Henri Troyat

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Nicholas N. Riasanovsky

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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 particular, Mr. Troyat's reconstruction of Catherine II's feelings, thoughts and attitudes, while sensitive, intelligent and based on the available evidence, nevertheless proceeds time and again beyond that evidence.

It has been argued in the French press that Mr. Troyat has fallen in love with Catherine the Great. I beg to differ. He is scrupulously fair in judging the monarch, her stunning egoism, her monumental vanity, her neglect both of her own children and of the Russian people, her persistent duplicity and very much else besides. If all the negative elements present in Mr. Troyat's account of the Empress were put together, her enemies would have very little or nothing to add to the dossier. To state it differently, Mr. Troyat's Catherine is very much like other Catherines we know, both light and shade. The only subject on which our author is perhaps more indulgent than most is the Empress's enthusiastic sexual activity, which Mr. Troyat considers perfectly natural and healthy; and even there—well, everyone to his taste. His sympathy, then, is not blindness but clearsightedness, not a matter of falling in love but of being able to follow closely and accept that semi-monster, in the very best tradition of French literature. In that respect Mr. Troyat's study of Catherine the Great is truly praiseworthy.

But precisely because his "Catherine the Great" is a compelling, brilliantly written biography, it is important to realize what it does not accomplish. It is very strong only at the personal, biographical, anecdotal level. Perhaps appropriately for the kind of book it is, the First Partition of Poland occupies two pages in a chapter devoted to "The Marriage of the Grand Duke." Or we learn about the mannerisms of Diderot and Voltaire, but are scarcely informed of the fundamental way in which the history of reformed Russia corresponded to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and in turn profited from that philosophy.

More regrettably still, the author is extremely conservative in the treatment of what is his best and central theme, the personality and life of Catherine the Great. Despite his marvelous sensitivity, understanding, empathy and rapport, he makes no effort to resolve the contradictions in her nature and conduct, to investigate them in depth, whether by an application of formal psychoanalytic methods or in any other way. As a result, we have the usual image of Catherine the Great, even if more engagingly presented, rather than any important contribution, however tentative, to knowledge and understanding of her character. And some of the author's general psychological judgments—for instance, his claim that the Russian character is given to extremes—are less than helpful.

But it is unfair to cavil about what a book does not contain rather than admire its riches…. (pp. 7, 16)

Nicholas N. Riasanovsky, "A Strong Personality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 28, 1980, pp. 7, 16.

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