The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

reviewed by Michael Dirda

(Courtesy Of Harper – Courtesy Of Harper)

THE DIARIES OF SOFIA TOLSTOY

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."

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