The BBC has recently broadcast a two part programme to commemorate, only a year late, the centenary of the death of Leo Tolstoy. It was an interesting examination of the life and some of the works of the writer of what some say is the best novel ever written.
I realised as I watched it, a mixture of Alan Yentob variously sitting on trains and wandering about the steppe and the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, and selected talking heads from both the UK and Russia, that I had retained more of the information I gleaned during my teenage readings of the novels and Troyat’s biography than I would have thought possible. I didn’t really learn anything new from the programmes (a surprise when sometimes I have difficulty remembering what I did last week), but it was interesting to think about it again.
I read ‘War and Peace’ first, and although I skipped over the sections on history because I found the details of war disturbing and those on philosophy because I didn’t really understand them, I loved the stories of Natasha and Pierre, and I rattled through the book sitting on the floor in my bedroom with my back against the radiator.
‘Anna Karenina’, a gift from my parents on my 15th birthday, made an even deeper impression on me; not just the story of Anna and Vronsky, it explored the relationships around them; clearly foreshadowed in the famous opening line ‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’
I was very struck by the limits on Anna’s freedom to choose, and the terrible consequences for her when she chose to break with convention. Vronsky could still go out in society, but she was confined to her house where no respectable woman would speak to her. When I first read the novel I didn’t question that she would leave her son in order to follow her romantic heart, now I do wonder about that more, that in fact it was that which might ultimately seal her tragic fate.
Where I was intrigued by the choices Anna made, and her mental torment, one of my school friends was so entranced by Levin and his beliefs that it was through labouring in the fields alongside his serfs at harvest that he reached enlightenment, that she took a summer job working on a farm in Ayrshire. When I asked her if it had been the spiritual experience she had been hoping for she shook her head ‘No, just knackering.’
Filled with admiration for Tolstoy’s novels, I embarked on the biography. I think that was my first experience of understanding that the book is only a small sliver of the writer, and that just because I liked the writing it didn’t necessarily mean that I would admire the writer. A man of mad, passionately held views, Tolstoy held opposite and contrary opinions at different stags of his life. From a wealthy family he spent a dissolute youth, and turned to religion and family in his middle years, and finally in old age rejected wife and family and possessions; convinced at each stage that he, alone, was absolutely right on all counts.
He remains such a contrary and troubling figure that even in Russia now, they are not sure how to commemorate him. So I will just stick with the novels ad forget the rest.