There is an art to researching and writing biographies — at least good biographies. Although a work’s length and the amount of independent or original research may suggest how deeply a biographer delves into his subject, it certainly isn’t determinative of quality. At the same time, it is a field where the shorter the book, the more likely it is to provide insufficient perspective. Thus, I must admit to a tad bit of skepticism when offered a biography of Russian author Leo Tolstoy that consists of roughly 100 pages. Yet Anthony Briggs accomplishes far more than expected with Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy.
Briggs, a professor of Russian and Russian Literature who has published a translation of War and Peace, does more than simply outline the basics of Tolstoy’s life. The book, the latest in a series of short biographies of notable literary figures issued by the small, London-based Hesperus Press, gives us not only a view of Tolstoy as a person and a writer but a survey of his works and influences.
Briggs undoubtedly relies extensively on those who have researched and written more in-depth biographies of Tolstoy as well as the diaries of and extensive papers preserved by Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia. But even if the basic elements of Tolstoy’s life were merely a synthesis of basic history and prior works, the assessment of Tolstoy and his work makes clear this is more than a simple recapitulation. It is far more analytical and insightful than one would expect in a biography of this length. Whether any particular reader will agree with Briggs doesn’t detract from his cogent rationale and commentary.
While Tolstoy’s talents and literary output are, of course, a primary focus, Briggs wants to take the reader behind them. One of his main themes is recognizing, yet puzzling, over what Briggs sees as the influence of three “despicable men” with “unreasonably misanthropic and pessimistic beliefs.” They are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a hero of a teen-aged Tolstoy, who Briggs sees encouraging a tendency toward self-hatred and influencing Tolstoy’s work more than any other writer. In mid-life, Briggs points to “the malign presence” of pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, including the thought that life is essentially pain that can be eliminated only by overcoming the will to live. The final influence comes near the end of Tolstoy’s life in Vladimir Chertkov, who became Tolstoy’s secretary and essentially controlled Tolstoy and encouraged his more outlandish beliefs.
As this suggests, Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy is not a hagiography as short biographies can tend to be. Thus, while Briggs praises some of Tolstoy’s work, he also recognizes weaknesses, actually calling The Kreutzer Sonata “tedious, unsubtle, unrealistic and anti-human.” This doesn’t mean Briggs takes a dim view of his subject. Like good biographers, he attempts to provide an objective and detached assessment and does not hesitate to commend and celebrate Tolstoy and his talents where warranted.
Ultimately, what makes this so impressive is that Briggs conveys biography and discerning analysis with clarity in such limited space. Just as some people are hesitant or may not have the time to pick up a lengthy or in-depth biography of a noted author, very short biographies run the risk of giving short shrift to the author or insufficient perspective. This concise but never terse contextual account of Tolstoy’s life not only avoids the latter risk, it satisfies readers who want to learn more than just the basics of the author’s life.
It is remarkable how the same writer could so easily write with distinction and descend to the depths of inanity almost without recharging his pen.
Anthony Briggs, Brief Lives: Leo Tolstoy