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Leo Tolstoy: A very short introduction, by Liza Knapp 

28 June 2019

John Arnold considers an introduction to this challenging author

AS A child, Leo Tolstoy loved to play a game with his brother Nikolai, centred on a notional green stick on which was inscribed the secret of “what had to be done so that all people would become happy . . . all would become ‘ant brothers’”. In Russian, the word for ant, muravey, is close to that for Moravian, moravsky; and the inspiration came from the radical Protestant Moravian Brotherhood.

Tolstoy remained true to this simple vision throughout the vicissitudes of a complex and long life, lived to the full amid all the contrasts and complexities of Tsarist, Orthodox Russia. The tension between his delight in complexity and the quest for simplicity characterises his life and art. It is most evident in the difference between his great, sprawling realistic novels and his short, punchy polemical writings. Professor Knapp makes the case for not distinguishing too strongly between them; the themes of the tracts recur in the novels, where the reader is constantly challenged to be a better person and to change society for the better, as did Tolstoy’s celebrated disciple, Gandhi.

The strength and weakness of polemics is that they are one-sided, produce false clarity, and provoke disagreement and debate. The advantage of fiction is that the same issues can be presented from all sides and at different levels. Tolstoy had an unsurpassed gift for getting into the minds of his characters, exposing contradictions and evasions, and splitting the atoms of thought into innumerable sub-atomic particles of genuine complexity. In War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he wrote the most readable novels in the canon, and this admirable book helps to show how and why. When we read one, we feel that it is reading us; so this is a spiritual as well as a recreational exercise. And it is enormously enjoyable, too.

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

Leo Tolstoy: A very short introduction
Liza Knapp
OUP £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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