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Tolstoy: A Biography

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In this landmark biography of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson narrates the complex drama of the writer's life: his childhood of aristocratic privilege but emotional deprivation, his discovery of his literary genius after aimless years of gambling and womanizing, and his increasingly disastrous marriage. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's wor In this landmark biography of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson narrates the complex drama of the writer's life: his childhood of aristocratic privilege but emotional deprivation, his discovery of his literary genius after aimless years of gambling and womanizing, and his increasingly disastrous marriage. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's works were the exact mirror of his life, and instead traces the roots of Tolstoy's art to his relationship with God, with women, and with Russia. He also breaks new ground in recreating the world that shaped the great novelist's life and art--the turmoil of ideas and politics in nineteenth-century Russia and the incredible literary renaissance that made Tolstoy's work possible. 24 pages of illustrations.


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In this landmark biography of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson narrates the complex drama of the writer's life: his childhood of aristocratic privilege but emotional deprivation, his discovery of his literary genius after aimless years of gambling and womanizing, and his increasingly disastrous marriage. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's wor In this landmark biography of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson narrates the complex drama of the writer's life: his childhood of aristocratic privilege but emotional deprivation, his discovery of his literary genius after aimless years of gambling and womanizing, and his increasingly disastrous marriage. Wilson sweeps away the long-held belief that Tolstoy's works were the exact mirror of his life, and instead traces the roots of Tolstoy's art to his relationship with God, with women, and with Russia. He also breaks new ground in recreating the world that shaped the great novelist's life and art--the turmoil of ideas and politics in nineteenth-century Russia and the incredible literary renaissance that made Tolstoy's work possible. 24 pages of illustrations.

30 review for Tolstoy: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Why should I continue reading a book that is making me miserable? I have completed 1/4 of this very long book. I have had enough. What follows explains why I dislike it. The language used is sophisticated rather than clear. At times one is even unsure who exactly the author is speaking of! The author sees Tolstoy as the greatest writer of all time. He doesn't approach the man or his writing with balance. Sweeping, judgmental statements are made that can surely be questioned! Much is devoted to an e Why should I continue reading a book that is making me miserable? I have completed 1/4 of this very long book. I have had enough. What follows explains why I dislike it. The language used is sophisticated rather than clear. At times one is even unsure who exactly the author is speaking of! The author sees Tolstoy as the greatest writer of all time. He doesn't approach the man or his writing with balance. Sweeping, judgmental statements are made that can surely be questioned! Much is devoted to an explanation of how we should interpret Tolstoy's books. I am looking for a biography, a book that instead tells me of the events in his life, rather than an explanation of his books. The book’s focus is wrong for me, but may fit others. In chapter 3, the author states that a novelist should not leave it up to a reader to ponder the message that is to be drawn from a book; all questions should be given crystal clear answers. We readers should not have to think; that is the author's job, not ours. I quite simply do not agree. I want to be nudged to think about interesting questions. I enjoy considering diverse alternatives on my own! I want to be given alternatives, not fast and firm answers. Information is repeated. It is as if the different chapters were written at different times, and who ever put the book together hasn't checked the content of previous chapters. Neither do I like the narrator of the audiobook - John Telfer. He over dramatizes. He turns the information into theatrics, He whispers to increase suspense. He changes volume and speed to help us understand the import of the author's lines. Seriously, I neither appreciate nor need this help! I do understand what he is saying so the narration I have given 2 rather than 1 star. I very, very rarely dump a book, but I am doing this now. I am rating and reviewing the book because I think it is helpful for people to be provided with different points of view. I am fully aware that what another is looking for may be very different from what I am seeking. It is for this reason I have stated what it is that displeased me. ETA: This audiobook is based on the 2012 edition of the book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    This is almost two books in one. Wilson begins the book with glittering literary praise, flushed with admiration for Tolstoy's novels and driven by an obsessive fan's knack for relating the fiction to Tolstoy's life and Tolstoy's Russia. Wilson is obviously well-acquainted with these substantial works, and his easy expertise is impressive, if rather showy. When the narrative reaches Tolstoy's revolutionary period, there is a jarring shift in tone: the breathy te deums are replaced with a sneering This is almost two books in one. Wilson begins the book with glittering literary praise, flushed with admiration for Tolstoy's novels and driven by an obsessive fan's knack for relating the fiction to Tolstoy's life and Tolstoy's Russia. Wilson is obviously well-acquainted with these substantial works, and his easy expertise is impressive, if rather showy. When the narrative reaches Tolstoy's revolutionary period, there is a jarring shift in tone: the breathy te deums are replaced with a sneering paternalism and brutal cynicism, and Tolstoy quickly degenerates from brilliant artist to starry-eyed idealist. This tension between Wilson's unabashed admiration for Tolstoy's novels and his barely-contained contempt for his political views disrupts the flow of the narrative, which, when detailing the objective facts rather than Wilson's opinion, is nicely intimate and well-crafted. If Wilson had stayed in the background as an historian, rather than playing judge and jury, his book would have been infinitely more valuable.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Richard Newton

