Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What to read about Tolstoy? A Guide

This year marks 100 years (only!)  since Leo Tolstoy's death. At the end of October 1910 he left home and died on 7 (20) November 1910.

The anniversary is widely marked around the world – from the meeting of over 100 living members of the writer's family at Yasnaya Polyana, his estate, to the film The Last Station, with Christopher Palmer and Helen Mirren, to a new biography by Tony Briggs, a leading Tolstoy translator and one of the most perceptive modern interpretators of his literary work and views. Briggs' book focuses on the last traumatic years of Tolstoy's life and the writer's relationship with Tolstoyans

This is a brief list of English language books and essays on Tolstoy, some of them well-known, others are less familiar to general readership.

Before anything else, especially if you are an impatient reader, I highly recommend W.Somerset Maugham's 22 page essay on Tolstoy from 'Great Novelists and Their Novels'. Maugham puts Tolstoy as number one on his list of the world's top ten novelists. It contains a comprehensive and very shrewd overview of Tolstoy's life and work, including a few very perceptive writer-about-writer theories on why Tolstoy wrote the way he did and why he didn't do as he preached. 

Aylmer Maude is a younger contemporary and friend of Tolstoy. He was introduced to the writer in Moscow in 1888 and together with his wife Louise became the most prominent translator and scholar of Tolstoy in the West. Maude's biography was authorised by Tolstoy in 1902 and remains a classic account of the writer's life. Maude was a great admirer of Tolstoy and glossed over darker episodes in his life. The Maudes supervised centenary edition of Tolstoy's works in England. His footnotes to translations are also a fascinating read as Maude explains details that may be completely lost to a modern reader. 

Prof Ernest J.Simmons – Leo Tolstoy.  This is the standard English language biography.  (Boston, Atlantic, Little Brown, 1947.)

Isaia Berlin. The Hedgehog and the Fox.: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History.  The brilliant short essay on Tolstoy's view of history is a masterpiece by one of the top English-Russian thinkers of the 20th Century. I'd suggest reading it before tackling War and Peace. (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1953.)

Maxim Gorky Reminiscences of Tolstoy. (The Hogarth Press, 1934.) In 1901 Tolstoy was ill and spent several months in the Crimea recuperating. It was then that the three great Russian writers, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky, frequently met and had long conversations. Gorky wonderfully captures Tolstoy's physical features and his manner of speaking and  arguing. I suggest reading this alongside Gorky's reminiscences of Chekhov as many motives intertwine. In Gorky's essay V.I. Lenin there is a passage on Lenin's attitude to the writer: 

'Dropping in on him one day, I saw a volume of War and Peace on his desk.
"That's right. Tolstoy! I meant to read the scene of the hunt, but then remembered I had to write to a comrade. I have no time at all to read. It was only last night that I read your book on Tolstoy."
Smiling and squinting his eyes he stretched luxuriously in his armchair and, dropping his voice, went on quickly:
"What a rock, eh? What a giant of a man! That, my friend, is an artist... And – do you know what else amazes me? There was no real muzhik in literature before that Count came along."
He turned his twinkling eyes on me:
"Who in Europe could rank with him?"
He answered the question himself:
"No one."

Henri, Troyat  Tolstoy  A lively biography. Read Edmund Wilson's review of the book in NYRB .

Victor Schklovsky, one of the best critical minds in Russian literary studies, wrote a massive biography of Tolstoy, but so far as I know it is not available in English translation. Here is a link to Schklovsky's book 'The Energy of Delusion' ("Энергия заблуждения") where  Schklovsky provides several examples of Tolstoy's and others' 'method of seeing things out of their normal context'. Schklovsky once remarked that it was Tolstoy, not Gorky, who was the founder of 'socialist realism' (quoted by Solomon Volkov).

Boris Eikhenbaum, one of the most prominent Russian scholars of Tolstoy, here is a link to the English language compendium of his works on the writer.

Nikolai Gudzy wrote the standard Russian biography of Tolstoy ("Лев Толстой"). I think it's not available in English, but is refered to in Western studies.

