Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great

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Product details

  • Paperback | 400 pages
  • London, United Kingdom
  • New edition
  • Ill.
  • 074900200X
  • 9780749002008

Review Text

Like most biographies of the ever-fascinating Catherine, this bouncy, all-over-the-place retelling has a surefire first half but then drifts into formlessness. And like most, it stresses the infinite variety of Catherine-the-woman while failing to provide much in the way of historical grounding. As always, the raw, unlikely making-of-an-Empress is irresistible: minor German princess Sophie, un-pretty but very bright, was promoted by her pushy mama (and by the King of Prussia) as a fiancee for Grand Duke Peter, nephew and heir of decadent Empress Elizabeth of Russia; and though Peter was an impotent half-wit (fixated on toy soldiers, dirty jokes, and Prussia), little outsider Sophie grabbed the main chance with a will, transforming herself into the most virtuously Russian Orthodox of princesses and enduring eight years of virgin marriage before taking lovers; so, by the time unpredictable mentor/enemy Elizabeth finally died, cagey Grand Duchess Catherine (who'd just barely concealed a second non-imperial pregnancy) was ready to parlay her popularity into an overthrow of loathsome, now-dangerous Peter III. Troyat (Tolstoy, 1967) tells all this vigorously enough, with the usual reliance on Catherine's own wry, juicy memoirs - but also with dismayingly large doses of sloppy prose and pure cliche ("beside herself with joy," "green with envy," "she melted on the spot," "method in her madness"). And this casual yet overblown style seems even less appropriate once Catherine is securely enthroned after the murder of Peter III ("wished for but not ordered" by Catherine). Reforms, Crimean conquests, shrewd diplomacy, suppression of rebellions - Troyat covers it all, but haphazardly, with constant resort to over-simplifications (C.'s switch from Voltaire-inspired liberalism to repression), dubious generalizations (about "Russian irrationality," for instance), and ungainly gush ("She was mad for reform. She had a passionate desire to knead the thick dough of Russia"). Typically, when the complex Polish annexation comes up, we get minimal historical background while the passions of Catherine's Polish puppet-king/lover are paperback-pulped ad infinitum: "He wanted to come back to the woman whom he had never stopped loving, back to the taste of her lips, the sweetness of her voice, the movement of her hips." And Troyat is ever eager to get back to the boudoir, as infatuation-prone Catherine (a healthy creature with "nothing of the hysteric or nymphomaniac about her") goes through "fresh young bodies" - some of them procured for her by lover/adviser Potemkin, the only bedmate who also had "a strong mind that could send the ball back to her." Some readers may be willing to overlook the crudities here (partly due, perhaps, to translation problems) for the sake of Troyat's robust, speculative, untidy but grand-scale approach. Most, however, will probably prefer to stick with Zoe Oldenbourg's elegant, frankly narrow personality study (1965) or with Vincent Cronin's tighter, crisper, slightly stuffy 1978 rendition. (Kirkus Reviews)show more