Tolstoy was much preoccupied with questions of identity. His brutally penetrating intelligence, as well as the instinctive self-confidence of an aristocrat, were always running incredulously up against the fact of existence, and the certainty of non-existence. What and who was he at different moments of the day? One of his earliest attempts at writing is a history of 24 hours, a record of his various selves during that period. His early diaries have the same feel to them. This is not like the stream of consciousness, but something far more urgent, emotional and volatile. ‘My God! Where am I? Where am I going? And what am I now?’ That is almost exactly like Natasha’s exclamation at the death of Prince Andrew, which the translators weaken by paraphrase, finding its literalness too disconcerting. It should be: ‘Where is he and who is he now?’
Who is he now? Tolstoy’s sense of identity was so strong that it would obviously survive death. But because so strong it was also so fearful and so tormented – joyous too, but never taking itself for granted for a moment. Solipsism is an index of immortality. Tolstoy’s intellectual realisation that he was going to die, dramatised in A Confession but vividly present in the pages of his earliest diary, engaged all his life in the most literal of struggles with the conviction that nothing of the sort could possibly happen. It is the first of the paradoxes of his life and writing, and the one that underlies all the rest. The Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov, his most perceptive critic, dryly remarked that Tolstoy struggled against solipsism all his life, because he didn’t know what to do with ‘this impertinent thing’, but that eventually he gave in to it, as one does give in to the thing in one’s life that really matters. At the age of 29 he was already writing: ‘Thoughts of approaching death torment me. I look at myself in the mirror for days on end.’ The last entry in the diary, not long before pneumonia caused him to lose consciousness, runs: ‘Here is my plan. Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra. And all is for the good of others and above all for me.’
Above all for me. The magnificent obsession conjures into positive and nightmare being – as if it were the witch Babi-Yaga rushing through the forests in her hut on fowls’ legs – what is for most people the normal neutral background of life. Tolstoy’s sense of himself was so strong that it must be the most important thing in the world, to which he incessantly called everyone else’s attention. So strong, too, that it communicates itself to the rest of us. That ‘who is he now?’ underlies every word he wrote and every character he created. Stiva and Vronsky, and the mare Frou-Frou, and the horse Kholstomer in the short story, are possessed of the same inner life, that presence of interior being which Tolstoy can suggest like no other writer. So ‘who is he now?’ seems the one question worth asking when somebody dies. He must still have being, for nothing makes sense otherwise.
Tolstoy, aged 28, was travelling in Switzerland when he jotted in his habitual telegraphic manner the query about where he was and what he was. It is perhaps significant that he had just had an encounter, later described in his story ‘Lucerne’, with an itinerant singer whom he had invited into his hotel for a drink. The waiters sneered at the man and put the couple in a room by themselves, away from the hotel guests. Earlier, Tolstoy had been incensed by the fact that the public had listened to the singing, but then turned away without giving the performer any money. The singer himself proved to be ‘a commonplace, pathetic person’. But the incident shows how Tolstoy’s sense of himself, almost mystical later on that evening as he looked out of his hotel-room window on ‘darkness, broken clouds, and light’, was particularly responsive to encounters of this sort. Towards the end of Anna Karenina Levin has a similar encounter with a peasant, which suddenly reveals all that matters to him. Solipsism, unexpectedly, is both intensified by other people and intensely responsive to them. Tolstoy’s social instincts were always generous and immediate, but what mattered to the artist and writer was the encounter itself, and its effect on the ego. There are highly memorable ones in War and Peace: Prince Andrew on the retreat to Moscow, for example, meeting the two little girls in the garden who are stealing plums, and Pierre’s encounter with the party of Russian soldiers after the battle of Borodino.
