TOLSTOY'S DIARIES. Edited and translated by R.F. Christian. Scribners. Two vols. 755 pp. $60.
HE WAS an aristocrat both by birth and by temperament, part of a rigidly stratified society, but he mowed his own fields in a peasant blouse and homemade boots. He spent his youth on drink, gambling, and prostitutes but expected his sons to lead lives of total abstinence. He swore there was no "woman question," only the question of equality for all human beings, but almost daily cursed the female sex's inability to reason logically or to form an original thought. He asked to be left alone, but collected around himself a rag-tag crowd of the most obsequious hangers-on.
The "simple life" may have been what he dreamed of, but Lev Tolstoy was never a simple man; not even he would have tried to claim that. And nowhere are the complications of his personality more evident than in his diaries -- 63 years' worth, dating from his university days to his death in 1910.
As R.F. Christian points out in his introduction, the sheer volume of the diaries makes it unlikely that they'll ever be completely translated. Instead, Professor Christian has chosen excerpts -- which either relate to Tolstoy the writer or give the fullest picture of Tolstoy the man. He was particularly careful, he says, to retain "entries which present Tolstoy in a less than favourable light and which for that reason are sometimes conveniently overlooked."
Well! After reading these two dense, chunky volumes, I wonder if there's any side of Tolstoy that isn't "less than favourable." Professor Christian can't be held to blame for this (he reveals his subject in a wide variety of moods and life stages), but the fact is that Tolstoy emerges from his diaries as self-centered, priggish, and unlikeable.
At our first glimpse of him -- when he's undergoing treatment for gonorrhea -- he's pontificating about "corruption of the soul" and offering us advice on how to "educate your reason." Or maybe it's only himself that he's advising; he is inordinately fond of issuing himself various rules and instructions, whether for getting through the day or for getting through an entire life. In some very young men this can seem charming, if slightly comic, but in Tolstoy it's irritating. Even the sins he confesses are irritating: "Received my gymnastics teacher over-familiarly . . . " and "made a bad exit from the Koloshins' drawing-room . . . "
A central issue for Tolstoy the man was his marriage, which was either happy but tension-fraught, if you look at it one way, or a disaster if you look at it another way. Certainly Sofia Tolstoy has been viewed as a drain on her husband's creative powers; and any student of Russian literature knows whom to fault for Tolstoy's death . (In desperation, after yet another hysterical domestic scene, he ran away from home on a winter's night and shortly afterward died of pneumonia.) But the publication last fall of Sofia's own voluminous notebooks -- The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter (Random House, $35) -- might give those students pause: Sofia, writing eloquently and persuasively, comes across as an affectionate, intelligent woman driven to distraction by her husband's self-contradictions.
How Tolstoy himself characterized his marriage, then, becomes more interesting. Armed with Sofia's diaries, we begin to read between the lines of Tolstoy's. We note the number of times he calls his wife mentally ill when in fact she's merely disagreeing with one of his principles; we catch the condescension in his supposedly sympathetic remarks. "How sorry I am for (Sofia) that she is never aware of her mistakes," he says, and "She cannot use reason to influence her feelings. With her, as with all women, feeling is paramnt. . . ." While it's probably true that Sofia's hysterics sent her husband to his death that winter night, you have to consider the years of provocation that led to those hysterics.
BUT IF Tolstoy the man lacks appeal, Tolstoy the writer is fascinating. His energy seems boundless; he is forever jotting down new plot ideas, working on several pieces at once and reading other writers as well. "Have I the talent to compare with our modern Russian writers? Decidedly not," he writes at age 24; but he seems singularly undampened by the thought. Here's a typical entry (made in 1857):
"Must write every day, without interruption: (1) The Hunting Ground, (2) Second half of Youth, (3)The Fugitive, (4)The Cossacks, (5)The Lost One, (6)A Woman's Story -- 'Nuts for the squirrel when it has no teeth.' She loves and feels she has the right to, just when she has too little left to give. (7).The comedy A Practical Person; a George Sand woman and a Hamlet of our times, a clamouring, sick protest against every thing; but lack of character."
The only disappointment is that while he was writing his most important books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he neglected his diaries. (As Professor Christian suggests, those two novels may have been, in a sense, surrogate diaries.) He has much more to say about his work in his youth and then again in his later years when, alas, he had turned largely to moral and political tracts.
And what of the actual style of the diaries? Could we guess, if we didn't already know, that this was one of the world's greatest writers? No, not really. His prose is clear and direct -- and very gracefully translated -- but not particularly striking, and he offers surprisingly few observations about real-life scenes and people. Every now and then, though, something will leap out at us -- a paragraph so fresh and pure and evocative that we remember who this is that's at work here. Listen to him, for instance, on the thought of his own death (which actually was some distance off yet, but Tolstoy spent the last 15 years of his life obsessively gauging the state of his health):
"Am I afraid of death ? No. But at the approach of death or the thought of it, I can't help experiencing the sort of trepidation that a traveller must experience as he approaches the place where his train drops down to the sea from an enormous height or who rises to an enormous height in a balloon. The traveller knows that nothing will happen to him, that it will only be the same as happens to millions of creatures, that he will only change his method of travel, but he can't help experiencing trepidation as he approaches the place."
A writer's diary, if it works as it ought to, should set us thinking of his real work; it should send us back to his books. Tolstoy's diaries do not accomplish that. Instead, they give rise to doubts about the value of writers' diaries in general, and to the question of how much attention we should pay to the artist's personal life. Every summer now for almost as long as I can remember, I have re-read Anna Karenina. I never fail to be astonished by Tolstoy's sensitivity to his heroine; there is something bending and giving, something almost fluid, in his treatment of her. Now that I know Tolstoy the man, will I be able to lose myself once again in Anna?