-day voyage.

Having immensely appreciated both War and Peace and Anna Karenina in recent years, I picked this book up to try and get acquainted with the great author.

Oh dear.

Tolstoy was a truly awful person. Having had a couple of (extraordinary) literary successes, he set himself up as a political prophet and became the centre of a cult following which does not appear to have embarrassed him in the slightest. His disciples were in constant conflict with his wife and family as to who controlled access to the great man and who could profit from his literary endeavours. He was entirely capable of writing an essay on how important it is to put sex aside only to then immediately go and impregnate poor Sonya for the umpteenth time. The story of the last few years of his life is a tedious tit-for-tat in his entourage, enlivened by the occasional bit of actual writing.

Henri Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) ducks almost all of these issues. The biography relies too heavily on the copious written materials left by Tolsty and his family and fans, and never steps back to consider where we have come from. One telling example: in the account of Tolstoy's wedding to Sonya, Troyat lets slip that the great man had already had a son with Axinya, one of the serfs on the family estate – and there is no further examination of this, apart from its effect on Sonya's state of mind (already somewhat perturbed by reading Tolstoy's secret diaries, a detail later written into Anna Karenina).

I am sure that better biographies of Tolstoy have since been written. But I'm not sure I would want to read them.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2013. Next on that list is The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

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