His diaries have been well used by every biographer, but a proper English version has not appeared before, and Professor Christian has done an excellent job on this selection of them, as he did a few years ago on Tolstoy’s letters. The second volume, from 1895 to 1910, when the man has become an adjunct of the legend, is mostly rather boring except to Tolstoy addicts. The most striking thing, to the reader who is familiar with his life and works, but who now reads the diaries consecutively for the first time, is the way in which his ambition to be a great writer had always come first. Though biography gives the impression of him blundering around, and trying first this and then that, the diaries unobtrusively emphasise the overpowering will to be a great writer, a ‘general of literature’, and the efforts to write in all situations. They only really begin when Tolstoy goes as a cadet to the Caucasus in 1851. This was a sudden impulse – his elder brother Nikolai, who was already an officer in the Army, was returning there. All his life Tolstoy enjoyed making sudden decisions, like the one at the end of his life when he left home and died at Astapovo railway station, but the idea of going to the Caucasus was one that any other ambitious young Russian writer might have had. Since Pushkin and Lermontov it had been the prime place to seek romantic experience and copy.
The second impression the early diaries give one, apart from Tolstoy’s firm ambition to become famous through authorship, is how easy it was for him to lead the kind of life that made this possible. Dostoevsky, not the most unenvious genius in the world, used to complain that he would be able to write a real masterpiece if only he had the time and the resources that Tolstoy and Turgenev had. In fact, of course, Dostoevsky wrote best under great pressure – debt or prison or the firing-squad were challenges that brought his most characteristically brilliant responses – but he himself probably did not see matters in that light. Like him, and like Pushkin, the young Tolstoy gambled heavily and got into debt, actually having to sell the big house on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana after one crushing loss at cards in the Caucasus. But however often this occurred (‘16 April. Staro gladkovskaya ... Lost 100 silver roubles effortlessly to Sulimovsky’), it was not really a serious matter. Tolstoy got up in the morning full of remorse and doggedly proceeded with trying to write Childhood, or The Cossacks, or one of his brilliant stories of army life in the Caucasus.
In fact, his army routine was the most leisurely affair possible, consisting almost entirely in talking and trying to compose stories, shooting hares and pheasants, having affairs with Cossack girls, and getting treated for gonorrhoea at the local spa. Neither then nor later in the Crimea, at Sevastopol, did military duty interfere in any way with such things. Though he does not seem to have exploited his name and aristocratic rank, there is no doubt that a privileged position was tacitly allowed him by senior commanders. Everything conspired to help him become a writer. There is a parallel here with the military experience of his admirer and self-proclaimed rival, Hemingway, who spent less than a week at the Italian front as a Red Cross welfare officer, distributing oranges and chocolates. Having had the luck to be wounded by a shell at the end of that time, Hemingway subsequently invented for himself, and in his writings, a whole saga and mystique of heroic military service, the real facts only becoming known after his death.
Tolstoy’s service was not like that, for though the diarist often accuses himself of being a coward, he behaved bravely enough on the few occasions when he was in actual danger. Like Hemingway, though, he was both obsessed with the need for a macho image and at the same time privately disgusted with the need and the idea. War and Peace is far more frank and open about all this than Hemingway could ever be. Nonetheless, the resemblance goes further than the marked self-division in both writers, and the popularity of Hemingway – seen as a sort of disciple of Tolstoy – in Russia. Both men were quite unable to get on in the marriage relation, because – as Sofia Tolstoy was to write in her diary – ‘he doesn’t want me to have any life of my own.’ Hemingway’s wives made the same point, and no doubt it is and was a frequent complaint against husbands who have no claim to be great writers. Yet in all cases, even the most commonplace, it arises from the husband’s obsessive fear that his wife has seen through his child-like macho image, and is secretly mocking it. Hence the abuse and distrust of wives, and the desire that they should have no private or secret life of their own.
In her diary for 1898 Sofia Tolstoy recorded an evening in which her husband and his sister were reminiscing about their childhood:
It was such fun. Mashenka told us about the trip they had all made to Pirogovo when Lyovochka Tolstoy, then a boy of about fifteen, decided to run behind the carriage for the first five versts to impress everyone. The horses were trotting along but Lyovochka didn’t fall behind, and when they stopped the carriage he was gasping so heavily that Mashenka burst into tears.
