Tolstoy: The Greatest Writer of all Time?

The Guardian seems to think so
Leo Tolstoy in 1908. Photograph: Hulton Getty

To mark the centenary of Russian author Leo Tolstoy's death, The Guardian newspaper has published a series of contemporary retrospectives:

Luke Harding:
In the west, Tolstoy is generally rated as the greatest literary novelist: last July, Newsweek placed War and Peace at the top of its meta-list of 100 great novels. (Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four snuck in second, with Joyce's Ulysses third.) Critics hail the extraordinary psychology of Tolstoy's characters, and veterans say nobody has written better about battle. And the east, especially Japan, reveres Tolstoy's philosophy. "Across the whole world there is a huge Tolstoy boom. He's esteemed everywhere apart from here [in Russia]," Deryabin admits.

Russia's scant regard is connected to its own troubled existential journey, Deryabin suggests, and its failure to discover a national idea. "We have been searching for it for long time. In fact, the answer is the one given by Tolstoy: the task before humanity is to be happy now."

Deryabin concedes that, for most Russians, the previous century was pretty awful – in other words, more Dostoevskyan than Tolstoyan. "The last century, with its emphasis on darkness and suffering, was Dostoevsky's. Now I hope it's Tolstoy's turn," he says.

The writer's great-great grandson, Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, agrees that Russia's painful 20th century had a distinctly Dostoevskyan tone. "I hope the 21st century is Tolstoyan," he says. Vladimir is the director of the state literary museum at Yasnaya Polyana. With his sweeping Tolstoyan forehead, he is instantly recognisable as a member of the distinguished Tolstoy clan.

"Dostoevsky focuses his attention on painful problems, on the dark side of the human soul. Tolstoy is the opposite. He defends fundamental values such as love, friendship and family relations. He gives positive answers to the questions mankind is asking. In this sense he gives more hope," Vladimir says. [Read the article]

Jay Parini:
[There] is a vast shelf of books by Leo Tolstoy, and these contain some very intriguing and much less widely read works. It's not, as popularly thought, that Tolstoy abandoned writing fiction after Anna Karenina. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a late piece of writing, or relatively so, and it's as good as anything Tolstoy ever wrote: a vivid account of the dying process, as harrowing as anything I have ever read. He also wrote any number of wonderful late tales that read a bit like folktales, but they are self-assured, vital, unforgettable. I like especially a very late tale called "Alyosha Gorshak". And then, indeed, there is a fine historical novel, Hadji Murat – not a book easily bypassed by anyone seriously interested in Tolstoy's accomplishment as a writer.

Tolstoy became a kind of prophet in his old age, during the last few decades. He turned to Christianity, but he did so with a twist. It was his Christianity. That is, he had a vision of Christ that did not include supernatural trappings. He learned New Testament Greek and spent a great deal of time rewriting the Gospels, taking out the miracles, all the supernatural bits. He saw Jesus as a great man who had a special relationship with God, and he spent decades elaborating this idea in essay after essay. The Kingdom of God Is Within You is a whole book that puts forward his ideas on Jesus, faith, God, pacifism, and the moral life. I myself collected bits and pieces from his last four decades in a new volume out from Penguin Classics called Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy.

The Writer, Leo Tolstoy, 1873. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

James Meek:
JM Coetzee calls Tolstoy the exemplary master of authority, by which he means, I think, that he makes us trust what he tells us. This is all the more surprising since Tolstoy seems to speak freely, in his fiction, with the sort of moralistic-prophetic voice – the voice of a teacher of right and wrong – that lesser writers are obliged to use sparingly, unless they want to sound pompous and didactic. While that is distinctive and remarkable, it's not what makes Tolstoy a great writer. Nor is it his tight focus on the three essential themes in narrative art, namely love, death and money.

What makes him stand out is his skill with the very cloth from which narrative is cut – time. His fictional places are in time, not space. His descriptions of landscapes and interiors are never merely descriptions and never merely symbolic; they are waypoints in a journey, burdens to be got rid of, obstacles to be overcome, lessons to be taken. [Read More]

A. S. Byatt:
His world is large, and his characters have their own life, and are not his puppets – even the ones he set out to disapprove of, such as Anna Karenina. His descriptions – of battlefields or mushroom-picking or meals – are full of exactly the right amount of idiosyncrasy and detail. [Read More]

Thomas Keneally:
Let's just say that Tolstoy is transcendent, and that we are grateful he lived long enough to endow us with his grand inheritance. [Read More]

Philip Hensher:
War and Peace is the book that stays with you, but I also love his very late fables. There are two unforgettable ones: How Much Land Does a Man Need?, about the greed for land, and What Men Live By, a fable or fairy story where an angel comes down to earth. He attained this perfect simplicity of expression towards the end, and he grew out of the novel. I don't think anyone else has ever done that. You can learn more from Tolstoy than any other writer – but as a technician, not as a moralist. [Read More]

Leo Tolstoy in later life telling his grandchildren a story. Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

Ian Rankin:
Strangely, perhaps, I first came across him as a philosopher/non-fiction writer; I studied his writings on aesthetics at university. So I knew more about his life than about his novels. He has always seemed to me like a character from fiction himself – a tragic, complex personality. I get the feeling I will return to his novels as I get older, and will take more from them. [Read More]

Marina Lewycka:
Anna Karenina, which I loved too, was more manageable, if only because it is shorter and the narrative more focussed on an individual, but my all-time favourite is Resurrection. Its themes of social injustice and personal redemption resonated in the 70s, when I first read it. This, I thought, is what all books should be like: serious, committed and passionate. [Read More]