Henri Troyat Essay - Critical Essays

Troyat, Henri


Henri Troyat 1911–

(Pseudonym of Lev Tarassoff) Russian-born French novelist, biographer, short story writer, and dramatist.

Troyat is a highly popular writer, known for his multi-volume historical sagas. He has also written several biographies of important Russian figures, such as Fedor Dostoevski, Aleksander Pushkin, and Catherine the Great.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Katherine Woods

["Judith Madrier"] is set against the background of the early months of the war and was written during [Troyat's] own service as an officer with the French Army; but it is not a reflection of experiences in fighting. It is a study, both explicit and subtle, of the evil which is inherent in idleness, petty smugness, restless unacknowledged greed, unworthy self-content and self-protection against whatever dangers and discomforts may be the lot of man. As a story which is told with a clear, hard brilliance in a foreign setting and with a foreign idiom of society—a story not lacking in compassion but quite unvarnished and unveiled, and generally of the species which is descended from "Madame Bovary"—it may or may not interest a sizable public here. But as an investigation of cause and effect in human conduct, as shown in the lives of two ordinary individuals, it is worthy of considerable attention and some disturbing thought. (p. 7)

[Judith Madrier, despite her marital infidelities,] is not actively an evil woman, or even a dishonest one; she is merely selfish, ungoverned, idle, emotional, spoiled…. Her revulsion from her husband's "goodness" is not indeed unjustified.

For if Charles Madrier lives without conventional reproach, he also lives in selfishness and pettiness and materialistic swaddling-bands. He is crudely, if pathetically, uxorious. If he is always good-natured, so he is always, for all his physical strength, also a little weak; and it is lazy egotism that makes him so tiresome…. Yet there is ground here in which real goodness may grow. And because that growth is possible, the novel becomes Madrier's story….

The story is developed in vivid clarity both of mood and observation, and moves in merciless penetration, on to a challenge of real human faith. (p. 14)

Katherine Woods, "A Study of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1941, pp. 7, 14.

Richard Plant

Dostoevsky's life, as clearly and movingly demonstrated by M. Troyat [in "Firebrand"], was an amazing triumph of the spirit over matter and circumstances.

Through an intimate knowledge of nineteenth-century Russian places and persons and of his subject's writings in their original language … Henry Troyat is able to recreate Dostoevsky's lifelong pilgrimage through the purgatory of existence…. [One] of the main merits of Troyat's faithful account is to demonstrate the interdependence of the author's life and work. Dostoevsky put his friends into his books without bothering to disguise them greatly. Like himself, many of his heroes are forever dodging their creditors; they are irresistibly attracted by vices, such as gambling; they are subject to spasms and anxieties and are overemotional and contradictory. One way of approaching them is through M. Troyat's biography, which reveals how they were conceived and created.

His book, however, attempts much more. He spaces Dostoevsky's life story with long interpretations of his major works. Here he reveals one other aspect: no matter how closely Dostoevsky's figures resemble their models, no matter how realistically their surroundings are depicted, all of them are transmuted unmistakably into Dostoevsky characters, living in a primeval landscape of the earth and the soul, trapped in the underworld of their own psychoses. Some of Dostoevsky's grandeur, depth and pathology is captured in this book, but it seems the more M. Troyat strays away from the biographical and attempts a critical estimate, the more he loses his grip on the reader.

Henry Troyat has concentrated on his hero with the single-mindedness of the true biographer. He never even attempts to draw a picture of the nineteenth-century Russia, of its ambivalent attitude toward the West, of the literary tradition in which the young Dostoevsky was rooted. His hero therefore appears like a dazzling star moving against an almost empty sky. M. Troyat's book is never superficial or cheap. It could be called a brilliant but furiously partial biography.

Richard Plant, "Dostoevsky's 'Twilight of Torment'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 1, 1946, p. 8.

Marc Slonim

The chief merit of the [biography "Pushkin"] is at the same time its main defect. While the book succeeds to a considerable extent in recreating an authentic historical background and conveying some flavor and excitement of the period, it appears not infrequently overladen with heterogeneous material.

Marc Slonim, "The Prodigious Pushkin," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1950, p. 5.

Henri Peyre

["My Father's House"] has less psychological originality than Troyat's early novels. It is the first part of a trilogy in which the author has made his most ambitious bid to win popular success and to provide a counterpart to the great Russian saga novels of the nineteenth century. The plot is tenuous, but the reader's attention is engrossed by many thrilling incidents which serve to draw a vivid and comprehensive picture of Russian life between 1888 and 1914….

The author has tried to strike a happy balance between creating flesh-and-blood individuals and making those individuals typical of different groups of Russians. Only the common people are left out. At times, the characters serve as pretexts for inserting brilliant descriptions of Cherkess horseriders, Armenian marriage and burial customs, snowstorms on the steppe, battlefield scenes, riots in the revolution of 1905, etc. Yet Troyat's skill is such that the slight artificiality of his all-embracing purpose is not resented by the reader, who is carried away by an immense narrative talent and by the unflagging sweep of the storytelling….