    I enjoyed the excellently written, insightful and thoughtful biography of Tolstoy. This is the first material I have ever read on Tolstoy's life. I have learnt there are different viewpoints and interpretations from the mass of materials he left, as well as the materials many of the others who knew him wrote. I cannot therefore comment on the accuracy of AN Wilson's particular interpretation or the choices of which elements of Tolstoy's life he has chosen to emphasise. I can only comment on my e I enjoyed the excellently written, insightful and thoughtful biography of Tolstoy. This is the first material I have ever read on Tolstoy's life. I have learnt there are different viewpoints and interpretations from the mass of materials he left, as well as the materials many of the others who knew him wrote. I cannot therefore comment on the accuracy of AN Wilson's particular interpretation or the choices of which elements of Tolstoy's life he has chosen to emphasise. I can only comment on my enjoyment of reading the book. Wilson has a fluid and engaging writing style, and a fairly intellectual interpretation of Tolstoy's novels. What I liked was both the greater understanding of Tolstoy's life the book gave, but as important for me, was the historical and cultural context in which he wrote as this context flavours his writing and is helpful to understand to enjoy those books to the highest degree. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and I will get more out of it the next time I read it. In contrast, I am not a huge fan of Anna Karenina, but I will now re-read it and suspect I will enjoy it more. It is worth knowing this was published in 1984, and references to the Soviet Union as a currently existing and geographically unified country under a communist regime seem a bit quaint. But this does not remove from the main points or quality of the biography. As a good biography of Tolstoy, I definitely recommend this, with the caveat that if you really want to understand Tolstoy, you will need to read other materials as well.

