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Tolstoy, Leo

war sexual marital russian

(Russian, 1828–1910)

Tolstoy is arguably the greatest novelist of the nineteenth (or any other) century but his most famous work, War and Peace (1863–9), is a byword for that heavy to me you know you ought to read but never get round to. Which is unfair because Tolstoy's prose is crystal clear, the compulsive agonizings of his characters are superior soap opera, and his narrative techniques anticipate the best Hollywood screenplays. War and Peace follows the fortunes of several aristocratic Russian families caught up in the Napoleonic Wars of 1805–12. Natasha Rostov, young, eligible, and inexperienced, falls in and out of love with three older men: the arrogant but virtuous Prince Andrei, the caddish Anatole, and Pierre whose bumbling search for purpose and meaning takes him through debauchery and good works, via a disastrously failed marriage, to the bloody battlefield of Borodino and final fulfilment with Natasha. The simple questions he asks are Tolstoy's own lifelong obsession: what is life, and how should I live it? The canvas is vast, the set pieces—balls, battles, births, deathbeds, weddings, peasant uprisings, and guerrilla wars—are magnificent, and though the cast is enormous each character is distinctly drawn, most are psychologically complex, and, astonishingly, the majority are based either on his long-suffering wife Sonya and their family or Tolstoy's own wayward, contradictory, self-obsessed personae (Agonised Compulsive Gambler, Guilty Debauchee, War-hating Soldier, Communistic Serf-Owner, Uxorious Wife-Hater, Marital Rapist, Lecherous Celibate, and self-proclaimed Christian Prophet, to mention but a few).

If War and Peace is the greatest war novel, Anna Karenina (1873–7) remains the most profound, psychologically penetrating story of adultery, sexual passion, and marital love. Anna is a beautiful, accomplished, and devoted mother who leaves her emotionally desiccated husband and only child for the virile but limited Vronsky. She gains sexual satisfaction but loses, successively, her friends, her status in society, her child, and Vronsky himself. She descends into impotent, clinging jealousy and, ultimately, suicide. In counterpoint to this is the story of Levin and Kitty (Tolstoy and Sonya in thin disguise). Soul-searching Levin woos and weds a much younger bride, takes her from Moscow to his isolated country estate where he hopes for a biddable handmaid for his philosophical, sexual, and agricultural passions but discovers the girl has a will of her own. Tolstoy cuts grippingly back and forth between the poisoned relationship of Anna and Vronsky and the marital power struggles of Levin and Kitty as they try to find a way of living together that is fulfilling to both.

His last novel, Resurrection (1898), a savage satire on pre-Revolutionary Russian society, was damaged by obsessive religious didacticism but The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886), The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and Master and Man (1895), shorter, narratively compelling meditations on, respectively, death, sexuality, and class, are undiminished masterworks.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, Charles Dickens, George Eliot.


Toole, John Kennedy [next] [back] Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel)

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