Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Yet I love him when he is kind and normal and full of human weakness," or, The Terrible Tolstoys

If you haven't seen it, you should check out the great article by James Meek in the July 22nd issue of the London Review of Books about the Tolstoy marriage and its end. Prompted by a handful of new books, including a new edition of Sofia Tolstoy's diaries that will be published here in the fall, the piece offers all the jaw-dropping craziness and mutual torment that we're used to encountering any time we look into that endlessly fascinating (and troubling) marriage:
There was happiness and love between the couple, particularly in the early years; despite his increasingly Talibanic public stance about even conjugal sex, they kept making love into old age. But from the beginning their marriage was punctuated by mutual jealousy, by fights by a sense that they were suffocating each other, by Sofya Andreyevna's fear that he was withholding both his mind and his heart from her, and that, if she withheld her mind and heart from him, he wouldn't care.

"If I could kill him and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily," she wrote a few months after they were married.
I'm not actually sure what Sofia means by that statement--unless that the act of murdering her husband would be pleasing if it could be undone--but its impossibility, following as it does here Meeks's succinct account of the basic, intractable problem of their marriage, seems emblematic.

And then there's the fundamental sadness--and crazy, curdled idealism--of the couples' mutually shared diaries:
Sofia Andreyevna’s voice as she writes about the Kreutzer episode indicates the evolution of her idea of her audience; that she might be addressing posterity, or her husband’s audience, as well as herself and her descendants. From the beginning, she was addressing Tolstoy. As a prelude to their marriage, Tolstoy asked if she kept a diary and, when she said she had kept one since she was 11, asked if he could read it. She refused, and let him read a short story she had written instead. In the week between his proposal and their wedding, he gave her his diaries to read. She read of his drinking, gambling and sexual adventures and of the child he’d fathered with a peasant woman. She was, she wrote later, ‘shattered’ by his ‘excess of honesty’.

So the idea was set in motion of the mutual reading of supposedly personal diaries, and at times the entries in the diaries of husband and wife reflect the fact that they are speaking to each other while pretending to have secret thoughts. As relations between the couple became stale and formal, Sofia Andreyevna valued free, exclusive and continuous access to Tolstoy’s diaries as a surrogate for the great man’s love and friendship.
Any ground would do for the site of a battle between the two, so I suppose had they not shared their diaries, they'd likely have found another way to score all the points and mount all the defenses contained therein. But what must it do to a relationship--to a self--to have to actively reconstruct and shape it retrospectively, day by day, as part of a never-ending offensive? To pretend to openness yet know, even as you deny it to yourself, that you're mounting an argument at least as much as you're recounting events?

Oh, 'tis a good thing the Tolstoys aren't with us in the age of the blog. Now that would get ugly, fast.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:00 PM

    She means that Tolstoy would have been a good man, if there had been someone there to shoot him every moment of his life.