  4. 4 out of 5

    mark

    The only Tolstoy I’ve read is what has been excerpted in this book … so I am at a huge disadvantage to the author, A.N. Wilson. However, I suspect he is probably one of only a handful of people who have read The Complete Works of L.N. Tolstoy. I suspect David Foster Wallace might be one of those handful, who has bragged, Wallace, that he’s read everything you have. I say this because I see things—things that make me think Wallace got some ideas, not only philosophical ideas, but ideas for charac The only Tolstoy I’ve read is what has been excerpted in this book … so I am at a huge disadvantage to the author, A.N. Wilson. However, I suspect he is probably one of only a handful of people who have read The Complete Works of L.N. Tolstoy. I suspect David Foster Wallace might be one of those handful, who has bragged, Wallace, that he’s read everything you have. I say this because I see things—things that make me think Wallace got some ideas, not only philosophical ideas, but ideas for characters (The character Mario in Infinite Jest. That’s all I’ll say here about that.); phrases, and situations, also, from Tolstoy. In addition to that, I see similarities in the genius of both writers – the way in which they saw the world was in so much more detail than the average and/or ‘normal’ person. Wilson describes it thus: “One of the things which makes him [Tolstoy, and I will say, Wallace, too] such a memorable writer is his extra-consciousness, or super-consciousness, of existence itself.” [p.19] Wilson goes on: “We all know that there is such a thing as life, that we are alive, that the world is there, full of sights and sound. But, when we read Tolstoy (Wallace) for the first time, it is as if, until that moment, we had been looking at the world through a dusty window. He flings open the shutters, and we see everything sharp and clear for the first time.” [105] “Tolstoy, like all true writers, carried his life about with him, created the very cocoon of observant detachment, indolence and sensuality in which a creative mind flourishes. [p.105] Like many detached minds, Tolstoy was perfectly capable of deriving enjoyment from the company of those he despised. [p. 106] We will never know how much is embellishment, and how much the truth.” [p. 22] And both men had the education, background, and abilities to put that down on paper, using precise language and words. Both men were privileged white boys in their respective countries. But there does seem to be one big difference, besides the fact Tolstoy was born in Russia in 1828 & the Literary Field was in its infancy, and that is the anxiety factor. Wallace appears to have been born with an anxiety disorder, while Tolstoy’s troubles didn’t manifest until after he was mature. So … everyone has heard of Tolstoy’s novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) which Tolstoy finished at age 49; but he continued to write up until his death at age 82, mostly non-fiction – personal, political and religious books and essays. He progressed in his thinking and writing from Historical Fiction (W&P); to Contemporary Fiction (AK) to memoir (A Confession) to philosophical and religious books & pamphlets (What I Believe, 1883; Where Love is, God Is, 1885; What Then Must We Do, 1886; On Life, 1887; The Kreutzer Sonata, 1889; Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?, 1891; The First Step, 1892; The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1893; Christianity and Pacifism, 1894; What is Art?, 1898; What is Religion?, 1902; I Cannot Be Silent, 1908; among others, one of which was Resurrection, a novel, 1900, which got him formally excommunicated. Like Wallace, he suffered because of his genius and, like Wallace, thought of suicide after finishing his great works of fiction. Like Wallace, Tolstoy was complicated and conflicted and saw the ambiguities and paradoxes that living a meaningful life present. But unlike Wallace – he married young and had many, many children and responsibilities; and his readers and followers began to think of him as a holy man. And maybe he, Tolstoy, began to believe that, too. The author, Wilson, asserts that Ghandi learned the idea of passive resistance from Tolstoy (p.411). Maybe that’s so, I certainly don’t know. Wilson is very opinionated and makes a lot of assertions, conjectures, and assumptions. Such as: Male’s make great [better] fiction writers because of their innate ogling prowess developed out of the drive for sexual conquest. I don’t disagree. As Wilson says, we, males, see a lot more than just the girls. (Trust me, it’s true!) And that, “… prodigious literary geniuses” elements’ of genius tend to only “… coalesce after a period of total indolence.” [p.64] And but so I think he, Wilson, has every right to these assertions – he’s qualified, having read everything there is to read from and about Tolstoy (including the diaries of the man and his wife) as well as being a journalist, biographer, and fiction writer himself. We’ll never know what and how Wallace might have progressed had he lived past his great work, Infinite Jest, and the unfinished The Pale King. The thing about Tolstoy is that his writing and thinking seemed to evolve, whereas Wallace’s didn’t – he was stuck, kept worrying the same problems of being human. Maybe Tolstoy was crazy, thinking himself Christ-like … but times were different then. Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859 and evolution and atheism were hardly accepted ways of thinking about the world. Science was in its infancy, also. Freud didn’t come onto the scene until Tolstoy was nearly finished, so the idea of unconscious motivation was something unbeknownst to the Russian genius. All thought was God/Christ centered. There was no psychotherapy or Alcohol Anonymous or 12-Step programs. And but so I think the two great writers had similar minds, just in different times with different influences. I’m looking forward to reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina; but I’ll probably skip the rest – time is running out for me. So many books, now. However, if you’re young and love literature, I think a PhD dissertation comparing and contrasting the work and lives of Tolstoy and Wallace would be a very worth while project. Should you read this biography? Yes, if literary genius is of interest to you. If the process of fiction writing is of interest; and Russian history. And marital relations. And of course, the life and times of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. PS YouTube is a great resource. There are clips of Tolstoy; and Anna Karenina is available as audio book – free! (Which I’m going to indulge. The reader, a woman, does all the hard work for you – all the Russian names.) April , 2014

  5. 4 out of 5

    Neil Randall

    Excellent biography of one of the most complex of all literary figures. Wilson concentrates on the striking contradictions between the man and the artist, how Tolstoy struggled to reconcile his human weaknesses, failures and faults with his religious beliefs, and how his work, in the latter part of his life, suffered as a result, and how his family life and marriage (especially) broke down. Beautifully written and very well put together. Recommended.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Steve Gordon

