A.N. Wilson. Tolstoy. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988.
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian author, who lived from 1828-1910. Examples of his works include War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He also wrote short stories that have a Christian or a moral theme, such as “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which criticizes greed, and also a story about a man who was actually helping Christ when he was helping those in need.
I wanted to learn more about Tolstoy. I read Anna Karenina over a decade ago, and I loved it, for it is about an insecure man who finally gets the woman of his dreams years after she had rejected him, and it also explores profound religious themes, such as belief in God and the difficulty of forgiveness. A friend of mine who had read War and Peace told me that this book, too, explores religious themes, for one of its main characters, Pierre, is on a quest for truth and finally arrives at faith in God. In addition, I had been aware that Tolstoy was a pacifist, one who interpreted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount literally, and I was curious about that. When I visited my local public library, A.N. Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy looked like a good book for me to read.
Overall, I was surprised in reading Wilson’s book. Perhaps the greatest surprise to me was that Tolstoy embraced the ethics of Jesus while dismissing as unimportant what many Christians would define as orthodoxy: miracles, Jesus’ resurrection, etc. What is more, Tolstoy was not always a Christian, but there were seasons in his life when he leaned towards Asian religions, with their notion of passive acceptance, while criticizing the Christian God. A clear asset to Wilson’s book is that Wilson goes into how this evolution in Tolstoy’s thought influenced Tolstoy’s work: in earlier drafts of War and Peace, Pierre did not become a Christian, for example, but remained a disenchanted liberal. Even as a Christian, Tolstoy would be alienated from Russian Orthodoxy, especially on account of his pacifism, which the Russian Orthodox Church did not share.
Even though Tolstoy’s thought evolved, there was a sense in which it remained constant. Tolstoy was strongly influenced in his younger years by reading the philosopher Rousseau, who stressed the importance of the populace while having a critical attitude towards government. Tolstoy would come to be a pacifist, and he also did not believe in property or the existence of government. Tolstoy was not always this radical, but there were indications that he was leaning in this direction, even when he was serving in the military and in government and had a large landholding with serfs. Tolstoy was recognizing that the Crimean War was basically useless—-it was not an attempt by Russia to protect itself but rather was a war that involved Russian expansionism. He tended to judge for the underdog in cases. He was appalled by Russian authoritarianism, along with a case that was decided against him unfairly (in his eyes). Plus, he tended to have a benevolent attitude towards his serfs.
Sexual desire was also a key theme in Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy saw himself as ugly, but he satisfied his sexual desires by visiting brothels. He would also sleep with some of his serfs. Tolstoy came to the point where he valued celibacy, even though he and his wife did have lots of children.
As in many accounts of Tolstoy, Wilson’s book explores Tolstoy’s turbulent relationship with his wife. She was continually jealous of Tolstoy, thinking that he neglected her and his children and was cheating on her. She also had to assume the brunt of taking care of Tolstoy’s property, since Tolstoy was not doing so himself, thinking property was meaningless. Tolstoy, meanwhile, loved his wife yet felt dismayed by her bitterness, and he eventually left her. In terms of his relationship with his kids, Tolstoy doted on one daughter, while another daughter was disappointed because she was striving to live according to Tolstoyan principles yet received no recognition from Tolstoy for doing so. Even with his religion—-and in some cases because of it—-Tolstoy had feet of clay.
Wilson described Tolstoy’s writing processes. Whereas a number of writers of novels do not read too many novels themselves, Tolstoy was the opposite: in preparing to write, he would read a lot of novels, especially Dickens. In addition, Wilson contends that Tolstoy was very self-absorbed, which was why Tolstoy wrote extensive journals about his thoughts, feelings, struggles, and experiences, and why so many characters in Tolstoy’s work reflect himself. Yet, Wilson states, Tolstoy could narrate his works in a detached manner, which was part of their attraction. Wilson also goes into the events of Tolstoy’s time that made their way into his work: Anna Karenina, for instance, committed suicide by throwing herself under a train, and there was an incident in Tolstoy’s time in which a woman did precisely that.
Another asset to Wilson’s book is that it shows how Tolstoy intersected with his times. Tolstoy lived from 1828-1910. His life overlapped with the American Civil War and Gandhi. He lived a little bit before the Russian revolution, in which Communism took over Russia. Wilson tells us about Tolstoy’s reaction to the anti-slavery book Uncle’s Tom Cabin: Tolstoy was moved by it, yet initially did not believe its message was relevant to his having serfs. Wilson informs us of Tolstoy’s correspondence with Gandhi, who was influenced by Tolstoy. Wilson also goes into Lenin’s attitude towards Tolstoy and how Communists coopted Tolstoy for their own purposes: they downplayed Tolstoy’s religion and opposition to government while embracing his anti-property stance.
It was difficult for me to see how Tolstoy’s views held together, or even how some of them made sense. What would Russia do without a government? Tolstoy’s answer to this question was to point to the ills that Russia’s government was inflicting! Wilson himself does not think that all of Tolstoy’s views made sense, or that Tolstoy consistently presented them in a lucid, rational manner.
Wilson’s book added quite a bit of nuance—-maybe even confusion—-to my understanding of Tolstoy. I still hope to read Tolstoy’s other works, at least some of the main ones, like War and Peace and Resurrection.