September 30, 2010

War and, well …


Sofia Tolstoy with her husband, Leo

Sofia Tolstoy with her husband, Leo

In a review for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda notes that the newly translated Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy “provides a harrowing portrait of a marriage … not to mention a harrowing portrait of one of history’s most esteemed writers, Leo Tolstoy. He is so cruel to her that, notes Dirda, within two weeks of their October 8, 1862 wedding she writes that his “coldness will soon be unbearable.” A few weeks later, “she is talking of killing him. Later, she spoke frequently of killing herself and attempted to do so on at least two occasions.”

It is, as Dirda shows through generous quotation, a heartbreaking story, where the author of Anna Karinnina calls her playful moods “stupid and irritating,” and her days are lonely and desperate:

“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.”

At one point, deep into their marriage, she reads a passage in his diary: “There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” She in turn notes in her own diary: “I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him.”

Or, as she also notes, “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.”

The amazing thing is she stayed married to him for 48 years, until his death at age 82, and she vigorously watched over his estate and reputation until her own death 9 years later.

Equally amazing: That a writer of Dirda’s rank uses the word “unputdownable” in his review.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.