Troyat's novel does not have all the psychological acuteness which one might expect from a modern French writer and not quite enough turbid conflict of motives for a compatriot and student of Dostoevski….

["My Father's House"] holds an original place among the fictional works of our age inspired by a great country which has isolated itself from the rest of the world and has regrettably ceased to be known by and through her fiction.

Henri Peyre, "The Rise of Michael Danov," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1951, p. 5.

Virgilia Peterson

In "My Father's House" which spans the twenty-five years before the outbreak of the first world war Mr. Troyat sets out to write the chronicle of a few prosperous, provincial, bourgeois Russian families and leads them through the gathering storm of Nicholas the Second's reign to the moment when the first flash of lightning reveals even to the most wilfully blind the shape of doom….

[By introducing his characters in adolescence] in an entirely natural manner, the stage is set for the central drama to come, when as grown men, Michael and Volodia both desire Tania, and she as a woman, desires each of them.

But "My Father's House" is no mere account of the tensions within a triangle. This is a book in the grand style, a book of stature, thickly populated with characters each of whom is a rounded human being in whom reticence struggles with indiscretion, courage with baseness, love with hate, good with evil, as is the universal fate. This is a book in which scene after scene imprints itself upon your memory…. Moreover, behind, underneath, and intertwined with the narrative through the character of the reluctant revolutionary Nicholas, elder son of the Arapovs, there moves the boiling current of discontent among Russia's underprivileged which ran counterpoint to the surface gaiety of society, and was finally to choke not only old abuses but old splendors and magnanimities in the clenched fist of a new tyranny.

Virgilia Peterson, "A Chronicle of Old Russia," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1951, p. 8.

Wilbur Watson

["The Mountain,"] Henri Troyat's vivid story of an Alpine climb and its tragic aftermath is one of the best this reader has encountered. It has the ring of authenticity from the start, its eerie fascination stems directly from the people and events it describes….

M. Troyat's plot is a simple one. A plane crashes on an almost unclimbable peak. Two brothers in a village half-way from the summit risk their lives to investigate the wreck…. What happens during their hair-raising ascent of the mountain's sheer north face is guaranteed to leave any reader limp with emotional exhaustion. What they discover on the summit, and how that discovery changes both their lives gives the novel its haunting and...

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Doris Grumbach

[In The Mountain, a] plane for Calcutta crashes on a Swiss Alp. Its passengers are all presumed dead, but it is carrying as well a cargo of gold for England. Two brothers, stirred by equally powerful drives of spiritual reassurance and monetary gain, climb the mountain to find the plane. In a wonderful descriptive chapter the superhuman climb is minutely detailed, and in a moving final section the ancient moral conflict is inevitably determined.

The consummation might have been expected to have more than its share of triteness had Troyat not made his hero a man of damaged wit, a simple, muddled peasant who feels deeply but without understanding, whose fervent loyalties are without logic or...

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James Gray

"The Red and the White" offers a clear echo of one major literary accomplishment and in its form it challenges a second masterpiece. There are similarities, both of large design and of special technique, between "The Red and the White" and "War and Peace."

Having marched boldly into such company the book must justify its ambition by showing a brilliant command of its material. And it does show that command. Encompassing chaos, as the Russian revolution is dramatized in the process of destroying an old way of life, the novel brings into artistic order a monumental account of the sufferings, loyalties, betrayals, deaths, and rebirths incident to such a gigantic convulsion of social evolution.


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Henri Peyre

"The Red and the White" is Troyat's most ambitious and most successful novel to date. It is a variegated picture of Russia during World War I and through the two revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war….

The reader is at first bewildered by the profusion of details and the multiplicity of scenes and characters. [Five] or six secondary plots unfold simultaneously. Characters appear and disappear. A few lines of narrative recall the general background of events that filled history in 1915–19. The individual fortunes of the members of one large family and of their friends are the warp and woof of this bulky novel. (p. 7)

The author is an expert story teller, omniscient but...

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Frederic Morton

[In "The Red and the White,"] Henri Troyat painted, with considerable effect, the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Danovs, an upper-middle-class family in Moscow. Now "Strangers on Earth" chronicles the fortunes of his characters after their escape to France.

Inevitably the pace of the story slows. In the earlier novel the Danovs were participants in a flamboyant cataclysm. In the present one they are subject to the slow gray attrition of exile….

[Mr. Troyat] knows the Danov milieu down to the last concierge's sneer. But in "Strangers on Earth" intellectual knowledge seldom turns into live emotion. The melancholy dash and the sweeping plot line which served the author so...

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Henri Peyre

[Henri Troyat] is no experimenter, no champion of the antinovel, no acrobatic wielder of sentences annoyingly deprived of punctuation. He does not play at making time reversible. None of his French or Russian creatures seems to have dreamed of incest, rape or homosexuality. None of them even hates his mother or attempts to emulate the feats of the Marquis de Sade. They are hopelessly normal, with just a little more heroic glamour and a greater ardor for passionate love than most of us….

