Magazine article The Spectator

Hero or Villein?

Magazine article The Spectator

Hero or Villein?

Article excerpt

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson Atlantic, £25, pp. 572, ISBN 9781848879621 'Not one word', exclaimed Turgenev of Tolstoy, 'not one movement of his is natural! He is eternally posing before us!'

The recurrent underlying theme of A.N. Wilson's prize-winning biography of Tolstoy, now re-issued after a quarter of a century, is the novelist as grand impersonator. Wilson (a prolific novelist himself) believes that there is a strong impulse in novelists to don masks or test alter egos, and that this impulse rioted in Tolstoy's character.

Throughout his long life Tolstoy switched between playing at sad orphan, landowner, libertine, crazed gambler, spiritual elder, holy fool, paterfamilias, historian, village idiot, cobbler and dissident. Sometimes he postured as a bearded prophet, doling out portentous maxims, or as a scruffy bumpkin, mowing ineptly in his fields. He also starred as a haughty, straight-backed nobleman, riding over his coverts with proprietorial eyes which spotted broken fences; sometimes as a callous, jaded metropolitan who exulted in those salons and court antechambers which are evoked in War and Peace, but who also flitted querulously amidst the intelligentsia.

It was as if Tolstoy was author, sceneshifter, actor-manager, usher, spell-bound audience and know-all critic of an endless drama in which a new act was performed every week. His hectic self-display reminds one of Auden's lines in The Age of Anxiety:

Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting, and the mad who do not.

By this definition Tolstoy, who was selfobsessed but not self-knowing, was quite mad.

All the necessary dates, sequences, landscapes and emotions are laid out by Wilson in due order. He depicts Tolstoy as a coxcomb, bedevilled by gambling and whoring, until in 1851 he went to the Caucasus, where he became involved in campaigns against Chechen hill tribesmen. Thereafter, in The Raid, Sevastopol Sketches and War and Peace, Tolstoy's fictions delved into military tactics, brutality, courage, heroism, leadership and the essence of historical truth. Although the novels are extolled One of his sons said that if Tolstoy hadn't been his father, he would have wanted him hanged for sedition for their heart-stopping discoveries of shared human sympathies or redemptive empathy between antagonists, Wilson shows that indifference and denial are hinges in their plots. Some of the strongest moments, he argues, were Tolstoy's fictive versions, written in idealised form, of how he wished he had behaved at crucial moments of his life, intended to assuage memories which mortified him with shame - such as deserting the squalid deathbed of a consumptive brother to preen at smart parties.

At the age of 34, Tolstoy proposed marriage to the 18-year-old Sofya Behrs. 'He found her strange and fascinating', writes Wilson. 'She found him monstrous and frightening. There was a strong sexual attraction between them'. So urgent was his lust that he stipulated they were married within a week. He insisted before the wedding that he and his bride should read each other's diaries, so as to begin marriage without secrets between them. …

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