Anxiety over not having enough to read has haunted me since I was a boy. I tend to pack too many books when traveling, afraid of running out. In 1968, on a family visit to Florida, I brought along all four of J.D. Salinger’s books, a paperback anthology of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, and Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy (trans. Nancy Amphoux, 1967), a bestseller I had ordered from the Book-of-the-Month Club. Call Salinger and the Tolstoy nonfiction youthful indiscretions, never to be repeated by the adult me. The Troyat volume was something else, the biography of a writer I already admired extravagantly that read with the drama and life-density of first-rate fiction. Reading it, I learned the word “solipsism,” which would certainly find frequent application later in life, and I resolved to someday visit Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy is a book I have often thought about reading again, and now, thanks to V.S. Pritchett, I am.
In Complete Collected Essays (1991), Pritchett’s review of the book is titled “The Despot.” Pritchett had an admirable weakness for the great Russians, as all writers and readers ought to. His opening sentences suggest why Pritchett may have been the last century’s finest English-language critic:
“The life of Tolstoy is a novel that might have been written by Aksakov in its beginning, by Gogol in the middle and by Dostoevsky in the years following the conversion. He was not so much a man as a collection of double-men, each driven by enormous energy and, instinctively, to extremes. A difficulty for the biographer is that while we grin at the sardonic comedy of Tolstoy’s contradictions and are stunned by his blind egotism, we are also likely to be infected by his exaltation: how is this exclamatory life to be brought to earth and to be distributed into its hours and days?”
Had Tolstoy not been a genius, had he been merely a Sholokov-like drudge, he would have been insufferable, worthy of banishment from our consideration, most likely forgotten or remembered only as a megalomaniac of world-class proportions. Instead, his is a life, like Dr. Johnson’s, in which each of us can read our own, but on a grander scale. Troyat has a way of seamlessly weaving details of daily life and the contradictory sensibility of Tolstoy into his narrative. His writing is novel-like without lapsing into outright fiction or psychological speculation. His own complicated and contradictory nature suffuses his characters. Pritchett quotes a marvelous passage by Troyat in which he describes Tolstoy’s love of quarreling, his endless promises to stop and failures to do so, which Pritchett calls “a sort of moral slyness.” Here is Troyat’s sentence:
“Impenitent old Narcissus, eternally preoccupied with himself, he blew on his image in the water, for the sheer pleasure of seeing it come back when the ripples died away.”
Pritchett goes on to say it is only during the “rippling stage” that Tolstoy is an artist. “He is watchful as an animal,” Pritchett writes, “that sees every surface movement, he builds his people from innumerable small details of things seen. A misplaced button may tell all.” Reading of Tolstoy’s childhood at Yasnaya Polyana reminds me of the country estate scenes described by Nabokov early in Ada (a novel parodically haunted by Tolstoy’s spirit). Tolstoy and his family moved to Moscow when he was not yet nine years old. Though he returned and wrote his best work there, his childhood (like Nabokov’s) took on the nostalgic life of its own. Here is Troyat:
“Winter evenings also had their charm. The entire family shut itself up, shivering, into the main house, isolated by snow and silence. The tile stoves crackled. Time passed with delectable slowness. Numb with contentment, little Leo told himself that no house in the whole world was more beautiful than the one in which he had been born.”