Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters, by Andrew Donskov (editor) and John Woodsworth, Arkadi Klioutchanski and Liudmilla Gladkova (translators), University of Ottawa Press, 700 pp, 54.95 CAD, ISBN: 978-0776624716
In March 1947, George Orwell wrote in his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” that when Tolstoy wrote his infamous pamphlet on Shakespeare ‑ according to Tolstoy, Shakespeare’s “glory” is a result of mass hypnosis and the Bard not even “an average author” ‑ he criticised King Lear because it stung him the most, that fable about an old man giving away his property and possessions and the family strife which ensued. Tolstoy, in the last part of his life, chose the Kingdom of Heaven over earthly life, and this decision, according to Orwell, was morally wrong.
Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. . . . Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next.
If Sofia Tolstoy had been able to read that line about the Christian choice being “self-interested and hedonistic” she might have nodded her head vigorously, adding, perhaps, that it was her husband’s individual version of Christianity which was self-interested and hedonistic, not her Orthodox one.
Orwell thought King Lear riled Tolstoy because it reflected his own life back to him. This was true at the end of his life but not the beginning. After a pampered, though orphaned, childhood, and, typical for the time and place, a profligate young adulthood–which included many brothel visits, bouts of venereal disease, drinking and gambling binges, hanging out with gypsies, and combat in Sevastopol and the Caucasus mountains of Chechnya ‑ Tolstoy longed to be married and raise a family. But it took him a long time to finally do so.
Tolstoy scholar Richard F. Gustafson, in his book Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger, wrote that he oscillated between the profligate life ‑ the mirror of this being the religious life ‑ and stable family life, because he was both Stranger and Resident. Tolstoy the Resident wants to live in Yasnaya Polyana, write great works of art, take care of his estate, love his family; he belongs. But Tolstoy the Stranger, alienated from family and society, wants solitude, to serve either pleasure, as when he was young, or God, when he is older. This tug of war, Gustafson says, began in childhood: the child Lev Tolstoy belonged to a loving family and was pampered by his aunts, but he was also an orphan. This explains why it took him so long to decide to marry and who he was to marry. After a few anguished relationships, especially one with a neighbourhood sweetheart whom he lectured on manners and intellectual matters ‑ he was at times an insufferable boor, what Orwell calls a “spiritual bully” ‑ he settled on the middle daughter of the Behrs family, one he had known all his life.
At first Lev and Sofia’s life, though not without occasional arguments and indeed fierce fights, deaths of children (the letters give us a strong idea of how often people suffered from poor health and how fearful they were of falling ill) and problems with peasants, was in general idyllic. Idyllic enough for Tolstoy to write his two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, both of which benefited from much help from Sofia, who copied his indecipherable manuscripts into clean ones. It is said she copied out War and Peace seven times, which makes for at least seven thousand pages. She also helped him, Donskov notes, with the details of women’s dress for his domestic scenes. And, even though he seems to me to be a master of psychology of both sexes, Sofia’s help undoubtedly enriched his portrayal of women, at least in these two books.
The first part of Tolstoy and Tolstaya includes the letters Sofia and Lev wrote to each other between 1862 and 1879, when they were settled into the Tolstoy estate, Yasnaya Polyana, “Bright Glade”. Many of the letters describe daily events, what the family did, how the children are doing, how they miss one another, but often they also discuss the writing Lev was engaged in. Often the letters were delivered the next day by people in the family going in the direction of the letter or by coaches; in many respects their mail service was faster than ours. Family members and friends are always visiting one another. Everyone, as you read these letters, seems to be on the move, playing the piano, or going to a concert or a play.
Here is a passage from a letter from this period of Sofia to Lev:
For some time now I have been getting a tremendous uplift from your novel [War and Peace]. Just as soon as I sit down to transcribe, I am carried away into some kind of poetic world, and it even seems to me that it is not so much that your novel is good (of course it instinctively feels that way), but that I’m so smart. Please don’t laugh at me, but my head aches so much I can’t even lie because of it. Only I swear to God, I’m not lying at all, I’m trying so hard to express everything with accuracy.
