Tolstoy's War with Love
by David Laskin
Leo Tolstoy waited until he was 34 years old to marry, but once he had settled on 17-year-old Sofia Behrs, "Sonya," as his bride, he saw that events moved very quickly. At his insistence, but a single week elapsed between his proposal and their wedding on September 23, 1862 -- and in the course of that week Tolstoy asked, really required, his fiancée toread the intimate diaries he had kept for much of his life.
Sonya, the middle daughter of the Tsar's court physician, had grown up in the sheltered, innocent circumstances typical of girls of her class and time, and she had scant knowledge of men, including the man she had agreed to marry, beyond mild flirtation and adolescent fantasy. But now, days before her wedding, she found herselfplunged into the sexual autobiography of a vigorous man in early middle age -- page after unsparing page recounting his initiation by a whore when he was 14, the string of impulsive, guilt-ridden erotic adventures with parlor maids, gypsies, and married women, the repeated bouts with venereal disease, and finally, and most recently, the deeply satisfying love affair with a peasant woman, with whom hehad fathered a son just a few months before proposing to Sonya.
"I don't think I ever recovered from the shock of reading the diaries when I was engaged to him," Sonya wrote nearly 30 years later. "I can still remember the agonizing pangs of jealousy, the horror of that first appalling experience of male depravity."
It's telling that Tolstoy inserted this incident practically intact intoLevin's courtship of Kitty in Anna Karenina, though in the novel he focused on Kitty's angelic ability to forgive her husband. In life, however, the diary incident set up an emotional dynamic that would ultimately destroy his and Sonya's happiness. Tolstoy, though he loved and desired Sonya, thought nothing of sacrificing her delicate feelings, indeed her peace of mind, to his need to enforce his owntruth. He wanted to confess his sins, whether his wife wanted to know them or not, and begin marriage in a state of absolute purity. It was neither the first nor the last time he would make an idol of his own truth in this way.
Sonya, on her side, felt bound to comply with her husband's wishes, though she could not suppress her outrage at what he asked of her. It's telling, too, that it wasTolstoy's writing that brought on this crisis. Throughout the marriage, Sonya was spellbound by the power of her husband's prose. She needed to read and to share in his literary creation, whether as first reader, secretary, model, or sounding board. As long as her husband included her in his literary endeavors, Sonya could stand any assault on her character or beliefs. In a sense they were partners inboth life and art, in an epic that encompassed joy, passionate attachment, and a harmonious division of labor, but also disappointment, bitterness, rage, and betrayal.
The violence did not surface at once. Indeed, the first years had a measure of stability, even bliss. The two of them worked closely on the creation of War and Peace between 1863 and 1869, Sonya patiently copying over each day'soutpouring of prose and reveling in Leo's genius. They read each other's diaries, and Sonya used her own diary to comment on and respond to her husband's. Their sex life was robust and fruitful, with 13 children born in the first 26 years of the marriage. But sex and child-rearing became part of the problem. Sonya was, from the first, dispassionate about the physical act of love, while Tolstoywas, in Nabokov's words, a sensualist with a "supersensitive conscience." He craved sexual pleasure, yet hated himself after every surrender to "temptation" and hated the woman who had tempted him. Sonya found Tolstoy's cycle of uncontrollable lust and revulsion more and more of a burden, especially as the inevitable result was yet another dreaded pregnancy. "With each new child," she wrote, "one...
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