Friday, September 24, 2010

The long war of the Tolstoys

The new volume of Sofia Tolstoy's diaries that I wrote about back in the summer has just been published here in the States, and the very first entry I saw when I opened the book at random gives a perfect sense of just how crazy the Tolstoys' lives were by the end. Here's the entry for August 31, 1909--which, I should warn you, is pretty horrible:
This morning we had a visit from a 30-year-old Romanian who had castrated himself at the age of 18 after reading The Kreutzer Sonata. He then took to working on his land--just 19 acres--and was terribly disillusioned today to see that Tolstoy writes one thing but lives in luxury. He questioned everyone, seeking an explanation of this contradiction. He was obviously very hurt, and said he wanted to cry, and kept repeating, "My God, my God! How can this be? What shall I tell them at home?" Then a rich deaf mute arrived from Kiev with his friend, a barber, especially to make Tolstoy's acquaintance. Goldenweiser came and played chess with L.N.
The Kreutzer Sonata, with its violent condemnation of marriage and conjugal love, was, as you might expect, a sore point with Sofia. She was embarrassed by the all-too-easily drawn conclusion that life with her had led Tolstoy to that renunciation--a conclusion that, while not inaccurate, certainly doesn't do justice to Tolstoy's own eager part in the long war of mutual cruelty that was their marriage.

And in her diaries, Sofia was writing at least as much for Lev, whom she knew would read them, as for herself, so it's no surprise to find her emphasizing the disillusion of the poor young Romanian. Yet even taking that into account, I'm astonished by how matter-of-fact she is about the man's self-mutilation. My god, he castrated himself because of something her husband had written--and her only real response is a sort of unsurprised snort at his disillusion? And then she just trucks along to an account of the next couple of visitors they had that day?

Here is where--as James Meek pointed out in his fascinating article about the diaries for the London Review of Books this summer--what you want is facing-page dual (and dueling) diaries. We see here what Sofia wanted us to see of this event, and, to some extent, how it affected her. But what about Lev? What is it like to have someone take a fairly unhinged rant of yours so brutally seriously? Surely even Lev, so self-confident and--when it helped him to be--so self-delusional, was shaken by that?

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