'The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy,' reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 30, 2010; C01


Translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter

Harper Perennial. 607 pp. Paperback, $16.99

So you think you have an unhappy marriage? On Oct. 8, 1862, just two weeks after she wed the 34-year-old novelist Leo Tolstoy, the former Sofia Behrs was writing in her diary: "The whole of my husband's past is so ghastly that I don't think I shall ever be able to accept it." Tolstoy had just let his sheltered, 18-year-old bride read his own youthful diaries, in which he described his gambling, drunkenness and debaucheries. A few days later, Sofia confesses that she doesn't make her husband happy and that his "coldness will soon be unbearable." By Nov. 23, she is talking of killing him. Later, she spoke frequently of killing herself and attempted to do so on at least two occasions.

On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:

"I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think -- and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable."

Whenever Sofia shows a little spirit or playfulness, Tolstoy finds her "stupid and irritating." She starts to copy his manuscripts for him -- she would go on to transcribe the manuscript of "War and Peace" over and over, parts of it seven times -- and there she does find a kind of peace: "As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions. Nothing touches me so deeply as his ideas, his genius."

At the same time, though, she is kept constantly pregnant, eventually bearing 13 children. Always, she yearns for something more. "I sometimes search my heart and ask myself what I really want. And to my horror, the answer is that I want gaiety, smart clothes and chatter. I want people to admire me and say how pretty I am, and I want him to see and hear them too; I long for him occasionally to emerge from his rapt inner existence that demands so much of him. . . . I hate people to tell me I am beautiful. I never believed them, and now it would be too late anyway -- what would be the point?"

She is, note, only in her late 20s. But already she is pathetically grateful for the least sign of tenderness: "He actually kissed me for the first time in days."

As the years go by, Tolstoy increasingly proclaims an austere, Christian-socialist ideal, eating a vegetarian diet and living as much as possible like a peasant. The novelist eventually takes to making his own shoes. Yet he still resides at his family home of Yasnaya Polyana and loads Sofia "with all the responsibilities for the children and their education, the finances, the estate, the housekeeping, indeed the entire material side of life."

Meanwhile, her life of drudgery continues:

"I am feeling ill, my back aches, my nose keeps bleeding, my front tooth is aching, and I am terrified of losing it, for a false one would be horrible. I copied Lyovochka's diary all morning, then tidied his clothes and underwear and cleaned his study until it was spotless; then I darned his socks, which he had mentioned were all in holes, and this kept me busy until dinner."

On one page of her husband's diaries, devoted copyist Sofia comes across this sentence: "There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion." She acidly comments: "I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him."

Still attractive despite continuously bearing and rearing children, in middle age Sofia starts to feel "persecuted by sinful thoughts." She spends hours playing the piano, constantly goes off for cooling swims, reads "dirty" books with titles like "Les Demi-vierges" ("The Half-Virgins"), and eventually finds herself passing as much time as possible in the "gentle happy presence" of a composer named Sergei Taneev. Naturally, Tolstoy grows violently jealous and threatens to kill himself. Convinced that she cannot live without Tolstoy, Sofia reluctantly gives up her friendship with the smitten composer.

Yet, as she poignantly remarks, "If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through."

By the late 1890s, Tolstoy has become a guru, attracting visitors and disciples, including the nefarious Vladimir Chertkov, who hates Sofia and manages to alienate the aging writer even further from his long-suffering wife. Meanwhile, the couple's sons have grown up to become wastrels, and their married daughters repeatedly miscarry. The deaths, illnesses and sorrows mount up. And Sofia -- who has taken to reading Seneca and Spinoza -- still yearns to live an authentic life:

"I am free to eat, sleep, be quiet and submit. But I am not free to think as I please, to love whom I choose, to come and go according to my own interests and intellectual pleasures."

People, nonetheless, keep pointing out that her husband is a genius: Aren't you grateful, a "worthless woman like you"? Sofia's dryly bitter comment could be echoed by many Washington wives with high-powered husbands:

"For a genius one has to create a peaceful, cheerful, comfortable home. A genius must be fed, washed and dressed, must have his works copied out innumerable times, must be loved and spared all cause for jealousy, so he can be calm. Then one must feed and educate the innumerable children fathered by this genius, whom he cannot be bothered to care for himself, as he has to commune with the Epictetuses, Socrateses and Buddhas, and aspire to be like them himself."

In 1910, just a month before the 82-year-old Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana on the trip that would lead to his death in a railway station far from his home, Sofia -- now in her late 60s -- celebrates her "name day," which is also the day that Tolstoy proposed to her. She asks herself: "What did he do to that eighteen-year-old Sonechka Behrs, who gave him her whole life, her love and her trust?" She sums up the 48 years of their life together: "He has tortured me with his coldness, his cruelty and his extreme egotism."

Beautifully translated and edited by Cathy Porter, "The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy" provides a harrowing portrait of a marriage. Tolstoy was clearly a fanatic as well as a genius, and Sofia was often half crazy from self-denial and the strains of living with such an intense man. Still, she never left him, and she lived on until 1919, safeguarding his memory and reputation. Her diaries, so rich in acute psychological awareness and observation, should be read for themselves, not just as a social document or biographical resource. They are infuriating, heartbreaking, unputdownable.

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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