Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tour de Horizon de Troyat

I've been packing up Russian history and literature books for three days. It's time to put my small Henri Troyat collection away. Troyat was part of the Russian diaspora that was displaced by the Russian Revolution. I think he was a teenager when his family settled in France, one of the centers of counter-revolutionary and general White Russia intellectual activity. Troyat was a prolific writer to say the least, and penned many successful novels (including one work of historical fiction, Red and White, which I have yet to review in this blog) as well as dozens of biographies of Russian historical and literary figures. It's no exaggeration to say that one of the best ways to fall in love with Russian cultural history is to read a Troyat biography, which are like potato chips insofar as you can't stop at just one. Troyat's biographies, as I've said before, are all almost uniformally good. They all read well and possess a literary quality in their own right. They all move quickly to decisive, adult junctures in the subject's right.

Troyat seems to have had divided loyalties, as I also do. (In graduate school in Montreal, I somehow divided my time almost equally between very traditional political biographies of the Stale Male and Pale men of British history such as Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill, and Lloyd George; and more recent works about queer, Beatnik authors such as Burroughs and Kerouac--never quite finding any connection between my subjects despite one failed doctoral dissertation that vainly attempted to find a link between literary and political modernism).

In this spirit, Troyat loved politics as well literature. He wrote biographies of the tsars, including Ivan, Peter, Catherine, Alexander I, and many of the minor female tsarinas. But he also wrote brilliant and sensitive portraits of Russia's greatest authors, including Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky--all good, although the Tolstoy book overshadows the others. Orlando Figes, for example, said it remained a sentimental favorite of his.

As I pack up my Troyat books, including many of the books mentioned above, I'm thankful that I still have a few left to read. I've got his portrait of daily life in Moscow at the turn of the century, one of his many French biographies (Flaubert, friend of Turgenev--apparently Troyat's attention couldn't even remained fixed on Russia), and his novel, Red and White. But there are other Troyat books out there, many others. Some are rare, out-of-print, and expensive: just try to find his biographies of Gogol and Dostoevsky for instance. Others are apparently untranslated. It's enough to make you learn French.


  1. if you read French he just came out with a new book. also you can check out his official site