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Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana: His Life and Work in the Charmed World of His Estate by Patricia Chute.

Title: Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana: His Life and Work in the Charmed World of His Estate.
Author: Patricia Chute.
Genre: Non-fiction, biography, history, books on books, writing, romance, photography.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 1991.
Summary: Yasnaya Polyana was Tolstoy's estate in Russia. Sometimes it was his sanctuary and sometimes his personal hell. This book explores Tolstoy's complex relationship with, and the great influences of his home, bringing this man, his family, and his philosophy, to life. The book shows how Yasnaya Polyana became the central metaphor in Tolstoy's life - a substitute for the mother he never knew and the root system from which sprang War and Peace and Anna Karenina". It also looks at the ironies that tormented Tolstoy as he idolized the peasant, and yet in many ways lived like the count he was, and sketched the people that surrounded him, many of whom served as the basis for his most memorable fictional characters.

My rating: 8.5/10
My Review:


♥ In 1847 the property was in disarray, but then again, one might suggest, so was its new master. Tolstoy had withdrawn from the University of Kazan with a bad case of venereal disease, he was uncertain of his talents and his future, and he considered himself homely. A young man of vast intelligence, many contradictions, and no small vanity, his almost kinetic thinking carried him everywhere - to the philosophy of Rousseau, which enchanted him, to his sexual appetite, which disgusted him, to the state of his soul, which deeply concerned him. From his earliest years, Leo Tolstoy was possessed of an enlarged consciousness, an almost unbearable self-awareness, and an unerring eye for detail, not only of his own feelings but of all of life around him.

♥ Yet, in its splendid isolation, the estate provided Tolstoy with psychological distance (and a strategic retreat) from the practical concerns of reform and the anxiety of the literati, in a time of great change. He was left free, both by logistics and by temperament, to examine the larger questions. From Yasnaya Polyana, he then launched his powerful attacks on the church, government, all institutions - as a member of the ruling class. And his moral authority was such that the tsars, four in his lifetime, dared not stop him. Other who, like he, were considered anarchists, such as Dostoyevsky, were sent into exile in Siberia. Tolstoy remained more or less untouched at Yasnaya Polyana.

The apple orchard, the peasants and their huts, the supremacy of nature - it was through this prism that he saw Russia…

♥ Early in puberty, he read Pushkin’s verses and Russian legends. Never much of a regular student, he often pored through novels and parts of the Bible until he was delirious. By the time he was thirteen he had read the works of Sterne and Rousseau, the Scriptures, the Lives of the Saints, and delved into their essential truths with a passion that astounded those around him. By fourteen, he no longer accepted the religious beliefs and conventions that he had been taught in early childhood. The world of Yasnaya Polyana was one in which Tolstoy developed a religious temperament, but his need to question, to push relentlessly toward newer truths, caused him to incorporate a different creed, uncertain in its particulars but clearly his. Perfecting oneself, he called it.

♥ Although Tolstoy was very much a part of the nobility, many of whom personified boredom because of their own limitations, this young nobleman was not capable of boredom. Life was too compelling, too stimulating, too full of contradictions. Instinctively, from his earliest years, Tolstoy had the ability to identify deeply with others. When the stable boy was beaten, Tolstoy wept. As half-mad pilgrims wandered into the house to rest (and to eat) he watched closely, he entered into their prayers, listened to their stories, with his heart open. Some thirty-five years later, as Tolstoy the writer brought the world Anna Karenina, the question was asked: How could he construct the complex character of Anna, he, a man, how could he understand her inner life? From an early and extraordinary awareness of others, their complexities became his, a super consciousness was at work to join him with nature, with the people around him, with the most delicate sounds, the smallest voice.

♥ But no biographer fails to acknowledge the invaluable role that Sonya played in the early years when Tolstoy’s fiction flourished. For she flourished with it.

♥ The problem was, he couldn’t live the life of a peasant. The aristocrat could not be made over, and he knew it. But how often he thought about it! The world of the peasants was one of the dominance of heart over head, of purity over artifice. The muzhik knows how to die, he often said.