    Garbage. I find it fascinating how half wits are both published and acclaimed in the literary world. I only finished the book because my curiosity about Tolstoy's life, being provoked, overwhelmed my abhorrence of the writer. First and foremost of the crimes here - the constant sniping at Tolstoy's ideology. The author writes from a Christian perspective. If you believe in one version of fantastical beings, you can't really comment on other people's interpretations of fantasy can you? Furthermor Garbage. I find it fascinating how half wits are both published and acclaimed in the literary world. I only finished the book because my curiosity about Tolstoy's life, being provoked, overwhelmed my abhorrence of the writer. First and foremost of the crimes here - the constant sniping at Tolstoy's ideology. The author writes from a Christian perspective. If you believe in one version of fantastical beings, you can't really comment on other people's interpretations of fantasy can you? Furthermore, how does the mention that Napoleon III was Napoleon Bonaparte's grandson make it past an editor? How can a book use the term "negro" in 1988? How can an author use "menopause" out of the blue to define a woman's action? And finally, the attributing of spurious comments to Lenin and Trotsky, who played no role in Tolstoy's life, to impugn the Russian Revolution (which was an underlying seeming necessity for the author) was the final straw. Sometimes, I can overlook an author's nauseating political views to get what I can from the subject at hand (Tolstoy). Unfortunately, I couldn't do it here.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Philip Pajakowski

    Very good on Tolstoy’s context in Russia and his personal relationships. Wilson indulges in a bit too much pop psychology and seems obsessed with reminding us that Stalin was no good.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Matt Griffith

    The main puzzle this book poses for the reader is: who has the biggest ego - Tolstoy or A N Wilson? Watching the two of them go mano et mano is a good scrap, and Wilson does well to cut through the Tolstoy excesses, but by the end I found them both slightly monstorous. The book also lacks in the historical depth that later Russophiles would expect (I think Wilson lacked access to much of the historical archive when writing this back in the 70s and is not that insightful of the Russian cultural s The main puzzle this book poses for the reader is: who has the biggest ego - Tolstoy or A N Wilson? Watching the two of them go mano et mano is a good scrap, and Wilson does well to cut through the Tolstoy excesses, but by the end I found them both slightly monstorous. The book also lacks in the historical depth that later Russophiles would expect (I think Wilson lacked access to much of the historical archive when writing this back in the 70s and is not that insightful of the Russian cultural setting compared to later authors) and he doesn't give that much insight into Anna K or War & Peace, with too much weighting on the last confused period. So can't really recommend.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Martina

