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Tolstoy: A Biography

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  325 ratings  ·  39 reviews
In this landmark biography of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson narrates the complex drama of the writer's life: his childhood of aristocratic privilege but emotional deprivation, his discovery of his literary genius after aimless years of gambling and womanizing, and his increasingly disastrous marriage. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's ...more
Paperback, 624 pages
Published March 17th 2001 by W. W. Norton Company (first published January 1st 1988)
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Average rating 4.08  · 
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Why should I continue reading a book that is making me miserable?

I have completed 1/4 of this very long book. I have had enough. What follows explains why I dislike it.

The language used is sophisticated rather than clear. At times one is even unsure who exactly the author is speaking of!

The author sees Tolstoy as the greatest writer of all time. He doesn't approach the man or his writing with balance.

Sweeping, judgmental statements are made that can surely be questioned!

Much is devoted to an
Jul 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: franklin-library
This is almost two books in one. Wilson begins the book with glittering literary praise, flushed with admiration for Tolstoy's novels and driven by an obsessive fan's knack for relating the fiction to Tolstoy's life and Tolstoy's Russia. Wilson is obviously well-acquainted with these substantial works, and his easy expertise is impressive, if rather showy.
When the narrative reaches Tolstoy's revolutionary period, there is a jarring shift in tone: the breathy te deums are replaced with a sneering
Richard Newton
I enjoyed the excellently written, insightful and thoughtful biography of Tolstoy.

This is the first material I have ever read on Tolstoy's life. I have learnt there are different viewpoints and interpretations from the mass of materials he left, as well as the materials many of the others who knew him wrote. I cannot therefore comment on the accuracy of AN Wilson's particular interpretation or the choices of which elements of Tolstoy's life he has chosen to emphasise. I can only comment on my
Dec 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Literature fans, Russian history
The only Tolstoy I’ve read is what has been excerpted in this book … so I am at a huge disadvantage to the author, A.N. Wilson. However, I suspect he is probably one of only a handful of people who have read The Complete Works of L.N. Tolstoy. I suspect David Foster Wallace might be one of those handful, who has bragged, Wallace, that he’s read everything you have. I say this because I see things—things that make me think Wallace got some ideas, not only philosophical ideas, but ideas for ...more
Neil Randall
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent biography of one of the most complex of all literary figures. Wilson concentrates on the striking contradictions between the man and the artist, how Tolstoy struggled to reconcile his human weaknesses, failures and faults with his religious beliefs, and how his work, in the latter part of his life, suffered as a result, and how his family life and marriage (especially) broke down. Beautifully written and very well put together. Recommended.
Matt Griffith
The main puzzle this book poses for the reader is: who has the biggest ego - Tolstoy or A N Wilson? Watching the two of them go mano et mano is a good scrap, and Wilson does well to cut through the Tolstoy excesses, but by the end I found them both slightly monstorous. The book also lacks in the historical depth that later Russophiles would expect (I think Wilson lacked access to much of the historical archive when writing this back in the 70s and is not that insightful of the Russian cultural ...more
Oct 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Tolstoy is another massive biography by A. N. Wilson – 572 pages. Born in a period of peace, flanked by two wars – the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the 1917 Russian revolution – Leo Tolstoy’s national epic is War and Peace. Gleaned from his diaries, and the diaries of his wife, Wilson details the life of the writer and the thinker, whose art grew from three ‘uneasy and irresolvable’ relationships – with women, with Russia, and with God.

The biography commences with the death of his mother at 40
Feb 16, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Never get a Dickensian to write about the Russians. Wilson is far too cynical, far too ironic, and like Dickens far too focused on childhood to penetrate into Tolstoy. A biographer does not need to love or even like their subject, but they do need to revere them; Wilson reveres the text but not the man, and so this descends at its worst into cod-Freudian attacks on Tolstoy that simply don't make for interesting reading. Tolstoy is the best author ever, and one of the most important popular ...more
David Bisset
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

This is a reissue with a new preface. It is superb, with numerous comments by the author. The gestation of the masterpieces is explained in great depth, and in addition the spiritual writings are given due weight. Tolstoy was a literary genius, and a flawed saint. Reading this book is strongly recommended.
Richard Anderson
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Involving portrait of the great novelist.
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, russian
I really enjoyed this book, though it (predictably) deflated some of Tolstoy's appeal as a thinker. The fact that his ethical/religious system often conflicted with his lifestyle is common knowledge. Wilson does a good job highlighting these many discrepancies, while assuring us that many times seeming outright contradictions actually relate to more complicated paradoxes.

He argues that the idea of "Two Tolstoys" (i.e. pre/post AK) doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Admittedly, his early/middle output
Kenghis Khan
Jul 17, 2007 rated it really liked it
Many biographers openly sympathize with their subjects. Often, this is because they want to emphasize their subject's centrality (as in McCullough's John Adams book) or complexity (as in Browne's Darwin biography) that had heretofore been unfairly ignored. For someone who claimed Gandhi and MLK Jr. as his acolytes, Wilson is pretty harsh on Tolstoy.

