A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

Say what you will about Leo Tolstoy post-Anna Karenina. Say he completely lost it as a writer (and his marbles too), as most critics, far more subtly, say. Say the once singularly incisive and dynamic Russian master had gone out of his creative freaking mind. Say he turned his back forever on his Art at the age of fifty; turned his back on his very name that had become synonymous with Greatness; and embraced, in place of the fame and fortune and accolades, an idiosyncratic, self-styled monastic hybrid of asceticism, Christianity, and a rigorous social consciousness that abandoned the trappings and acoutrements of wealth in favor of an obsessive obedience to peasant life — to a strict adherence to "the faith of the poor" — from which he resurrected meaning and a sense of purpose to his life. Once his life, he realized, was no longer just about satisfying the dictates of his desires, but about living humbly among the poor, he could be happy. Apparently, all the literary success a person could ever imagine or hope for, wasn't enough (not nearly enough) to fulfill Tolstoy and to induce inner peace; rather, success and its material benefits became an albatross, in his mind, stuffed with the existential weight of meaninglessness, that nearly snuffed him out.

So, say what you want: Say he went insane (and perhaps you'd be partially correct in saying so; I mean, how could a man not be forever happy and content having composed War and Peace?), but don't say his Confession, that in 93 packed pages, explains, in harrowing, psychologically minute detail, his spiritual crisis of identity and purpose, that took him — one of the most successful and famous writers of his time (of any time) — to the brink of suicide, isn't as dramatic a reading experience as the tomes he's most famous for.

His Confession chronicles his interior transformation from high-society-minded artist to peasant, and how during the process the option of suicide became for him the most rational reaction to what he considered his "joke of a life; his empty and meaningless life," the very brilliant life, that is, that had authored two of the most renowned novels ever created, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Incredible in the light of his accomplishments, how low he'd sunk inside. His Confession outlines his emotional and philosophical descent - and eventual ascent from suicide - in terse, conversational style. Like talking to a friend, reading Tolstoy's Confession.

I think Tolstoy's Confession is one of the most fascinating psychological odysseys I've ever read, documenting a person's darkest despair and then unexpected U-turn of rebirth and revival. Based on just the writing in his Confession, I think it'd be difficult to argue that Tolstoy had gone insane, as some attest he did. For the writing is remarkably lucid and concise. His self-analysis is rational. His arguments and reasoning, logical. Granted, he wrote it after, not during his crisis, so knowing the exact state of his mind when he was literally in despair; when he was in the moment, suicidal, is probably not precisely knowable or attainable. But Tolstoy, nevertheless, painted quite the unpretty interior picture (think Edvard Munch's, The Scream) of a mind and a man about to implode.

Thank God Tolstoy lacked what he describes as "the courage" to commit suicide, but instead persevered through his year-and-a-half long crisis, and came out on the other, brighter side, maybe not as the Leo Tolstoy anybody recognized (or even wanted), but as a man, nonetheless, who in the least, drilled a great hole through the darkness of suicidal despair with his still mighty pen, and a hole big enough that maybe future others who've found themselves in similar, suicidal predicaments, might crawl, led by Tolstoy's words, through. And live.

I can't fault a man who, on the brink of suicide, finds a reason to live. I can't fault him even if his rationale for living, like Tolstoy's, seems, well, odd, or unorthodox, or counter intuitive to my sensibilities; and I can't fault him any further even if it means that man, the genius, will disappoint the masses and never output another classic of the same caliber as War and Peace or Anna Karenina again.

CymLowell's Book Party Review Wednesdays 


  1. This review so totally rocks! WHY haven't I heard of this book before? You'd think with Anna Karenina sitting in my reader waiting for me, I'd have looked deeper into some of his other work. Thanks for sharing!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  2. Oh these Russian masters have all kinds of obscure works hidden up their sleeves that hardly anybody has ever heard of or read. Thank you for your wonderful comment. I'll drop by your blog later today ...


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