Leo Tolstoy, edited by Henry Gifford A wide anthology of extracts from essays, letters, articles and other appraisals of Tolstoy from contemporary to 1960s. Includes: (C19th - earlly C20th) Nekrasov, Chernyshevsky, Turgenev, Dragomirov, Strakhov, Dostoyevsky, Melchior de Vogüé, Matthew Arnold, Leontiev, Chekhov, Edmund Gosse, W.D. Howells, Henry James (who famously called Tolstoy's novels 'loose and baggy monsters'), Bernard Shaw, Paul Boyer, Merezhkovsky, William James, Lev Shestov, Blok, Rilke, (claiming Tolstoy) Lenin, Plekhanov, Romain Rolland, D.H. Lawrence, Aylmer Maude, Gorky, Lubbock, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Mirsky, E.M. Forster, Boris Eykhenbaum, André Gide, James Joyce, Georg Lukács, Isaac Babel and Sergei Eisenstein. (modern, up to 1960s) Berdyaev, Philip Rahv, George Orwell, Isaia Berlin, Lionel Trilling, Renato Poggioli, J.P.M. Stern, Joyce Cary, George Steiner, Henry Gifford, Raymond Williams, Barbara Hardy, Donald Davie, Logan Speirs, John Bailey, Dorothy Green, F.R.Leavis, Ted Hughes, G.W.Spence, Roy Fuller, R.F. Christian and Boris Pasternak.  (Penguin, 1971)

Tolstoy, edited by ed.Ralph E. Matlaw. A Collection of Critical Essays. (Prentice-Hall, Englewood cliffs, 1967, N.J.), includes Tolstoy as Man and Artist, by Renato Poggioli; Tolstoy and Enlightenment, by Isaiah Berlin; On Tolstoy's Crises, by Boris Eikhenmaum; Tolstoy, Seer of the Flesh, by Dmitri Merezhkovsky; Tolstoy's Art by Käte Hamburger; Tolstoy and the Development of Realism, by Georg Lukács; The Original of Tolstoy's Natasha, by Edmund Wilson; Style in War and Peace, by R.F. Christian, The Moral Vision: Tolstoy, by Albert Cook; The Dialectic of Incarnation: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, by R.P.Blackmur; Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilytch' and Jamesian Fictional Imperatives, by Edward Wasiolek; The Last Judgment: Tolstoy's Last Works, by Leo Shestov.

Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance includes numerous references to Tolstoy and his work.

Richard F. Christian Tolstoy's War and Peace, (Oxford, ClarendonPress, 1962). 'An analysis of the evolution of the novel, its structure and style, containing much source material otherwise not available in English'. (quote from Matlaw)

Charles Du Bos. Approximations. Quatrieme serie. Paris, Correa, 1930. 'A study of Tolstoy's moral and spiritual development as evidenced in his work'. (Matlaw)

James T. Farrel, Literature and Morality. (New York, Vanguard Press, 1947). 'Contains a series of articles on War and Peace'. (Matlaw) 

George Gibian. Tolstoy and Shakespeare. (The Hague, Mouton an Co. 1957). 'A brief but thorough consideration of Tolstoy's attitudes toward Shakespeare and the drama in general'. (Matlaw)

A.B.Goldenveizer  Talks with Tolstoy. (Richmond, 1923). 'Contains only part of the  original Russian versions, a repository of Tolstoy's prnouncements on art literature, and life'. (Matlaw)  

Percy Lubbock. The Craft of Fiction. (New York, Peter Smith, 1947). 'Two excellent essays, marred by te notion that the two main novels would have been even better if Tolstoy had written them according to Lubbock's notions rather than to his own'. (Matlaw)

Thomas Mann. 'Goethe and Tolstoy' in Essay of Three Decades, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947). 'A famous essay on literary giants and the nature of art'. (Matlaw) 

Renato Poggioli  The Phoenix and the Spider.  (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957). 'Contains a suggestive psychological-literary analysis entitled "A Portrait of Tolstoy as Alceste"'. (Matlaw) 

George Steiner. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf 1959). 'A pretentious and inaccurate book with occasional striking insights and juxtaposoitions'. (Matlaw)

Gleb Struve. 'Tolstoy in Soviet Criticism'. The Russian Review, April 1960. (article available online at JSTOR). 'A concise review of the vagaries and achievments of Tolstoy criticism in the last fifty years. The entire issue of he Review is devoted to Tolstoy.

Stefan Zweig. Master Builders: A Typology of the Spirit. New York, Viking Press, 1939. A stmulating and wll conidered biography of Tolstoy based on Tolstoy's artistic works.


Charlotte Alston has recently published Tolstoy's Guiding Light on the History Today web-site. The article traces the influence of Tolstoyism throughout the world with an emphasis on lesser known episodes in Britain and America. (via 

A Russian TV programme on the last days of Tolstoy's life, includes documentary footage of the writer:

Лев Толстой

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