Two days later, she writes:
What have you decided as regards our ‘shrine’ ‑ your novel? I’ve now started to think of it as your (meaning mine too) baby; and releasing these sheets of paper comprising your novel to Moscow is literally letting go of a child, and I’m fearful lest it come to any harm. I’ve really fallen in love with your creation. It’s doubtful I’ll love anything as much as this novel.
Lev has earlier mentioned to Sofia that his writing is to him what the children are to Sofia. One of the initial problems in their marriage was Tolstoy’s coolness toward his children, for he could not love them as Sofia did and this hurt her. Tolstoy could also be too honest, a quality arguably of greater utility in art than in life. In this first selection of letters, one hears a clinging in Sofia’s love for her husband that, aggravated by conflict, will eventually repel him while on his side there is a tendency to criticise and an imperious quality that grates. But their loving friendship ‑ as one can think of their marriage ‑ overcomes this through each forgiving and sharing with one another. Their love unites them and the fruit is their children and the stability that allows Tolstoy to write the world’s greatest novel. At the end of this section, however, one hears a premonition of trouble to come. After he wrote Anna Karenina, Tolstoy felt himself to be emotionally and spiritually exhausted. AN Wilson, in his biography of Tolstoy, wrote that his art had caught up with his life and now he had, in a sense, nowhere to go, no more life to write about. This is when he began to undergo a severe midlife crisis that took shape, not in riotous excess in the pleasures of the flesh (he had sowed more than his fair share of wild oats), but in a spiritual longing for ultimate meaning that gave him no rest and little peace.
Here is the passage from a letter he wrote to Sofia in 1878 that contains the premonition:
But don’t forget one thing: whether you decide to come or stay [Tolstoy is writing from a farm he bought in far-off Samara], and whether something happens outside our control, I shall never blame either one of us, even in my thoughts. It shall be God’s will in everything, except our foolish or good behaviour. Don’t get angry—the way you sometimes get upset when I mention God. I can’t stop myself from saying this, as it is the very basis of my thought. Hugs and kisses, my precious.
There is a footnote to this passage which reads, “SAT [Sofia] commented on this statement: ‘I got upset at his mention of God, since it completely shut out all earthly concerns.’”
That was the nub of the problem: Sofia was right in that Tolstoy’s version of Christianity, pacifist, rational, dedicated to manual labour and simplicity in all things, did “shut out all earthly concerns”. Here is how Donskov encapsulates matters in his introduction to the second part of the correspondence, 1880-1888:
. . . he [Lev] and Sofia were drifting more and more apart. Tolstoy could not forgive his wife for being unable and largely unwilling to follow him in what he perceived as his most serious and important moral and intellectual pursuit. For her part, Tolstaya [Sofia], now exhausted with frequent pregnancies and never-ending wifely and motherly duties, began experiencing nervous breakdowns and had neither the energy nor, indeed, the inclination to share her husband’s new ideas. She kept bemoaning his apparent unwillingness to fulfil a practical role as her attentive husband and the father of her children. Instead she found herself besieged by the complaints of a tormented genius and compelled to taking on additional duties of caring for his physical and spiritual well-being.
This emotional and spiritual divergence was exacerbated by Sofia’s understandable demand that they should rent a house in Moscow for the autumn and winter so that the children would have access to a good education and the family could have a less isolated life in the cold months. Lev gave in, but always resented it. He hated society life, which he had adored as a young man, and he worked better at Yasnaya Polyana. He visited the family in Moscow once in a while but stayed mostly in Yasnaya Polyana, where he emptied his own chamber pots and carried out manual labour, and read letters from Sofia telling him how harried and depressed she was in Moscow, but also that he should stay in the country where he was happy, although he was wasting his time playing peasant and writing religious tracts when his real gift was for art.
Reading the letters in this section, one senses that the couple might still have worked things out and avoided the final conflagration. They are still trying to reach out to the other; their positions have not hardened. Sofia will write about religion or agree to some change in the way things are handled at Yasnaya; at other times, Lev will come to Moscow, help with the family, be cheerful and sociable.
