Bad Feeling

Gabriele Annan

  • Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy by Anne Edwards
    Hodder, 512 pp, £8.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 340 25002 X

Death at Astopovo, like death at Mayerling, has become part of Western mythology. People like to imagine the scene and to hear the story that led up to it over and over again. Kenneth MacMillan began his ballet Mayerling with a prologue tableau of the end: black figures with umbrellas stand and watch the snow falling into Maria Vetsera’s open grave. The snow falls at Astopovo too, where Anne Edwards sets her prologue and shows us Countess Tolstoy outside the stationmaster’s hut, trying to catch a glimpse of her dying husband through the curtained windows.

Astopovo is probably better documented than Mayerling, a secret trysting-place where afterwards everyone strove to hush up what had happened. Tolstoy was a world celebrity. The year before his death the crowds had pressed so close around him when he was trying to catch a train at Moscow station that he fainted. At the God-forsaken little junction of Astopovo, the world press was assembled with its cameras clicking, even (the year was 1910) with its newsreel cameras whirring. When his wife arrived, ‘reporters tugged at her arms, and to the family’s horror, the distraught and confused Sonya talked to them. As she became more agitated, she broke away from her “keepers” and marched to the stationmaster’s hut, only to be denied entrance by Sasha [her daughter Alexandra]. Finding her position unbearably humiliating, she begged Sasha to allow her to go into the small entryway of the hut, thus making it appear to the cameramen who were filming her that she was visiting her husband.’ He was unconscious now, but had not wanted to see her. Astopovo is an early example of the press at its most repulsive.

Another reason the events there are so well documented is that ‘everyone close to Tolstoy ... kept a diary.’ His 18-year-old bride was already keeping one when he married her. By the time he was famous, the disciples who surrounded him all took down everything he did and said. Dr Makovitsky, a particularly assiduous member of the circle, even taught himself to write blind with a tiny pencil on a tiny pad inside his pocket: it enabled him to take notes during meals without anyone (except the watchful Sasha) observing him. After Tolstoy was dead they all published their diaries and his letters to them, they wrote their reminiscences and some wrote biographies of Tolstoy as well. And many biographies have been written since. Anne Edwards has read a great deal of all this, but her bibliography omits books which would have seemed obvious choices: it does not include Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, for instance, nor John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel. Though not biographical, they might have been useful: after all, everyone already knows that Sonya and her sister Tanya were the joint models for Natasha in War and Peace. On the other hand, Ms Edwards has read In the Russian Style by Jacqueline Onassis, and a life of Nijinsky.

She reminds me of the kind of clockwork mouse that rushes about on a table and turns automatically when it gets to the edge: it covers every millimetre of its ground, but knows perfectly well that it could not cope with what lies beyond. When she is forced to bring in historical events, such as the Russo-Japanese War or Bloody Sunday, she makes a gingerly stab at recounting a few basic facts in a manner suitable to a children’s encyclopedia: ‘With the famine ended, Russia was enjoying an industrial boom.’

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