Biography of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Russian author, one of the greatest of all novelists. Tolstoy's major works include War and Peace (1863-69), characterized by Henry James as a "loose baggy monster", and Anna Karenina (1875-77), which stands alongside Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Fontane's Effi Briest as perhaps the most prominent 19th-century European novel of adultery. Tolstoy once said, "The one thing that is necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth." Tolstoy's life is often seen to form two distinct parts: first comes the author of great novels, and later a prophet and moral reformer.
"In historical events great men - so-called - are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity." (from War and Peace)
Leo Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula Province, the fourth of five children. The title of Count had been conferred on his ancestor in the early 18th century by Peter the Great. His parents died when he was a child, and he was brought up by relatives. In 1844 Tolstoy started his studies of law and oriental languages at Kazan University, but he never took a degree. Dissatisfied with the standard of education, he returned in the middle of his studies back to Yasnaya Polyana, and then spent much of his time in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1847 Tolstoy was treated for venereal disease. After contracting heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy accompanied in 1851 his elder brother Nikolay to the Caucasus, and joined an artillery regiment. In the 1850s Tolstoy also began his literary career, publishing the autobiographical trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857).
One of Tolstoy's earliest published stories, 'The Raid', was based on a military manouvre against the Chechen mountain tribesmen, in which Nikolay's unit took part. The story appeared in censored form in 1852. "Can it be that there is not room for all men on this beautiful earth under these immeasurable starry heavens?" Tolstoy asked. "Can it be possible that in the midst of this entrancing Nature feelings of hatred, vengeance, or the desire to exterminate their fellows can endure in the souls of men?" About fifty years later Tolstoy returned to his experiences in Caucasus in the novella Hadji Murad (1904), still a highly insightful introduction to the backgrounds of today's Chechnyan tragedy. It also was an elegiac reprise of the dominant themes of Tolstoy's art and life. The famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gave the book to his disciple Norman Malcolm, telling him that there was a lot to be got out of it.
During the Crimean War Tolstoy commanded a battery, witnessing the siege of Sebastopol (1854-55). In 1857 he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany. After his travels Tolstoy settled in Yasnaya Polyana, where he started a school for peasant children. He saw that the secret of changing the world lay in education. He investigated during further travels to Europe (1860-61) educational theory and practice, and published magazines and textbooks on the subject. In 1862 he married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs (1844-1919); she bore him 13 children. Sonya also acted as her husband's devoted secretary.
Tolstoy's fiction grew originally out of his diaries, in which he tried to understand his own feelings and actions so as to control them. He read widely fiction and philosophy. In the Caucasus he read Plato and Rousseau, Dickens and Sterne; through the 1850s he also read and admired Goethe, Stendhal, Thackeray, and George Eliot.
Tolstoy's major work, War and Peace, appeared between the years 1865 and 1869. The epic tale depicted the story of five families against the background of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Its vast canvas includes 580 characters, many historical, others fictional. The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoléon, from the court of Alexander to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino.
War and Peace reflected Tolstoy's view that all is predestined, but we cannot live unless we imagine that we have free will. The harshest judgment is reserved for Napoleon, who thinks he controls events, but is dreadfully mistaken. Pierre Bezukhov, who wanders on the battlefield of Borodino, and sees only the confusion, comes closer to the truth. Great men are for him ordinary human beings who are vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, but unable to recognize their own impotence in the cosmic flow. "No one has ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavour, the exact quality of a feeling - the degree of its 'oscillation', the ebb and flow, the minute movements (which Turgenev mocked as a mere trick on his part) - the inner and outer texture and 'feel' of a look, a thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation, of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families, communities, entire nations." (Isaiah Berlin in 'The Hedgehog and the Fox', 1953)
Tolstoy's other masterpiece, Anna Karenina (1873-77), told a tragic story of a married woman, who follows her lover, but finally at a station throws herself in front of an incoming train. The novel opens with the famous sentence: "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy juxtaposed in the work crises of family life with the quest for the meaning of life and social justice. "The Oblonsky home was in turmoil," Tolstoy writes as an introduction to his themes. Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to reconcile the Oblonskys. Her love affair with Vronskii is accompanied with another intertwined plot, Konstantin Levin's courtship and marriage to Kitty Shcherbatskaia, the sister-in-law of Anna. Tolstoy saw that everywhere the family life of the landed gentry was breaking up, but he did not accept nihilist theories about marriage. Aleksei Karenin, a cold and ambitious man, is unable to save his career or make Anna happy. "For the first time he vividly conjured up her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes; and the idea that she might, and even must have a personal life all her own was so frightening that he hastened to drive it away. This was the chasm into which he dared not look." First Anna agrees to end the affair, but when Vronskii is injured in an accident, she resumes the relationship. Anna gives birth to their child, and Karenin finally agrees to allow Anna to run away to Italy with Vronskii. However, she believes that he no longer loves her, and commits suicide. Through Levin, who seeks the meaning of existence, Tolstoy states that "everything has now been turned upside down and is only just taking shape." He and Kitty learn the values of toil and happiness.
