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.
An Exchange With Colin Nicholl
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