Monday, 1 March 2010

'I am a woman'

The Diaries Of Sofia Tolstoy

translated by Cathy Porter

It isn't often that I write a 'review' of a book before I've finished it but after only just over a hundred pages of these diaries there was plenty I wanted to mention, enough to recommend the book, and it will surely be one I dip into, absorbing slowly, perhaps to return here another time with final thoughts. We all know what lies behind every great man but as new film The Last Station, starring Oscar nominee Helen Mirren, will probably show, Sofia Tolstoy was a woman not so much behind the great man as side by side and often, it might be said, toe to toe. Not only was she mother to 13 children with Count Leo Tolstoy (of whom 5 died in childbirth) but she also acted as his transcriber and assistant, copying out the almost indecipherable handwriting, a feat remarkable if only when you consider the sheer size of his works. Most people haven't managed to read War and Peace let alone copy it out multiple times.

The diaries are fascinating not only because Sofia was wife to the great 'genius' of Russian literature, nor just because she happened to live during one of the most tumultuous periods in Russian and indeed European history, but also as a testament to the position of women within that situation and those times. Before she married Sofia Behrs was an avid diarist, a habit she maintained throughout her marriage and right up until her death in 1919. Her journal was her refuge, her companion during the periods of intense loneliness during her marriage and the repository of her constantly shifting emotions. Using the word repository makes it sound as though her diary was a secret place but on her marriage, at her husband's insistence, each had handed over their diary to the other so that there would be no secrets. Sofia, as an innocent of good family and breeding of course had none, whereas Lev's diary was filled with vivid descriptions of his past liaisons and in particular his passionate love and lust for the peasant woman with whom he had already fathered a child. The impact on Sofia of these revelations was devastating and casts a long shadow over the opening entries and indeed over their marriage as a whole. At the very beginning she wishes she could 'burn his diary and the whole of his past', but as well as transcribing his work she went on to transcribe his diaries too. How cruel to have been forced to read of his debauchery and then to read it yet again in the name of his collected works. Almost 30 years later she realised that it was only her 'purity' that had saved the marriage in its infancy, only her 'childish ignorance that made it possible for us to be happy.'

Our modern conception of partnership usually includes plenty of time for a couple to enjoy each other before the onset of children but, as fit the time, Sofia was thrust into the role of mother almost immediately, something that came as a huge shock to her. This was felt particularly acutely when coupled with the loneliness she suffered. Tolstoy spent a vast amount of his time working in private or walking his estate, leaving Sofia to fulfil the role assigned to her (he later told her that she 'was the perfect wife for a writer, and that a wife should be "the nursemaid of her husband's talent"').

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.

When Sofia struggled to breastfeed and the issue of a wet-nurse was raised Tolstoy was aghast, forcing her to continue and endure horrible pain and discomfort. It seems that even within her own realm she wasn't given the freedom or autonomy she might expect from the Count's reach. Tolstoy manifests as an an intruder on Sofia's life in several ways. The diary is peppered with entries from the man himself, efforts at contrition coming after particularly explosive entries from Sofia, and each time one pops up you are reminded that he is reading the diary just as you are. This is amazing in part because of the high emotional tone Sofia often employs. Her diary isn't a place of calm reflection but a space on which she throws down her reeling emotions. Entries are often filed with deep despair or high-minded idealism, and sometimes both at the same time. When Tolstoy's wheedling apology is appended to an entry there is something of the abusive spouse who promises not to do it again, until the next time it happens. His sexual needs are made pretty clear as well, another way in which The Count exercises his prerogative.

Lyovochka is in an extraordinarily sweet, affectionate mood at the moment - for the usual reason, alas. If only people who read 'The Kreutzer Sonata' so reverently had an inkling of the voluptuous life he leads, and realized it was only this that made him happy and good-natured, then they would cast this deity from the pedestal where they have placed him! Yet I love him when he is kind and normal and full of human weaknesses. One shouldn't be an animal, but nor should one preach virtues one doesn't have.

A year before writing this Sofia had been copying his diaries when she came across an entry where he opined that "There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion." This reduction of her circumstance stopped Sofia in her tracks. "I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him."

The Kreutzer Sonata has a fascinating part to play. It appears first as the piece of music after which it is named, played within the household by her son Sergei, and in Sofia's words a piece that 'expresses every conceivable human emotion.' The novella then looms into view, an embarrassment first of all for Sofia who worries that people will read it and assume it relates to their own marriage. The number of people who could read it was immediately limited by its being banned, leading to the rather extraordinary situation of Sofia petitioning the Tsar himself to have the ban lifted and the novella included in the latest volume of collected works which she was compiling. To gain a personal audience with the sovereign in order to further the cause of a book which had caused her to write an entry like the one below is just another example of the way in which Sofia subjugated herself to the genius of her husband.

I am still ill; I have a stomach ache and a temperature. I have observed a connecting thread between Lyovochka's old diaries and his Kreutzer Sonata. I am a buzzing fly entangled in this web, sucked of its blood by the spider.

Tolstoy passed on the responsibility of literary executor to Sofia and indeed many other matters of his estate. This lead to the difficulties of warring offspring looking to secure the best property to inherit and the titanic battle that would develop with Tolstoy's chief acolyte Chertkov who has already appeared in the section I have read, leader of the 'dark ones' with whom Sofia will have to contend with for her husband's attention. I believe the real drama has yet to come, but as I said earlier, there has already been more than enough to talk about. What an extraordinary life.


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