Another time he wanted to impress some young ladies (they were staying in Kazan at the time, in the village of Panovo, their uncle Yushkov’s estate) and he threw himself fully clothed into the pond. But he couldn’t swim back to the bank, so he tried to touch the bottom, found he was out of his depth, and would have drowned if it hadn’t been for some peasant women haymaking in the fields nearby, who saved him with their rakes.
Yes, he always wants to impress and impress – he has been like that all his life. Well, he certainly has impressed the world, as no one else!
Rambling, full of vague detail and the teasing malice of its emphases, Sofia’s journal is very different in tone from that of her husband. For one thing, her voice can be heard, and its mixture of tones is quite subtle. She wants to take Leo down a peg, of course, and to show to herself and posterity what it is like living with this childish great man. She is possessive about him: but she is also full of the vitality which Tolstoy once so much admired in her and her sister Tanya, and portrayed in the character of Natasha in War and Peace. At such moments there is visible in her diary, though not in his, the cheerfulness that must have kept breaking in all the time. ‘It was such fun ... ’ Like many powerful men who need to ‘impress’, Tolstoy also needed to be laughed with, even – by a loving wife – to be laughed at. With his wife and sister, and in the bosom of his family, he probably entered with amusement even into stories of how he had been saved from drowning by the rakes of the women haymakers.
Being taken down a peg, openly or secretly, was probably the least of his matrimonial troubles. Sofia must have possessed from an early age all the latent intolerableness which is apt to go with great physical vitality. As her husband was to remark of certain sorts of powerful and sensational novel, you see the point and then you become bored. Sofia must rapidly have developed into the most formidable of all bores: not the monotonous sort who merely send you to sleep, but the kind who demand from their vis-à-vis an equal display of gratuitous energy. Like Natasha in War and Peace she had flashing self-regard without any corresponding powers of self-analysis; immense subjective drive without any objective talent. Indeed, perhaps the most cunning achievement of Tolstoy’s essentially cunning talent is to portray in War and Peace a wonderful heroine who seems to exemplify and gather to herself so much of the open space, power and joyous movement of the book, but who is really a monster.
Her monstrousness is just ripening into maturity as the book ends. Pierre her husband will receive the full force of it in that speculative future which stretches out at the end of many great novels, and War and Peace most of all. An additional irony is that Tolstoy toyed with the idea of making Pierre a Decembrist, who after the abortive liberals’ plot against the Tsar in St Petersburg would be sent into exile in Siberia. Many of the Decembrists’ wives voluntarily accompanied their husbands to Siberia, and heroically endured great hardships. Natasha would have been tailor-made for this role. Disaster and challenge would have brought out the very best in her. And the same sort of destiny would have done the same for Sofia Tolstoy. As it was, she had nothing to do but endure her husband, incessantly bear his children, copy his manuscripts till three in the morning, put up with his Christian principles and with the fact that in spite of them he always expected and got the best of everything for himself. Siberia would have been a more acceptable alternative.
The Christianity must have been the hardest to bear.
What sort of Christian life is this, I should like to know? He hasn’t a drop of love for his children, for me, or for anyone but himself. I may be a heathen, but I love the children, and unfortunately I still love him too, cold Christian that he is, and now my heart is torn in two with doubts: should I go to Moscow or not? How can I possibly please everyone? Because as God is my witness I am happy only when I am making others happy.
That is touching, and one believes every word of it. But it also has the involuntary humour sometimes displayed by those who have absolutely no sense of humour at all. Being made happy by Sofia can have been no easy task, and no wonder her children, as well as her husband, came to flinch from it. In the meantime ‘Lyovochka is being quiet and friendly at the moment – and extremely amorous.’ She notes that he has begun reading English novels, which is a sure sign that he will soon be starting to write a novel of his own. In 1891, at the age of 47, she is expressing what is in many ways a conventional Victorian view of herself and her sexual destiny. She longs for all that to be over and done with. ‘All my life I have dreamed sentimental dreams, aspired to a perfect union, a spiritual communion, not that. And now my life is over and most of the good in me is dead, at any rate my ideals are dead.’
