Tolstoy Untangled: On Donna Tussing Orwin’s “Simply Tolstoy”

Bob Blaisdell appreciates “Simply Tolstoy” by Donna Tussing Orwin.

Tolstoy Untangled: On Donna Tussing Orwin’s “Simply Tolstoy”

Simply Tolstoy by Donna Tussing Orwin. Simply Charly. 140 pages.

TOLSTOY STARTED WRITING Anna Karenina at the end of March 1873 and finished it in the summer of 1877. He complained about the labor and regularly defamed the novel during and after its composition. In the midst of serializing it at the highest rate a Russian author had ever been paid, Tolstoy wanted to kill himself. From the first drafts and sketches he knew Anna would commit suicide, but he didn’t know how he was going to prevent himself from drowning or shooting himself. In terms of hyperconscious despair, Tolstoy was one with his creation. In A Confession (begun in 1875, revised and completed in 1881), he describes himself looking into the chasm of depression; his head spinning, he was ready to plunge to the bottom, but an unusual (for him) lack of conviction held him back.

For the serialization of the novel, which lasted from 1875 to 1877, Tolstoy would write up to and past deadline for four or five months before knocking off by late spring for summer vacation; then, in early fall, began his annual procrastination and writer’s block period. This resulted in a seven- and an eight-month gap between installments. After Anna’s death at the end of Part Seven, Tolstoy wrote several chapters of an epilogue, which the journal’s editor refused to publish unless Tolstoy moderated his antiwar mockery. Tolstoy refused to back down. He rewrote the epilogue as Part Eight and published that section separately before collecting and slightly revising the whole as a book in January 1878. As far as I’ve been able to discover, he only reread the completed novel once. He didn’t enjoy it.

Donna Tussing Orwin, who only has about 120 pages to present Tolstoy’s 82-year-long life and 90 volumes of writing, doesn’t sum up that period the way I have, but as one of the leading Tolstoy specialists as well as former editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal, she knows just about everything there is to know about the man. Though restrained by the “Simply … Great Lives” series format, she never rushes, never dawdles, though there are the occasional “Some think … while others think” weigh-ins on the work.

A particularly effective, well-paced, informative section is about the 1880s, when 30 years of Tolstoy’s works, both fiction and nonfiction, were widely translated at the same time. Orwin explains:

[P]eople began to flock to visit Tolstoy in Moscow, and then at [his estate] Yasnaya Polyana, which became a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. He tried to embody his own teaching in his personal image, as a model for good action, but also, in confessional writings, as human, all too human. He shared private issues and struggles even with strangers.

Reflecting on her long relationship with her subject, she writes: “Contradictory though he may have been, ornery and overly dogmatic at times, I cannot think of a single instance in his life when Tolstoy consciously schemed on his own behalf or kowtowed to others. His aristocratic integrity was phenomenal, and a main source of his appeal down to this day.”

In political and moral works, Tolstoy could write himself into tight corners, but he was restless and ever self-critical, and he almost never remained standing anywhere he didn’t continue believing in. From the late 1880s to his death in 1910, he frustrated his religious-like followers, “Tolstoyans,” about whom he usually expressed annoyance, because they wanted him to be consistent. But he couldn’t be consistent and honest; he couldn’t be consistent and ignore the thoughts shooting across the universe of his mind or the tuggings on his ultra-sensitive heart.

His sincerity and boldness inspired Gandhi’s conversion to the principles of civil disobedience, and he argued so vociferously for religious tolerance that the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him. Moved to action, he was a tremendous dynamo in eliciting public support for those facing injustice or natural disasters:

Tolstoy’s official position on famine relief […] was that charitable work by the upper classes merely perpetuated and even encouraged the status quo. However, his old friend and neighbor Ivan Raevsky convinced him that he had to get involved in the famine crisis [in the Samara region, where Tolstoy had once owned a farm on the steppe] even if it meant contravening his principles. […] And critical though he was of the Russian side in the Russo-Japanese War [of 1904–’05], he confessed that he felt like volunteering to fight, and he followed Russian defeats with dismay. He did not hide these impulses and contradictions. […] Through them, he modeled the way we juggle our different impulses, and at times contradict ourselves while trying to do the right thing.

Orwin makes clear that Tolstoy suffered because he couldn’t suppress his insistent moral and creative consciousness.

If students now ask me to recommend a short scholarly guide to Tolstoy, I’ll tell them Simply Tolstoy will do, because there are few readable academic books about him and his works. On the other hand, there are many good, informative memoirs about him by any number of his relatives. It would be good to read those, too. The whole family’s interesting. And if you think of books as something important, not as an academic discipline, perhaps the best recent book about books, The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, is by Viv Groskop, one of those passionate readers who is not shy about expressing her excitement and personal reactions. To appreciate her lively study, you would have to have the confidence to know what you like, and to believe that books are like life, meant to be talked about, and that the lives of authors who have written world classics are inherently fascinating:

Anna Karenina is a testament to how observant [Tolstoy] was in everyday family life. He was a man who noticed all the intimate details. He loves to mention his affection for the hair on women’s upper lips; he makes fleeting mention of birth control (in a conversation between Dolly, Stiva’s wife, and Anna); and he cares about sore nipples after childbirth (Dolly mentions this). He had a longing for connection with other people which was at odds with his intellectual self. I think, rationally, he wanted to be able to judge others, including himself. But he was unable to because he had too much heart and empathy. […] If only Tolstoy had extended the kindness that he extended to his characters in his “frivolous” novel to himself. But, still, this is one of the most charming things about Tolstoy: the gap between the intimidating nature of his reputation and the more reassuring, human facts of his biography.

But if you insist on dispassionate scholarship, Professor Orwin has done her job with Simply Tolstoy — one that I, for all my pride about my Tolstoy knowledge, couldn’t have pulled off. She cares what other scholars think, but never loses sight of the reader, whose love for literature her book is meant to fuel.


Bob Blaisdell, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, is a professor of English in Brooklyn who frequently writes about Russian literature.

LARB Contributor

Bob Blaisdell is the author of Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (Pegasus, 2020) and the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Trollope (Blackthorn Press, 2003).


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