When Simon Parke was asked to do a biography of Count Leo Tolstoy, he didn’t go down the traditional path.
When asked to write about Leo Tolstoy, I hesitated; because all I really wanted to do was meet the great man, and what chance of that? And then something happened.
For part of my life, I’m a therapist and it’s always struck me how little I know about someone until I meet them. I may have information about them, but until I’ve listened to them reflect on their lives, the chemistry isn’t there and I know almost nothing. So what to do with Tolstoy – who famously, after reading Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, said: ‘Not only did I feel no delight; I actually felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium.’
The answer came in a moment. I’ve always loved dialogue. I used to write satirical comedy for programmes like ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Weekending’. And then more recently as a therapist, I know the power of dialogue to create something which didn’t exist before; the power of two souls meeting. So the idea was born: why not speak with Tolstoy? After all, he’s left a huge amount of personal material. So what if I imagined a conversation with him, but used only his authentic words?
There are many who publish imaginary conversations with famous figures from the past; but this usually involves them imagining their hero’s words as well, and I didn’t wish to go down that path. I feared the characters would end up sounding suspiciously like me. No, I wanted to meet the people, not mould the people; and using only their authentic words would both keep me honest and their integrity in tact. Tolstoy was no one’s glove puppet.
It was a long process, first assimilating the material and then engaging with it critically as one does in conversation. By the time I put my questions to Tolstoy, it was as if I was meeting the man face to face, and the conversation felt entirely real. Sometimes I was angry at his dishonesty and intolerance; at other times, delighted by his insight or moved by the pain of his circumstances. ‘Generally, my state of mind is one of dissatisfaction with myself,’ he said, ‘but not depression.’
And does the conversations idea work? Initially, the omens were not good. Most I spoke to about the idea were quietly sceptical. Strangely, it didn’t seem to have been done before, and perhaps there was good reason for that. ‘If it hasn’t been done, Simon, there’s probably a reason.’ But these same people have been kind enough to change their minds on reading the results, which often read like a transcript from a therapy session.
The fact is, time spent with words about someone is not the same as time spent with their actual words. No one is elusive when you truly listen to them, and so although I came to Tolstoy largely cold, I now know him well. I don’t know everything about him, but I know what made them do the things he did and the forces at work in the ‘making room’ of his soul. In many ways, and this is perhaps worrying, I know him better than I know myself.
In the first half of his life, he was the world’s most successful author, with both a national epic, ‘War and Peace’ and a great love story, ‘Anna Karenina’ to his name. Yet by the age of 50 he was hounded by depression and contemplating suicide. I was interested to find out more about this, and then to question the religious and social prophet he became in the second half of his life – a role that bought conflict with church, government and wife.
He was a forceful personality. As with many prophets down the years, he knew he was right and couldn’t cope with disagreement. His personal artist Repin warned me how convincing he was, however extreme his views. It was only a couple of days later, he said, when away from his presence, that things seemed less certain. But Tolstoy was certain; in his antagonism towards meat-eating, alcohol and the misuse of power, everything was black and white.
Tolstoy had been a dissolute youth. Now he was a raging voice in the wilderness; yet somehow noble. ‘I did what I could,’ he said towards the end. ‘Let those who can do better.’ Here was a powerful mind at work; a man who spoke English, French and German; learned Hebrew to better understand the Old Testament and wrote like an angel. He also proved an appalling husband, never came to terms with his sexual appetite and was jealous of other writers. Yet he had a profound influence on the political formation of the young Gandhi, then a young lawyer in South Africa. Tolstoy’s book ‘The Kingdom of God’ had a great impact on him, and sparked a correspondence between the two.
Despite being excommunicated by the church, Tolstoy became a man of faith; but it was his own faith, built on Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, with non-violence at its heart. It saddened me, though, that the new Tolstoy could find no pleasure in his former writing. ‘I have forgotten my whole past,’ he said of ‘War and Peace, ‘all my writings, and everything that has led me to the level of consciousness by which I now live.’
My time at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate, was never dull; and sometimes, surprisingly comic. Being a keen vegetarian, he once left a live chicken and a knife on his aunt’s chair at table. She started screaming, but he just said that if she wanted to eat meat for supper, she’d have to kill it herself. There was quite a scene. He was a long way from perfect, but as he said: ‘Just because I walk the road like a drunk, doesn’t make it the wrong road.’
Soon after I left him, at the age of 82, he ran away from home, and died on the station at Astopovo, on the way to who knows where? Though he did once remark, ‘The voice that tells us we are immortal is the voice of God.’
Simon Parke’s Conversation with Leo Tolstoy is published by White Crow Books. He has also spoken with Vincent Van Gogh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Meister Eckhart, Conversations with Mozart, Conversations with Jesus of Nazareth
Audiobook download available below from Audible.com