And he knew he did not.

♥ Anna Karenina is life itself; passion has at its core both life and death. Anna’s death, as she throws herself under the engine at the railroad station, is played out with dread and foreboding. Tolstoy, in his relentless search for truth, does not ask that the readers judge Anna, he only asks that we feel life in its shifting patterns, its many manifestations. The “seer of the flesh,” as he was called, gave us a book with great scenes - the horse race, the meeting between Anna and Vronsky in the railroad car - scenes and characters with whom an entire country could feel a person identification.

♥ By poring through the Gospels, he found some truths to cling to. From the Sermon on the Mount he came upon a cornerstone of faith that he could accept. Perhaps he might even rejoice, for he managed to isolate five commandments which seemed to express the essence of Christ’s teaching and provide a sufficient guide to a nobler life on earth. And it was, was it not, a new and nobler life that he wanted for himself and for others? Loosely rephrased, here were his chosen commandments: (1) Avoid anger against your brother, (2) Avoid lust, (3) Do not swear, nor take binding oaths, (4) Do not resist evil, use no physical violence, and (5) Love your enemies.

At last, he could give meaning to his rejection of the mystical in religious life, for he had discovered a kind of daily Christianity. He would try living a spiritual life outside the Church. Salvation - giving meaning to life - could be achieved by earthly virtue. “Every day to think of God, of one’s soul, and therefore to set the love of one’s neighbor above mere bestial existence,” he wrote. Brotherly love. Earthly virtue. Earthly happiness? Of course. And, a voice to him, he would not be without God if he could live seeking God.

♥ “I don’t care for children until they are two or three years old,” wrote Tolstoy in a sweeping manner. “I don’t understand them. There are two types of men; hunters and nonhunters. Nonhunters love babies and can pick them up and hold them in their arms; hunters are terrified, sickened and filled with pity at the sight of a baby.” He added, “I know of no exception to that rule.”

♥ What is one to think of this man, who at one point sits silently and ponderous among his Gospels and two months later announces that he is crazy with life and can scarcely concentrate? Does the preacher now give way to the sensualist? Absolutely. In a titanic nature such as Tolstoy’s no single emotion could hold him captive. In a divided soul such as his, a permanent battle between the extrovert and the introvert was being raged. Is it possible that the only way Tolstoy could govern his extroverted side was to impose the restrictions of moral perfection?

♥ Consider for a moment the power he had accumulated, this man who detested any form of politics, this prophet who called for nonresistance and pacifism at all times. Even if he had remained a farmer and had never written a line, the ancient name of Tolstoy is woven clearly into Russian history. (His ancestor, Peter Andreyevich, served Peter the Great as minister of state.) But Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, two of the greatest novels of the Western world. For the Russian people, writers such as Tolstoy possess unique status, both as guardians of truth and as creators of history and repositories of national conscience. His name and genius would have been enough to guarantee him permanent devotion, but after his religious crisis, Tolstoy’s word commanded a different kind of attention - he asked a huge country to look again at those accepted truths and institutions which had ossified in place at the center of Russian life. How should we live, he asked. Are we our brother’s keeper? Some attacked him. Others worshipped him. But he gained a moral authority well beyond that of any other writer.

♥ The colonel is the symbolic product of Mother Russia, whose people at once tenderly worship icons and feel the delicate verses of Pushkin in their veins, and yet who are also capable of legendary and sustained brutality against their own people. Thus it had been, through the mercilessness of Ivan the Terrible, and would continue into the twentieth century under the purges of Stalin and life in the Gulags, as recorded by Solzhenitsyn. For anyone asking why, Tolstoy’s story gives an exacting picture of the contradictory nature of Russia and her people.

♥ The word privacy has no direct translation in the Russian language.
Tags: 1990s - non-fiction, 19th century in non-fiction, 20th century - non-fiction, 3rd-person narrative non-fiction, american - non-fiction, biography, books on books, history, lev tolstoy, non-fiction, photography, political dissent, politics, romance (non-fiction), russian in non-fiction, writing
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