    Tolstoy is another massive biography by A. N. Wilson – 572 pages. Born in a period of peace, flanked by two wars – the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the 1917 Russian revolution – Leo Tolstoy’s national epic is War and Peace. Gleaned from his diaries, and the diaries of his wife, Wilson details the life of the writer and the thinker, whose art grew from three ‘uneasy and irresolvable’ relationships – with women, with Russia, and with God. The biography commences with the death of his mother at 40 Tolstoy is another massive biography by A. N. Wilson – 572 pages. Born in a period of peace, flanked by two wars – the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the 1917 Russian revolution – Leo Tolstoy’s national epic is War and Peace. Gleaned from his diaries, and the diaries of his wife, Wilson details the life of the writer and the thinker, whose art grew from three ‘uneasy and irresolvable’ relationships – with women, with Russia, and with God. The biography commences with the death of his mother at 40 when Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was barely two years old, and the death of his father at 42 when Leo was nine. The last of four sons (the Ant Brothers) with his sister Marya the youngest, they lived with their aunt. His aunt, his home town of Yasnaya Polyana (200 kilometres – 120 miles – south of Moscow), and his wife and children were his ‘constants’ as he attempts ‘to reconstruct his mother’s existence.’ From 1841-1847 he also lived at the borderlands of Europe and Asiatic Russia, which influenced his approach to literature, life, and living. Tolstoy was a prolific reader of British, French, and German literature. Wilson claims that ‘we do have incontrovertible evidence that A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy [Laurence Sterne, 1768] was what started Tolstoy off as a writer.’ The reason ‘stemmed from its usability as a blueprint for Romantic egotists’ and it ‘is attractively short.’ Tolstoy sent his first story, Childhood, to the editor of a serial, when he lived in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) before he spent a year in the Crimean War (1854-55). From 1857 to 1862 he traveled overseas – the only time he left Russia. In London in 1861 he met French writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who had just finished a book called War and Peace. Marrying at 34 to Sofya, who was 18, he fathered 13 children in the first 26 years of their marriage (three died before they turned two years of age). But it was Sofya’s younger sister, Tatyana, who was said to provide ‘the inexpressive liveliness’ for Tolstoy to begin War and Peace. It was Sofya’s insistence on archiving all of his drafts in the Rumyantsev Museum in Moscow that enabled historians to recreate the evolution of this masterpiece. Although his diary ceased during his greatest works – War and Peace (1869), and Anna Karenina (1877) – there was a ‘diary-war with his wife in which each wrote rude remarks meant for the other’s perusal,’ leading to ‘important channels of literary energy … the phase before he started writing fiction.’ It was a war and peace approach to marriage. He was predominantly influenced by events in real life, which he changed to suit the story. At the age of 32, two of his brothers were dead, Dmitry at 29 (Leo was 28) and Nikolay at 37 (Leo was 32). The death of Dmitry influenced his writing of the death of Levin in Anna Karenina, which Wilson says ‘is one of the very greatest scenes in Tolstoy … because it was not like that at the time … the crucial theme of those particular chapters in Anna Karenina is not feeling, but lack of feeling.’ Wilson describes War and Peace as ‘unforgettable and endlessly rereadable not because of the accuracy and thoroughness of its historical research, but because each character [580 of them] in turn is imagined with all the integrity of Tolstoy’s being. He is each character, in turn, acting them with all the vigour of his family at charades.’ It was from Tolstoy that Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by the idea of passive resistance, after reading The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), a work of non-fiction and ‘an infinitely sad book to read.’ Gandhi then wrote to Tolstoy in the last year of Tolstoy’s life. The best three chapters of this biography are the last ones, from 1900, with Tolstoy in the last ten years of his life. The chapter, Sad Steps, is the death of his oldest brother by five years, Sergey, in 1904, ‘hideously, of cancer of the face and tongue.’ The last of his brothers died four days after Tolstoy visited him. It was his inspiration for Reminiscences (1907). He also wrote ‘fifteen thousand words of nonsense about Shakespeare’ – which stated that William Shakespeare could not portray human characters at all. By 1910 six of his 13 children had died. His relationship with his wife and family were fraught with difficulties, in which the family was divided into two camps – with their father or with their mother. He secretly ‘escaped’ his family, and fled by train, only to have them, the press, church members, fans, and everyone following after him, to his death-bed at Astapovo train station at the age of 82: ‘It is one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of public sympathy in the history of the world.’ The difference between Wilson’s work and other biographies is that he obsessively links Tolstoy and his works with his life, matching scenes with diary extracts. He also contrasts Tolstoy’s literacy works with the timing of the works of other Russian authors – particularly Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky, and Anton Checkov – and Tolstoy’s own reading list. Wilson presents both the literary genius and his ‘contradictions and paradoxes’ in a ‘warts-and-all’ expose – of which there are many. Wilson states that ‘Tolstoy has … an abiding capacity to irritate his reader … to disturb, to unsettle, to upset.’ While the focus is on Tolstoy, his marriage is inextricable to the development of his manuscripts in what Wilson describes as ‘one of the most impressive partnerships in literary history.’ Often there are annoying sentences about what other biographers 'missed' and Wilson intrudes a bit too often with his own thinking. In addition, some sentences are awkwardly written. Nevertheless, it is a well-documented, interesting view of the life of the writer.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Josiah

    Never get a Dickensian to write about the Russians. Wilson is far too cynical, far too ironic, and like Dickens far too focused on childhood to penetrate into Tolstoy. A biographer does not need to love or even like their subject, but they do need to revere them; Wilson reveres the text but not the man, and so this descends at its worst into cod-Freudian attacks on Tolstoy that simply don't make for interesting reading. Tolstoy is the best author ever, and one of the most important popular relig Never get a Dickensian to write about the Russians. Wilson is far too cynical, far too ironic, and like Dickens far too focused on childhood to penetrate into Tolstoy. A biographer does not need to love or even like their subject, but they do need to revere them; Wilson reveres the text but not the man, and so this descends at its worst into cod-Freudian attacks on Tolstoy that simply don't make for interesting reading. Tolstoy is the best author ever, and one of the most important popular religious figures of the last 500 years- Wilson does not understand the latter and does not explain the former particularly well.

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Bisset

    Magisterial This is a reissue with a new preface. It is superb, with numerous comments by the author. The gestation of the masterpieces is explained in great depth, and in addition the spiritual writings are given due weight. Tolstoy was a literary genius, and a flawed saint. Reading this book is strongly recommended.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    A great biography of a remarkable man. In addition to covering the major events in Tolstoy’s life, the author discusses the books he wrote, their significance, and what influenced Tolstoy in his writings. Did a good job of exploring Tolstoy’s spiritual development and beliefs.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Richard Anderson

    Involving portrait of the great novelist.

