Dia's Reviews > Tolstoy

Tolstoy by Henri Troyat
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's review
Sep 23, 2010

really liked it

For all of its size, this biography of Tolstoy becomes increasingly claustrophobic as it tracks Tolstoy's intellectual development; Tolstoy's intellect seems always to have been driven by guilt, but to have progressed from an intellect that could tolerate guilt to one that could not. Thus Tolstoy became increasingly judgmental and paralyzed, and to read an intimate portrayal of his later years becomes excruciating -- even setting aside the chaotic pressures provided by his wife, family, and disciples. The reader trusts Troyat, as he hangs his finely woven tale on a solid structure of primary sources, but the reader is aware that any biographer of Tolstoy will have to take a side in presenting these final, awful years. Was she truly crazy? Did he truly love her? Was he duped by his disciples? Did he die as he'd wished? Troyat's account is less flattering to both Tolstoy and Sonya than is the recent film that depicts these last years but has to it the unresolved complexity of truth.

A Tolstoy biographer must also grapple with the fact that Tolstoy was not particularly a fan of his own greatest works -- he saw them as frivolous, not accessible and edifying enough -- yet he could not resist writing literature. He wrote perhaps his most powerfully beautiful piece, Hadji Murad, in his last years, after he had utterly rejected writing as a worthy occupation. Troyat does not attempt to fathom this paradox, or even to make a more modest investigation into why Tolstoy ever wrote at all. Troyat is a rather humble biographer, sticking with the "what" and the "how" rather than braving any "whys." And he is a fine writer himself, using a colorful vocabulary to dramatize documented events both external and internal (the latter made quite possible by the prodigious amount of diary-keeping Tolstoy and his people did). I did miss the "scene setting" that is conventional to biographies -- more about the time and place in which Tolstoy lived. Troyat focuses tightly on Tolstoy -- and in the end, we are glad, with Tolstoy, to let go.
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