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Published by Carl Rollyson

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Published by: Carl Rollyson on Oct 19, 2012
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Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) remodeled the modern novel with "War and Pe ace," making it as much

a work of history as of literature. Historians may find fault with this or that detail, but in his handling of such crucial events as th e battle of Borodino -- where Napoleon won the Pyrrhic victory that virtually do omed his invasion of Russia -- Tolstoy prevails as the colossal chronicler of th e clash between major characters and events. Then Tolstoy remodeled the modern novel again with "Anna Karenina," a searing po rtrayal of marriage and estrangement and love that brought new psychological dep th to narrative prose. Opposed not only to adultery but to women's rights, Tolst oy -- himself the father of an illegitimate child -- nevertheless understood the passion and anguish of his heroine. For these two novels alone, Tolstoy would deserve multiple biographies probing h is contradictions and contrarian behavior. A nobleman (he was Count Tolstoy) pro ud of his ancestry, he identified with his peasants and invented a one-piece cos tume for himself patterned on their clothing. A fervent hunter, he reluctantly r elinquished his sport because it conflicted with his humanitarian beliefs. An ar my officer, he later transformed himself into a teacher of peasant children and the author of primers designed for peasant children. A habitual gambler, he rack ed up enormous losses. Tolstoy was also a self-absorbed writer who quarreled wit h nearly everyone (even staunch supporters like Ivan Turgenev), and a rather boo rish husband who kept his wife constantly pregnant (even as she copied out his m anuscripts and contributed telling details to his famous novels). And the list c ould go on -- as it does in Rosamund Bartlett's absorbing and pitch-perfect biog raphy. As Bartlett points out, there are actually few really good biographies of Tolsto y written in English. The most recent notable one, she says, is A.N. Wilson's, p ublished in 1988. But Bartlett, besides writing well, is also a translator of Ru ssian and author of a well-received biography of Chekhov. As such, she is able t o situate Tolstoy in his milieu, a strategy that results in a breathtaking explo ration of his unique position in pre-revolutionary Russia. There was simply no o ne like him, willing to take on every aspect of Russian life and demanding refor m. Bartlett does not ignore the quirks and even the inhumanity of Tolstoy the man, who had a personality -- Rebecca West once declared -- akin to those found among the lower criminal classes. He played the imperial despot even as he decried th e outdated and decadent czarist regime. But Bartlett is not in the business of n ame-calling. Rather, she lets the man and his work and his 19th-century Russia e merge in compelling and authoritative detail.

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