  14. 4 out of 5

    General Kutuzov

    Outstanding. Wilson appreciates the writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and rightly, in my view, mocks the silly, anti-property crusader of later years.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eric Kalnins

    An interesting and informative read. A little too much of the biographers 'opinions'. 19.31 An interesting and informative read. A little too much of the biographers 'opinions'. 19.31

  16. 5 out of 5

    David

    I really enjoyed this book, though it (predictably) deflated some of Tolstoy's appeal as a thinker. The fact that his ethical/religious system often conflicted with his lifestyle is common knowledge. Wilson does a good job highlighting these many discrepancies, while assuring us that many times seeming outright contradictions actually relate to more complicated paradoxes. He argues that the idea of "Two Tolstoys" (i.e. pre/post AK) doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Admittedly, his early/middle output I really enjoyed this book, though it (predictably) deflated some of Tolstoy's appeal as a thinker. The fact that his ethical/religious system often conflicted with his lifestyle is common knowledge. Wilson does a good job highlighting these many discrepancies, while assuring us that many times seeming outright contradictions actually relate to more complicated paradoxes. He argues that the idea of "Two Tolstoys" (i.e. pre/post AK) doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Admittedly, his early/middle output differs from the latter, but seeds of his religiosity crop up much earlier than his post-AK work, as does his reverence for asceticism and the peasant lifestyle. Wilson gives all of the above components plenty of attention, but the book's chief focus lay in Tolstoy's cycle of fictionalizing his experience in order to absolve himself. One guesses from Wilson's treatment of these issues that other biographers dwell on Tolstoy's life of contradictions and then get bogged down in the prodigious documentation of his last years. Other readers have commented on Wilson's self-involved style. I will say he does this sometimes, but it's usually in the context of Wilson's own religious ambivalence, which works fine when reflecting on the religiously ambivalent man - Tolstoy. Others mentioned that one may enjoy this without a familiarity with Tolstoy's work. Maybe so, but it's much more rewarding when you have your own interpretation of the works Wilson's analyzing. I will seek out more work by Tolstoy and Wilson after reading this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kenghis Khan

    Many biographers openly sympathize with their subjects. Often, this is because they want to emphasize their subject's centrality (as in McCullough's John Adams book) or complexity (as in Browne's Darwin biography) that had heretofore been unfairly ignored. For someone who claimed Gandhi and MLK Jr. as his acolytes, Wilson is pretty harsh on Tolstoy. Wilson correctly perceives that we wouldn't be reading his biography of an impoverished and eccentric aristocrat in the final days of the Romanov dy Many biographers openly sympathize with their subjects. Often, this is because they want to emphasize their subject's centrality (as in McCullough's John Adams book) or complexity (as in Browne's Darwin biography) that had heretofore been unfairly ignored. For someone who claimed Gandhi and MLK Jr. as his acolytes, Wilson is pretty harsh on Tolstoy. Wilson correctly perceives that we wouldn't be reading his biography of an impoverished and eccentric aristocrat in the final days of the Romanov dynasty if he had not been a preeminent artist among the artistic geniuses of the late 19th century. Wilson is critical of, for instance, Tolstoy's anarchism and religiosity, often labelling it absurd and emphasizing its nonconformity. Tolstoy's wife, who Tolstoy drove to insanity, emerges as a tragic-comic heroine of sorts. Her pragmatism is juxtaposed to Tolstoy's idealism, thereby creating a sense of irony in the old ascetic living off his wife's feudal estate. Yet this very incongruity eventually literally drives her crazy, leading to an admittedly anti-climactic end. At 500 pages, Wilson's book doesn't quite get as long-winded or rich as his subject's novels. War and Peace is among my favorite books of all time, and Wilson's analysis of the work was strong. I decree this makes his book a must-read for any Tolstoy fan. Wilson de-emphasizes the autobiographical component of these works, while adeptly dealing with how the works fit into Tolstoy's life at the time.