[Henri Troyat] is a smooth, pleasant, soothing storyteller, with a gift of fertile inventiveness, a praise worthy naturalness and an evident relish in the tales with which he charms the least exacting of his...

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Richard Freedman

To reconcile Tolstoy the pure artist with Tolstoy the demonridden preacher is the formidable task challenging his biographer. It has been superbly met by Henri Troyat…. His Tolstoy is worthy not only to stand on the same shelf as Ernest Simmons' classic 1946 biography, but with the works of its subject as well.

This may seem an extravagant claim to those familiar with Troyat's own rather middling novels and his shoddily fictionalized biography of Dostoyevsky, Firebrand. Nevertheless, something seems to have happened to Troyat in recent years, for his present work is scrupulously researched, vividly written without recourse to fictional devices, and above all, acutely sensitive to...

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James Lord

[In "Tolstoy" it] is not a mere life that Troyat presents; it is a vast spectacle, a pageant, a panorama. It is an immense miracle play of the human situation, a tragedy, a farce, an extravaganza, a comedy of manners, a prodigious pantomime—drama from first to last. (p. 1)

One could write about Tolstoy forever, and it seems at moments that Troyat has done so. But he has done well; too much about Tolstoy is at last barely enough. The biographer's method has been to let all the characters in his work speak for themselves whenever possible, and one feels that he has scoured in his researches the uttermost reaches of possibility. Diaries, letters, newspapers, official archives, stories and novels are...

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V. S. Pritchett

One's first impression of Henri Troyat's remarkable [Tolstoy] is that we have read all this before and again and again, either in the novels or the family's inveterate diaries. So we have, but never with M. Troyat's management of all the intimacies in the wide range of Tolstoy's life….

M. Troyat has managed to make this live with the glitter of the days on it. His book is a triumph of saturation. He has wisely absorbed many of Tolstoy's small descriptions of scene and incident, many of his phrases into his own text…. [Troyat] has learned the master's use of casual detail. He has learned his sense of mood and also of 'shading' the characters. He does not lose an instance of the ironic and...

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M. J. Harrison

[La Neige en Deuil (The Mountain)] is a tale of great simplicity, yet one cannot fail to be struck by the quantity of imagery to be found in it. Troyat has achieved the quality of simplicity by having the story put before us mostly seen through the eyes of the main character, Isaïe. Once the author has set the scene, we find, after a gradual transition, that it is Isaïe's view we are sharing, his experience past and present which we are living. And Isaïe is an unsophisticated man of the mountains. Further, he has become [impaired], as the result of a serious climbing accident and the brain operations that followed…. It is then hardly surprising that his vision of the world should be limited, but the...

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V. S. Pritchett

Henri Troyat's "Dostoyevsky" and "Pushkin" were sound biographies. His "Tolstoy" was quite exceptional in its intimacy. Its merit lay in the use of the lived quality of Tolstoy's writing, so that the man was assimilated through the writer and interwoven with him. Troyat had found the man in the innumerable details of his novels, autobiography, and ethical writings, had even caught the limpid surface of the prose, and his book had no overtones of pastiche. The task of dealing with Gogol ("Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol" …) is far more difficult. In him autobiography is either secretive or fantastic to the point of mania…. Gogol has the dubiousness of a swami. And the prose is no help. It loses enormously, we are...

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Adrianne Blue

[Head in the Clouds] is a cloying book, dreary. Troyat occupies a universe which is pre-Sarraute, pre-Camus, indeed apparently contemporaneous with Maupassant's—his characters are puppets intended to enhance their author's self-esteem. From first to last, one disbelieves this story of two stereotypical middleaged spinsters whose uncharming life is transformed fatally by the appearance of a quirky, but charming young man. If the spinsters are so set in their ways, would the young man really be able to part them? And if they are as tiresome as Troyat says they are, wouldn't so socially deft a young man find headier Parisian pastures? Frankly, by page 20 or so, it's hard to care.


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Aileen Kelly

In the energy with which she pursued the two imperatives of modernization and absolute power, Catherine was by far the most distinguished [successor to Peter the Great of Russia]. (p. 30)

Most of Catherine's biographers have been equally dazzled, but none has been so naively eager in the celebration of her will as M. Troyat [in Catherine the Great]. The silliness of his fatuously admiring book can be illustrated by a single sentence: "there was nothing … involuntary or unconscious in [Catherine's] daily behavior." The other qualities of this "solid rock of will," as he calls her, are hardly more credible. Her fanatical belief in reason and her worship of clarity enabled her, we are told, to...

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Nicholas N. Riasanovsky

Henri Troyat's biography of Catherine the Great is an immensely readable book…. (p. 7)

I happened to be reading one of Balzac's novels when I turned to "Catherine the Great," and the two works went very well together…. [Mr. Troyat's book] profited from an immediate historical resonance, so to speak. In other words, where Balzac undertook to impress upon the reader his world of imagination larger than life, Mr. Troyat had the characters and the action all set for him; and indeed the Empress, her favorites and her court acted in such a striking manner and on so superhuman a scale that mere fiction paled by comparison. Nor is the distinction between history and fiction absolute in this case. In...

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