Byline: PETER LEWIS
by A.N. Wilson
(Atlantic Books [euro]26.99)
AT THE name of Tolstoy every knee in the literary world shall bow. Such is the received opinion. No writer was more famous in his lifetime and he is still revered as perhaps the greatest world novelist.
You could call him the Shakespeare of novelists, but for his remark made to Chekhov: 'You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays but yours are even worse.'
He said it in a friendly manner but he meant it. He had published a furious attack on Shakespeare as a writer without merit, trivial, shallow, cynical, immoral, with no ideas, philosophy or interest in social problems; in short, 'not a thinker'. Was this jealousy, egotism, wilful blindness? A bit of all three.
It was Tolstoy -- that strange mixture of genius and madness of whom this is an outstanding biography, first published 25 years ago when it deservedly won great praise and prizes.
In the new introduction, author A. N. Wilson makes high claims for Tolstoy's continued relevance. Without him, there might have been no Gandhi and consequently no Mandela or Tutu in South Africa and, in Russia, no Solzhenitzyn.
This refers not to Tolstoy the novelist but to the dissident, religious reformer who condemned tsarist Russian autocracy.
In many ways, Wilson is an ideal biographer, being both a novelist, so understanding how novelists work, and the author of critical biographies of both Jesus and Paul, founders of the Christianity that Tolstoy preached in tract after tract with titles like What I Believe and What Then Should We Do? It was these, not the novels, which made him such a danger to the stifling oppression of tsarist Russia.
He was the focus of the popular discontent that would blow the lid off in revolution seven years after his death in 1910.
Nobody reads these tracts now but Wilson's well-informed analysis of Tolstoy's so-called Christian principles makes this the most interesting part of a rich book. Tolstoy, remember, was part of Russia's aristocratic creme de la creme, descended from princes, inheritor aged 19 of 3,000 acres of estates and 350 peasants, then still serfs. This is what he later tried to give up.
He spent a lusty youth acquiring both a dose of VD and an illegitimate son by a peasant woman. 'I was an indefatigable copulator,' he told Chekhov (using a coarser word).
Before he married 19-year-old Sofia Bers, he made her read his diaries of debauchery. 'I never got over the shock,' she said, but for many years they were very happy. She made fair copies of his novels as well as bearing him eight children in the first eight years.
The drawback was that he refused to leave his ramshackle country house, Yasnaya Polana (which means Bright Glade). Set among woods 130 miles from Moscow, there were no carpets, little furniture, few servants. Like Chekhov's Three Sisters, she pined for Moscow, where she had been brought up in genteel comfort and top Russian society. He despised all that.
War And Peace was an immediate success and his income grew apace. But after Anna Karenina came the breakdown. A block came down -- he had written himself out.
So he turned to the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, deciding men should live entirely by its teaching. This meant living like a peasant, abandoning wealth, rejecting violence, embracing celibacy, pacifism, and vegetarianism, mowing his own grass (badly) and making his own shoes (with excruciating results). …