  18. 4 out of 5

    James

    Wilson does a superb job of painting Tolstoy as a person, a novelist, and an anarchist. That alone would be reason enough for praise, but Wilson goes further by also tying in larger themes - notably Russia, God, and literature. Wilson demonstrates how Tolstoy's habitual self-obsession and deeply ingrained psychosis, along with a life of relative luxury and an obedient wife, enabled his amazing gift. Tolstoy's chaotic experiences at Chornaya Rechka, his revelatory readings of Schopenhauer, his de Wilson does a superb job of painting Tolstoy as a person, a novelist, and an anarchist. That alone would be reason enough for praise, but Wilson goes further by also tying in larger themes - notably Russia, God, and literature. Wilson demonstrates how Tolstoy's habitual self-obsession and deeply ingrained psychosis, along with a life of relative luxury and an obedient wife, enabled his amazing gift. Tolstoy's chaotic experiences at Chornaya Rechka, his revelatory readings of Schopenhauer, his deteriorating relationship with his family, the crackling tension at Yasnaya Polyana - they are all rendered here with microscopic detail. The later half of this book deals with Tolstoy the (non-violent) anarchist. There is considerable irony here. Tolstoy knows that "the ideals of Christ are fundamentally at variance with the wisdom of this world", and yet his attempt to live, Christ-like, at Yasnaya Polyana, fails spectacularly. Tolstoy's obsession with God borders on the tiresome, but Wilson keeps things moving nicely. The picture that slowly emerges from Wilson's pen is Tolstoy as an unlikeable person, as a doubtful messiah, and as a terrible husband. Yet his story is compelling, his travails riveting. I will never look at War and Peace the same way again.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris Walker

    Anna Karenina is on at the movies in my part of the world at present but after reading Tolstoy's biography I'm wondering why they have never made a film of his life. AN Wilson has painted a vivid picture of Count Tolstoy throughout his life and shows well how his life's experiences were incorporated into the writing of his great novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. But for me, the best bits in the book are the chapters on the old man, the anarchist and pacifist, rejecting his f Anna Karenina is on at the movies in my part of the world at present but after reading Tolstoy's biography I'm wondering why they have never made a film of his life. AN Wilson has painted a vivid picture of Count Tolstoy throughout his life and shows well how his life's experiences were incorporated into the writing of his great novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. But for me, the best bits in the book are the chapters on the old man, the anarchist and pacifist, rejecting his famous literary works, corresponding with Gandhi, eating his cabbage soup, dressed in peasant garb and home-made sandals, adulated by his religious followers, but at the same time surrounded by the family's wealth and land, waited on by servants and fighting with his wife, Sophia and surviving children of 13 over his will - all within 20 years of the 1917 revolution. Proof that fact is definitely stranger than fiction.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Wilkin Beall

    This is a huge but well written and compelling biography which I have declined to award four stars because of certain details which were inexplicably left out such as the Russian author's near bout with suicide. Also the relationship between Lev and his wife was confusing and needlessly complicated as it was described in Wilson's book. Interestingly the fine film starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, The Last Station, helped a great deal to clarify their marriage and lifelong relationship. Wi This is a huge but well written and compelling biography which I have declined to award four stars because of certain details which were inexplicably left out such as the Russian author's near bout with suicide. Also the relationship between Lev and his wife was confusing and needlessly complicated as it was described in Wilson's book. Interestingly the fine film starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, The Last Station, helped a great deal to clarify their marriage and lifelong relationship. Wilson simply was unable to simplify their connection to each other or, to be fair, the relationship was far more complex than in the film. Even so the reader is left foundering about as far as this matter goes. It was a struggle at times to make my way such a long book but for the most part, it was rewarding. I do not feel that it is anything like a definitive biography however.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    That beard merits 5 stars alone. It's hard to say whether it was A.N Wilson's writing or the uniqueness of Tolstoy's life that contributed mostly to the enjoyment of this book, but at least Wilson was able to present that uniqueness in an entertaining way. Being a shorter biography, Wilson naturally had to focus mostly on the highlights of Tolstoy's life, but he was able to connect them to events of the time as well as explore the social, philopsophical and intellectual underpinnings of Tolstoy' That beard merits 5 stars alone. It's hard to say whether it was A.N Wilson's writing or the uniqueness of Tolstoy's life that contributed mostly to the enjoyment of this book, but at least Wilson was able to present that uniqueness in an entertaining way. Being a shorter biography, Wilson naturally had to focus mostly on the highlights of Tolstoy's life, but he was able to connect them to events of the time as well as explore the social, philopsophical and intellectual underpinnings of Tolstoy's life and writing which gave the book a very contextualized feeling, and made it very intriguing.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Grace Tjan