Wilson correctly perceives that we wouldn't be reading his biography of an impoverished and eccentric aristocrat in the final days of the Romanov
Mar 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wilson does a superb job of painting Tolstoy as a person, a novelist, and an anarchist. That alone would be reason enough for praise, but Wilson goes further by also tying in larger themes - notably Russia, God, and literature.

Wilson demonstrates how Tolstoy's habitual self-obsession and deeply ingrained psychosis, along with a life of relative luxury and an obedient wife, enabled his amazing gift. Tolstoy's chaotic experiences at Chornaya Rechka, his revelatory readings of Schopenhauer, his
Chris Walker
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Anna Karenina is on at the movies in my part of the world at present but after reading Tolstoy's biography I'm wondering why they have never made a film of his life. AN Wilson has painted a vivid picture of Count Tolstoy throughout his life and shows well how his life's experiences were incorporated into the writing of his great novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. But for me, the best bits in the book are the chapters on the old man, the anarchist and pacifist, rejecting his ...more
Wilkin Beall
Feb 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a huge but well written and compelling biography which I have declined to award four stars because of certain details which were inexplicably left out such as the Russian author's near bout with suicide. Also the relationship between Lev and his wife was confusing and needlessly complicated as it was described in Wilson's book. Interestingly the fine film starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, The Last Station, helped a great deal to clarify their marriage and lifelong relationship. ...more
Grace Tjan
200 pages shorter than Troyat's monumental biography, Wilson gives us less of a novel of Tolstoy's life and instead offers us more insights about the man and his times. His theory is that Tolstoy's genius lies in his ability to seamlessly merge fact and fiction, resulting in the supreme ilussion of his novels.

Wilson questions the veracity of several incidents accepted as fact by Troyat and other biographers. His discussion of events in Russian history from an outsider's perspective is
Jun 28, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russian-lit
That beard merits 5 stars alone. It's hard to say whether it was A.N Wilson's writing or the uniqueness of Tolstoy's life that contributed mostly to the enjoyment of this book, but at least Wilson was able to present that uniqueness in an entertaining way. Being a shorter biography, Wilson naturally had to focus mostly on the highlights of Tolstoy's life, but he was able to connect them to events of the time as well as explore the social, philopsophical and intellectual underpinnings of ...more
Ecaterina Leonte
Oct 16, 2015 rated it liked it
It was a bore, except for the last chapter. I understand the need of creating a bit of a political context but that was just too much. After reading this book I feel I know more about the socio-political context of 19th century Russia than about Tolstoy himself. I love biographies, my favorite of all times is Verdi by Gustavo Marchesi. I must have read it 3 times. But Tolstoy by Wilson...once was enough. I do appreciate though the fact that Wilson showed understanding and compassion towards ...more
Denise Ferrary-Olson
Feb 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
It's been quite a while since I read this. It's not my favorite bio by A.N. Wilson; that would be Jesus, a Life, which was spectacular in every way, but it was fine. I've read the 'big guns' by Tolstoy : War and Peace, Anna Karenina as well as some of the short stories. Such a gifted writer with such pronounced human frailty. I suppose he reserved the best of himself for the page.
Marisa Crowley
Mar 16, 2011 rated it liked it
A fascinating life, but I am not a fan of Wilson's overly self-conscious style. The author's presence as narrator was distracting, and I thought detracted from his analysis. I will definitely seek out other biographies of Tolstoy in the future, but will be sure to avoid works by Wilson.
Oct 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent biography of one of the world's greatest writers. It is not a quick read however. The author covers a lot of ground and Tolstoy was a very complicated man. A very fascinating look at the author of one of the best books ever written (War and Peace).
Apr 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Already I can give this book five stars. I have a bit of a fetish for Tolstoy - simply a wonderful writer and this is one of the best biographies ever written about the best novelist of all time - perfect!
Aug 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Extremely readable. Wilson I think is overly critical of Tolstoy's contradictions. Tolstoy's life and writing proves the difficulty of living morally. He is easy to make fun of, but he does not prove the impracticability of Christian anarchy.
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Thorough analysis of Tolstoy's life, but apparently there are more in-depth biographies focusing on his death, if that is important to you. Wilson is very insightful, and it is well worth the read if you like Tolstoy's works.
Jon Marc Smith
Jul 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Not only did Tolstoy write two of the greatest novels of all time, he also lived a truly extraordinary life. Seriously, "extraordinary" is a huge understatement.
Annika Cleeve
Feb 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Not too long not too short, just right but a little to preachy at times. Author makes assessment of his writing style as though they are facts.
Michael Farrell
Mar 14, 2016 rated it liked it
I enjoyed it but felt the authors political convictions impacted on his appreciation of Tolstoy but still interesting to find out about Tolstoy and 19th and early 20th century Russia.
Feb 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
A.N.Wilson remains brilliant. Tolstoy, I don't know, I'm not so crazy about this guy anymore.
Amy Peri
Jun 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
What a life! No wonder the Czar was afraid of his ideas
Feb 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredible book, but it is very long, and full of a lot of information. It is difficult to read more than a little at a time, but certainly worth it.
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Andrew Norman Wilson is an English writer and newspaper columnist, known for his critical biographies, novels, works of popular history and religious views. He is an occasional columnist for the Daily Mail and former columnist for the London Evening Standard, and has been an occasional contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, The Spectator and The Observer.