Anna Karenina has been filmed in Hollywood several times. One of the most famous versions, starring Greta Garbo, was born during the period when the film industry was under the censorial agencies of the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration. Thus the love affair of Anna and Vronskii was strongly condemned in the film and all references to the illegitimate child were removed. "At every opportunity, characters step forward to either denounce Anna (Greta Garbo) and Vronsky (Fredric March), or to foretell dire results of the continued affair. The resistance by Karenin (Basil Rathbone) to his wife's affair has none of the duplicity suggested by Tolstoy; rather, he is portrayed as refusing a divorce solely because it would "legalize a sin." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
After finishing Anna Karenina Tolstoy renounced all his earlier works. "I wrote everything into Anna Karenina," he later confessed, "and nothing was left over." Voskresenia (1899, Resurrection) was Tolstoy's last major novel. Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich Nekhliudov has abandoned the prostitute Ekaterina Maslova with their child as a young man. The novel begins when Maslova is called to court on charges of murdering a client. Nekhliudov is a member of the jury. He realizes that he also is accused but in the court of his own conscience. Maslova is wrongly sentenced to four years' penal service in Siberia. Nekhliudov follows her convoy to Siberia and manages to obtain commutation of her sentence from hard labour with common criminals to exile with the "politicals". The novel affirmed Tolstoy's belief in the primacy of the individual conscience over the collective morality of the group.
According to Tolstoy's wife Sonia, the idea for The Kreutzer Sonata (1890) was given to Tolstoy by the actor V.N. Andreev-Burlak during his visit at Yasnaya Polyana in June 1887. In the spring of 1888 an amateur performance of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata took place in Tolstoy's home and it made the author return to an idea he had had in the 1860s. The Kreutzer Sonata is written in the form of a frame-story and set on a train. The conversations among the passengers develop into a discussion of the institution of marriage. Pozdnyshev, the chief character, tells of his youth and his first visits to brothels, and his subsequent remorse and self-disgust. He decides to get married and after a brief engagement, he and his wife spend a disastrous honeymoon in Paris. Back at Russia the marriage develops into mutual hatred. Pozdnyshev believes that his wife is having an affair with a musician and he tries to strangle her, and then stabs her to death with a dagger. He accuses society and women who inflame, with the aid of dressmakers and cosmeticians, men's animal instincts. - After writing the novel Tolstoy was accused of preaching immorality. The Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod wrote to the tsar, and this marked the beginning of the process that led ultimately to Tolstoy's excommunication. Tolstoy was forced to write in 1890 a postscript in which he attempted to explain his unorthodox views.
In the 1880s Tolstoy wrote such philosophical works as A Confession and What I Believe, which was banned in 1884. He started to see himself more as a sage and moral leader than an artist. In 1884 occurred his first attempt to leave home. He gave up his estate to his family, and tried to live as a poor, celibate peasant. Attracted by Tolstoy's writings, Yasnaya Polyana was visited by hundreds of people from all over the world. In 1901 the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. Tolstoy became seriously ill and he recuperated in Crimea.
Tolstoy's teachings influenced Gandhi in India, and the kibbutz movement in Palestine, and in Russia his moral authority rivalled that of the tsar. After leaving his estate with his disciple Vladimir Chertkov on the urge to live as a wandering ascetic, Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 7 (Nov. 20, New Style) in 1910, at a remote railway junction. Eight years after his death, his wife was heard to remark, "I lived with Lev Nikolayevich for forty-eight years, but I never really learned what kind of man he was." Tolstoy's collected works, which were published in the Soviet Union in 1928-58, consisted of 90 volumes.
In his study What is Art? (1898) Tolstoy condemned Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Dante, but not really convincingly. He stated that art is a conveyor of feelings, good and bad, from the artist to others. Through feeling, the artist 'infects' another with the desire to act well or badly. "Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen." Tolstoy used ordinary events and characters to examine war, religion, feminism, and other topics. He was convinced that philosophical principles could only be understood in their concrete expression in history. All of his work is characterized by uncomplicated style, careful construction, and deep insight into human nature. His chapters are short, and he paid much attention to the details of everyday life. Tolstoy also refused to recognize the conventional climaxes of narrative - War and Peace begins in the middle of a conversation and ends in the first epilogue in the middle of a sentence.
Tolstoy's form of Christianity was based on the Sermon on the Mount and crystallized in five leading ideas: human beings must suppress their anger, whether warranted or not; no sex outside marriage; no oaths of any sort; renunciation of all resistance to evil; love of enemies. "The main feature, or rather the main note which resounds through every page of Tolstoy, even the seemingly unimportant ones, is love, compassion for Man in general (and not only for the humiliated and the offended), pity of some sort for his weakness, his insignificance, for the shortness of his life, the vanity of his desires... Yes, Tolstoy is for me the dearest, the deepest, the greatest of all artists. But this concerns the Tolstoy of yesterday, who has nothing in common with the exasperating moralist and theorizer of today." (the composer Peter Tchaikovsky in Vladimir Volkoff's biography Tchaikovsky: A Self-portrait, 1975)