    200 pages shorter than Troyat's monumental biography, Wilson gives us less of a novel of Tolstoy's life and instead offers us more insights about the man and his times. His theory is that Tolstoy's genius lies in his ability to seamlessly merge fact and fiction, resulting in the supreme ilussion of his novels. Wilson questions the veracity of several incidents accepted as fact by Troyat and other biographers. His discussion of events in Russian history from an outsider's perspective is enlighten 200 pages shorter than Troyat's monumental biography, Wilson gives us less of a novel of Tolstoy's life and instead offers us more insights about the man and his times. His theory is that Tolstoy's genius lies in his ability to seamlessly merge fact and fiction, resulting in the supreme ilussion of his novels. Wilson questions the veracity of several incidents accepted as fact by Troyat and other biographers. His discussion of events in Russian history from an outsider's perspective is enlightening, and perhaps more helpful than Troyat's novelistic approach in understanding not only Tolstoy but also the milleu in which he was creating his novels.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ecaterina Leonte

    It was a bore, except for the last chapter. I understand the need of creating a bit of a political context but that was just too much. After reading this book I feel I know more about the socio-political context of 19th century Russia than about Tolstoy himself. I love biographies, my favorite of all times is Verdi by Gustavo Marchesi. I must have read it 3 times. But Tolstoy by Wilson...once was enough. I do appreciate though the fact that Wilson showed understanding and compassion towards Sofi It was a bore, except for the last chapter. I understand the need of creating a bit of a political context but that was just too much. After reading this book I feel I know more about the socio-political context of 19th century Russia than about Tolstoy himself. I love biographies, my favorite of all times is Verdi by Gustavo Marchesi. I must have read it 3 times. But Tolstoy by Wilson...once was enough. I do appreciate though the fact that Wilson showed understanding and compassion towards Sofia Andrievna, I felt he was almost a feminist in describing her.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Denise Ferrary-Olson

    It's been quite a while since I read this. It's not my favorite bio by A.N. Wilson; that would be Jesus, a Life, which was spectacular in every way, but it was fine. I've read the 'big guns' by Tolstoy : War and Peace, Anna Karenina as well as some of the short stories. Such a gifted writer with such pronounced human frailty. I suppose he reserved the best of himself for the page. It's been quite a while since I read this. It's not my favorite bio by A.N. Wilson; that would be Jesus, a Life, which was spectacular in every way, but it was fine. I've read the 'big guns' by Tolstoy : War and Peace, Anna Karenina as well as some of the short stories. Such a gifted writer with such pronounced human frailty. I suppose he reserved the best of himself for the page.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    Extremely readable. Wilson I think is overly critical of Tolstoy's contradictions. Tolstoy's life and writing proves the difficulty of living morally. He is easy to make fun of, but he does not prove the impracticability of Christian anarchy. Extremely readable. Wilson I think is overly critical of Tolstoy's contradictions. Tolstoy's life and writing proves the difficulty of living morally. He is easy to make fun of, but he does not prove the impracticability of Christian anarchy.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Marisa Crowley

    A fascinating life, but I am not a fan of Wilson's overly self-conscious style. The author's presence as narrator was distracting, and I thought detracted from his analysis. I will definitely seek out other biographies of Tolstoy in the future, but will be sure to avoid works by Wilson. A fascinating life, but I am not a fan of Wilson's overly self-conscious style. The author's presence as narrator was distracting, and I thought detracted from his analysis. I will definitely seek out other biographies of Tolstoy in the future, but will be sure to avoid works by Wilson.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Already I can give this book five stars. I have a bit of a fetish for Tolstoy - simply a wonderful writer and this is one of the best biographies ever written about the best novelist of all time - perfect!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    Thorough analysis of Tolstoy's life, but apparently there are more in-depth biographies focusing on his death, if that is important to you. Wilson is very insightful, and it is well worth the read if you like Tolstoy's works. Thorough analysis of Tolstoy's life, but apparently there are more in-depth biographies focusing on his death, if that is important to you. Wilson is very insightful, and it is well worth the read if you like Tolstoy's works.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Paulcbry

    This is an excellent biography of one of the world's greatest writers. It is not a quick read however. The author covers a lot of ground and Tolstoy was a very complicated man. A very fascinating look at the author of one of the best books ever written (War and Peace). This is an excellent biography of one of the world's greatest writers. It is not a quick read however. The author covers a lot of ground and Tolstoy was a very complicated man. A very fascinating look at the author of one of the best books ever written (War and Peace).

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tara

    A.N.Wilson remains brilliant. Tolstoy, I don't know, I'm not so crazy about this guy anymore. A.N.Wilson remains brilliant. Tolstoy, I don't know, I'm not so crazy about this guy anymore.

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