But the position is hardening. Here is Lev writing to Sofia:
For the past seven or eight years all our mutual conversations have ended after many heart-wrenching torments in one thing, at least from my point of view. I said that harmony and a love life between us cannot be realised until . . . you come to [the same conclusions] that I have come to, either through love for me, or through an instinct which is given to everyone . . . and will start walking together with me. I said “until you come to me” and not “until I come to you”, because that is impossible for me. Impossible because what you live by is the same that I have just been saved from—from a frightful horror which all but drove me to suicide.
He goes on to say Sofia can come to him. This letter was never sent but Sofia’s reflections on it later are included in a footnote:
I find it easier now to find an explanation for this difficult condition of Lev Nikolaevich’s. The convictions and fervour expressed in his preaching on the harmfulness of the city, money, luxury, science and art ‑ and his rejection of all this ‑ were so strong that living with family members who did share these negative thoughts had become simply unbearable for him. He wanted to break down mankind, but he couldn’t break down his own family.
Edmund Wilson wrote that Tolstoy had been a supreme womaniser, soldier and artist ‑ he had even wanted to be the physically strongest man in the world ‑ and the only thing left to him now was to be a saint, a sage. And Sofia had a point when she wrote to Lev about the travails of some of his followers, whom she called “the dark people”: “What a fine kettle of fish this is! Everyone calls everything as they see it, and everyone lives in line with: ‘Don’t go against my nature!’ ‑ This is a very sad state of affairs: the victims are always the same ‑ i.e. women and children.”
The last section in the collection covers the period 1889-1910. Lev and Sofia’s positions had hardened but they became close again while helping to set up soup kitchens in the famine-stricken countryside. Originally, a friend of Tolstoy’s had to beg him to help in this situation: Tolstoy thought that the only thing you could do was to try to live your own life with love, and charitable programmes really didn’t help anybody. This friend, however, was able to got him moving, and once he did, the writer was untiring, as were Sofia and the children, in raising money and organising relief. (VI Lenin, as Wilson points out, was also in the area of the famine at the time but did not help because he thought the more peasants that starved the sooner the Revolution would come.)
When the famine was over, however, the couple’s troubles returned. Tolstoy became very close to a disciple named Chertkov, a sort of Uriah Heep figure who battled with Sofia over Tolstoy’s diaries and manuscripts. And Sofia was infatuated for a number of years with a composer and pianist, Taneev, and insisted on going to as many rehearsals and concerts as she could as well as having him stay the summers at Yasnaya. Both husband and wife refused to cut ties with the outsiders. The children took sides, the daughters often with Lev, the sons with Sofia, and visitors noted there was not much joy in the family in these latter days. Lev gave away work for free behind Sofia’s back; Sofia tried to commit suicide twice, had hysterical fits and became paranoid.
Finally, one night after Tolstoy heard her “rummaging” around in his study, he decided to leave with the family doctor and a daughter. Soon, having taken ill on a train and developing pneumonia, he lay dying in the cottage of a train station manager. In old film footage you can see Sofia peering through the windows of the cottage trying to see her husband: his disciples would not let her in until he was about to die.
In his last letter to Sofia, Lev wrote:
And the [important] thing lies not in fulfilling any wish of mine, but rather in your equanimity, your calm and rational approach to life. And as long as those [qualities] are absent, life with you is unthinkable. To come back to you [now] when you are in such a state would mean for me an abdication of life.
Shortly before he left, she had written him a very telling letter: “ . . . you have been caressing me with one hand while showing me a knife with the other. This knife is a threat, and a very poignant one ‑ a threat to go back on your promise and to secretly leave me if I don’t change my ways.” She wrote to him in a letter that remained unsent: “Don’t be afraid of me: it would be better to die than to see the horror on your face upon my arrival . . . .”
Orwell wrote that Tolstoy chose the next world and that he, Orwell, chose this one. But perhaps this is a false. Perhaps you don’t have to give up one for the other but can opt for both/and rather than either/or. Gustafson called Tolstoy both a Resident and Stranger. The Resident wrote his early works, the Stranger the latter, though Tolstoy was always both. Sofia, in these terms, was a Resident through and through. Tolstoy’s attempt to turn her into a Stranger failed, for she could not choose between this world and the next; she chose both.
Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tiger’s Eye, The Aroostook Review and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, The Literary Review and The Rumpus, among others.