Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on a new biography of Tolstoy, Saul Bellow's letters and Salley Vickers' short

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Last Saturday was the centenary of the great Russian novelist's death and has predictably been accompanied by a slew of new Tolstoy biographies and studies. Chief among these is Rosamund Bartlett's new biography.

Philip Heshner, writing in the Spectator, thinks Bartlett's life of Tolstoy is full of "knowledge, insight and aplomb", though is sceptical about her decision to look at the novels solely "within the context of historical trends." In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler is less than impressed with Bartlett's account of Tolstoy's life. Whilst he acknowledges that she does uncover new information on Tolstoy , he finds that "the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you're interested."

Conversely, AN Wilson, a previous biographer of Tolstoy, is all praise for Bartlett in the Financial Times, judging that her study of his life "conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."

Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Leon Wieseltier, Bellow's friend and sometime correspondent, writing in the New York Times, gives a slightly sycophantic review, in which he suggests that these letters constitute "one of Bellow's greatest books", whilst also finding the space to salute Benjamin Taylor's "elegantissimo" editing.

From the Guardian, John Banville is intrigued by Bellow's "prickliness" in the letters, though is disappointed to find that they are "not as exciting or stimulating as one would expect from this most incandescent and opinionated of writers", a fact perhaps due to Bellow's tendency "to relax the force of his personality" in his correspondence.

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson decides that "the existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail" and gives Taylor lukewarm praise for his "almost-great service" as editor. Robson does, however, admit that he read the letters with "an overpowering feeling of joy."

Aphrodite's Hat by Salley Vickers

Michele Roberts' review, from the Financial Times, gently chides Salley Vickers for her prosaic style in her first collection of art related short stories, describing them as being "marred by cliché" and overly "genteel", whilst, contrarily, Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian is overflowing with superlatives for Vickers, writing that "the emotional and technical range of this collection is both impressive and delightfully disorienting".

Michael Arditti, writing in the Telegraph, is more ambivalent about the stories, concluding that "although a couple of the stories are duds ... the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm."