Leo Tolstoy and Tony Serra
I have a secret. I think Leo Tolstoy might be reincarnate and practicing law in California. I’m not sure how far I want to go with this hypothesis, but there are certain similarities between the Russian Count and a solitary soul out West. I would never have been able to spot the resemblance had I not read Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy: A Russian Life, not yet published in North America, but available in Great Britain.
Tolstoy has a secret I’ve never understood until now. Yes, Anna Karenina and War and Peace are great books. But I care less about the view of the world from the top down than I do of the perspective from the bottom up: Tolstoy’s world of princes, princesses and courtly manners and lives leaves me cold. I much prefer the hardscrabble bleakness of Dostoevsky. I understand Raskolnikov.
But Tolstoy ended his life a radical, in a convenient and indulgent sort of way. Late in life, he turned to the Russian Orthodox Church. Then he turned on the church itself, declaring that church dogma obscured and even choked the Kingdom of God accessible to all. When he died, he was despised by the Church, distrusted by the State, and adored my many Russians.
Bartlett’s biography is a concise overview of Tolstoy’s life. Concision is not normally what sprints to mind when reviewing a book some 455-pages long. But Tolstoy’s collected works, his publications, letters and diaries, fill some 90 volumes.
Bartlett traces Tolstoy's ancestry and his aftermath in even terms, making his literary output seem almost like an afterthought. The man was a passionate aristocrat who longed to become a peasant, but could never fully cut the cord tethering him to privilege. Bartlett reports that late in life, Tolstoy hated being served his meals by white-gloved servants; she doesn’t explain why he remained bound to something he despised. My hunch is that much though privilege made him uncomfortable, he understood at some deeper level that without his inherited wealth, he’d have lived a far different life. (One correction for the American edition: Theodore Roosevelt was never attorney general of the United States; he was Police Commissioner in Manhattan, however.)
I finished the biography a few days ago, and was mulling whether and what to write about the book. A conversation with a good friend this morning clarified things. My friend met California’s Tony Serra in California at Big Sur this past weekend. He was aglow about the legendary California lawyer.
I only met Serra once. It was 1999, and I was invited to be a speaker at the annual meeting of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Serra was the keynote speaker; I talked for about an hour about civil rights litigation arising from Fourth Amendment claims. I’d seen the movie starring James Woods, True Believer, based on Serra and one of his cases. I was eager to see his genius at work up close and personal.
Serra was every bit the eccentric. He talked about Hegel, the dialectic, and many other things that seemingly bore no relation to one another. Later, I went to lunch with him at an out of he way spot in Sun Valley. I didn’t understand much of what he said then, either. His was a mountain I could not climb.
But last weekend he talked about his life in Big Sur. He has taken a vow of poverty. He lives in a rent-controlled apartment. His clothing comes from good will. He drives clunkers donated from others and leaves them to die at he side of the road. He carries no driver’s license because he does not believe the state has the right to regulate who uses the roads. I listened to my friend glow about Serra and it suddenly occurred to me: Serra is Tolstoy without the pudding, an anarchist without privilege. I wish I had the chance to sit with Serra again. I might understand more this time.
I do not have a drop of Russian blood in me, so far as I know. Yet Russian literature was for many years a passion. I mark a period of my life by my preoccupation with Dostoevsky. Tolstoy beckons now. He preaches something I’ve suspected but am as yet unable fully to articulate: The Kingdom of Heaven is within, and the state, well, the state is a an expensive whore who beckons and then giggles once we surrender the virtue of independence to her. Tony Serra has known that forever.