Henri Troyat Richard Freedman - Essay

Richard Freedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Tolstoy's peculiar greatness without being adulatory.

If Troyat comes up with no glib key to the enigma of Tolstoy's personality, our disappointment is mitigated by the corresponding lack of spurious post-mortem psychoanalysis. (p. 1)

A more serious flaw in the book than its failure to unriddle Tolstoy's personality is that, except for some fairly cursory remarks about War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection, it is in no sense a critical biography. One would be interested to know what critical insights a practicing novelist might have into Tolstoy's creative process, but either Troyat has none, or, more likely, he has found more than enough material in Tolstoy's rich and dramatic life to sustain a book of this length. (pp. 1, 3)

Troyat's major contribution to the reader's understanding of Tolstoy is his demonstration, step by step through intelligently selective excerpting from diaries and letters, of just how gradual and inexorable Tolstoy's conversions were from the army officer and rakehell to the artist, and then from the artist to the dogmatic preacher of anti-estheticism, self-abnegation and Christian Communism….

Troyat's well-translated account … is consistently fascinating, as is his sensitive evocation of life in 19th-century Russia. His attitude to Tolstoy is one of objective admiration. He is fully aware of the Tartuffian aspect of his subject, but equally aware that only a man of transcendent greatness could be capable of such grand-scale follies as Tolstoy's. (p. 3)

Richard Freedman, "Leo Tolstoy: Monster, Angel, Supreme Novelist," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1967 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), December 17, 1967, pp. 1, 3.