At the beginning of his book, A. N. Wilson inserts a lengthy chart of important dates and events in the life of Count Lev Tolstoy, with a parallel column relating them to concurrent events in Russia. Wilson, who has written more than a dozen books, including novels of manners and other biographies, thus signals the reader that his priority will not be a month-by-month, year-by-year account of his subject. So little is chronology stressed that one is at times uncertain about the dates of narrated events, though the book does proceed chronologically. Wilson traces the important strands of a long life more complex, conflicted, and creative than most. Far from developing a unifying central thesis to explain the complexities, he leaves them untouched and thus lets the reader grasp that Tolstoy’s life was even less of a piece than most lives. In Wilson’s view, it was shaped by three important categories of relationships: with women, with Russia, and with God. These constantly shifting relationships persisted throughout Tolstoy’s life. While there are no formal divisions in the biography, Wilson identifies and clarifies three significant stages of Tolstoy’s life: youth and early manhood, marked by sensuality and literary apprenticeship; the period following his marriage that produced his greatest novels; and an old age marked by diminishing creative powers, by conflict, and by idealism.
The troubles of Tolstoy’s youth are in part attributable to his having been orphaned as a child. Although he and his four siblings remained together for a time, they were moved from one home to another to stay with first one, then another relative. Though a strong bond persisted among them, they lacked the security that a more settled childhood might have brought. As a youth, Tolstoy was an indifferent student, a thoroughgoing sensualist, and a gambler. After he had lost most of his inheritance, he entered the army, serving at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. The early deaths of two unmarried brothers brought additional inheritances that largely offset his gambling losses, and he settled at his first childhood home, Yasnaya Polyana, one hundred miles from Moscow.
Following his marriage at age thirty-four to Sofya Bers, who lived on a neighboring estate, Tolstoy produced his novels Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886). As Wilson’s analysis demonstrates, Tolstoy drew upon his own experiences for the novels’ events, descriptions, and characters. Wilson identifies the originals of numerous characters, the most famous being Natasha, modeled on Tolstoy’s sister-in-law, Tanya Bers. His experiences at Sebastopol, Wilson demonstrates, surface in the descriptions of skirmishes and battlefield positions at Borodino. To emphasize Tolstoy’s descriptive powers, Wilson points out that soldiers in later wars have found descriptions in War and Peace more realistic than their own memories of battle.
After the publication of Anna Karenina, Wilson believes, Tolstoy was burned out as a writer. Although his final period saw the production of one lengthy novel, Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), and numerous pieces of short fiction, Wilson finds the later writing uneven and flawed. The reader finds the final segment of Tolstoy’s life most disconcerting, for in this period aging accentuated all the conflicts and contradictions. In War and Peace, Tolstoy had fashioned Pierre Bezukhov on himself—insecure, perplexed, and sometimes clumsy, but also sensitive, compassionate, and intelligent. To the reader it seems possible that Pierre and Natasha will find happiness together. Tolstoy himself was unable to find such happiness, and Wilson’s narrative of the final thirty-five years makes for depressing reading, heightened by comic incongruity.
Like Levin in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy decided that faith is important. Undertaking a serious study of the New Testament, he ignored all the passages supporting miracle, mystery, and authority; instead, he sought to preserve the ethical message as the essence of Christianity. The law of love, in his view, required several commitments that run counter to the way of the world: reverence for life, pacifism, anarchy, celibacy, and voluntary poverty....
(The entire section is 1777 words.)