Review: Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation by Martine de Courcel Print

0897265(San Diego Tribune September 9, 1988)

Tolstoy: The Man and the Legend

Martine de Courcel, a French psychologist and biographer known previously for writing a life of Andre Malraux, has produced an epic study of the Russian writer and religious thinker Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Her production is masterly in its explication and fascinating in its revelations.

Published in France in 1980, the work appears now in a flawless translation by Peter Levi. This book is a journey through Tolstoy's intellectual and spiritual development.

It is also an exhaustive trip through 19th century Czarist Russia, Tolstoy's marriage of 48 years to the indomitable Sofia (whom he called Sonya), the history of his family estate and the writing of the novels "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," not to mention the revolt of the peasants, the rise of Lenin and the impact of Tolstoyism. De Courcel's biography, however, is not an attempt to write history via one exemplary life.

Rather, she has done something more calculable: She has separated the person from the legend, in order to understand Tolstoy's enigmatic psychology and moral philosophy.

And in the process—it seems accidentally on purpose—she has raised him to the level of legend again. The most significant point in his life was his conversion at age 50, recorded in "A Confession," to "the necessity of faith in God," a belief he identified with the peasants, but which he felt was rigorously personal. His life up till then was a struggle to believe in something and, after his conversion, a struggle to convince others that shunning the material world, in all its forms, was the best way to live. To many lost souls, peasants and noblemen alike, Tolstoyism became a religion: They flocked to his estate, lived closely by his side as disciples or left to form colonies in other countries.

But these hangers-on unduly burdened his life.

Tolstoy himself rejected Tolstoyism because after time it became, like the church which he thought falsely mediated a person's spiritual needs, too concerned with itself and not enough with salvation. His struggle to save others centered notably on his wife.

Yet she was unable to live as devoutly as her husband: her failure to accept his beliefs tormented him and with that torment he abused. Sofia's life, trapped between loving Tolstoy and resisting his fanaticism, forms the most energetic part of the story.

It is fascinating to read of their early sexual ardor, the harness their 13 children brought to their marriage, his later rejection of her, her eventual madness.

Much of her plight was summed up in her diary one day: "If I hadn't had my feet on the ground"—raising the family and running the estate—"he couldn't have had his head in the sky." Though Tolstoy's harassment of Sofia is central, de Courcel's biography is given more to studying the ambivalence his spiritual development produced in him. The aesthetic problem with describing this inner journey is that it may lose its narrative focus.

So often immersed in his thought, de Courcel's book becomes labored, even idolatrous of its subject, forcing his ideas too much to reflect the many changes his life took. Which is where she overdevelops his ambivalence.

Her tact suggests that because of the depth of his "misery," exacerbated by his class position and mixed with his artistic genius, Tolstoy's struggle makes him more holy than those around him.

True, she understands his narcissism very well; but she is too easily deluded that its extremism is appropriate.

I agree with Gorky's judgment, which de Courcel largely overlooks, except about Sofia: "(Tolstoy's) desire to suffer is repugnant." But the author does, often brilliantly, elucidate her main theme: how in his creative work he "reconciled" the ambivalence he felt in his personal life. She reveals, for example, that in "Anna Karenina" Tolstoy expressed his own dilemma about coveting people and property.

The class freedoms and constraints that victimized Anna and eventually caused her suicide indeed also thwarted his inner life; yet such privilege which he always held to rewarded him with money, education and influence. Tolstoy was of course aware of his duplicity: He knew as did the peasants, that he could not live without his servants.

His guilt caused him to renounce many things: sex, the church, patriotism, land , atheism.

But it also made him accuse himself of a universe of wrongs he felt he was responsible for: "Unable to bear his own guilt, he projected it on all mankind."

As a result, God, as well as being godly, became more important to him than loving others. De Courcel concludes that the power of his creative gifts compelled him (even against his wishes; the desire to write he thought was sinful) to create more art and thereby endure the paradox of material and spiritual life. She argues that the only way Tolstoy could experience truth, could live spiritually, was to search for more truths to live by.

Discovering truth was the point of art.

He never stopped being an artist, a seeker, when, even two weeks before his death at 82, he escaped his wife and estate, ostensibly to find a quiet place to write.

Tolstoy died, as he would have thought Christ did, "obliged to make real all the truth in his own life and in the world's for himself, not by the mediation of another."