Yet on the same morning she had felt differently.
Horribly dissatisfied with myself. Lyovochka woke me this morning with passionate kisses ... afterwards I picked up a French novel, Bourget’s Un Coeur de Femme, and read in bed till 11.30, something I normally never do. I have succumbed to the most unforgivable debauchery – and at my age too! I am so sad and ashamed of myself! I feel sinful and wretched, and can do nothing about it although I do try.
All that evidently still has its attractions. She was in a muddle, and the muddle, together with all her loves and fears, prejudices and passions, goes instantly into the diary.
Tolstoy was a good father when the children were young, but as they grew older only the daughters had any appeal for him. ‘My sons, of whom I seem to have about a hundred’, were ‘impossibly obtuse’, filled ‘for all time with impregnable self-satisfaction’. The diaries are continually noting self-satisfaction in others, with censoriousness but also sometimes with a kind of envy, as if the tormented genius who sought always to find out the Hedgehog’s secret, ‘the one big thing’, secretly knew that what he saw and rejected in others was indeed the proper and human way to get through life. His art knows it. War and Peace celebrates the rightness, indeed the necessity, of human self-satisfaction, as if Tolstoy knew that his own brand of dissatisfied egoism – a very different thing – was not likely to produce the harmonious outlines of a Russian idyll.
He identified the ‘stupidity’ of his children with that of the mother, which was natural enough, a ploy used by many parents in the marital struggle, though usually more good-naturedly. Tolstoy wanted to rub it in. One of his sons has ‘the same castrated mind that his mother has. If you too should ever read this, forgive me: it hurts me terribly.’ Probably the son Seryozha read it in time, but his mother was reading such things in her husband’s diary almost every day. At the same time there may have been some comfort and reassurance for her in the comically universal, Thurber-like nature of Tolstoy’s complaints and self-pity. Naturally his family ‘don’t see and don’t know my sufferings’. What wife hasn’t heard that her spouse is ‘depressed ... a worthless, pathetic, unnecessary creature’? What wife or husband doesn’t know that ‘I’m the only person who isn’t mad in a house full of mad people, run by mad people’?
Self-knowledge, difficult enough for anyone at any time, and especially for Tolstoy’s Lear-like genius, was made impossible for both of them by the war between the Diaries. While Tolstoy was presenting himself as a suffering martyr, his wife noted how everything in the house was done for his benefit, how he, who had run a school at Yasnaya Polyana in order to ‘impress’ people, would not take the slightest interest in his own children’s education. It is significant, too, that Tolstoy’s novels, multitudinously true and perceptive as they are about the nature of family life, contain no real hint of what was going on; just as his early stories of the Childhood sequence never contained the sort of facts about himself which his sister remembered and shared with his wife. Honesty with each other, parodied by the ritual of reading each other’s diaries, and by Tolstoy’s insistence that his young fiancée should know all about his early sexual adventures, made it all the more impossible for them to be honest with themselves, was a kind of substitute for such self-knowledge.
So indeed was the kind of honesty which Tolstoy could always deploy in his writing. As with D.H. Lawrence, everything that went in was true but a good deal was left out. Both can only appear to their own advantage in their autobiographical novels, however much a Pierre or a Levin is presented as comical, a Paul Morel or Rupert Birkin as priggish. Both were deeply inspired and supported by their wives, yet if he had lived long enough Lawrence might well have left Frieda, as Tolstoy left his Sofia. The last ingratitude is the need to leave the person who has helped you become what you are. Lawrence at least had the good fortune and the intelligence to be genuinely classless: he never had to struggle, as Tolstoy did, with the clutches of a way of life which would not give him up, and which he could only defy in himself and his family by the absurdest of gestures, like cobbling his own boots, which he did very badly. Lawrence, for all his frailty, was physically a far more efficient person, for whom it was natural to do all the chores.
Mowed. Stitched boots. Can’t remember what I did. The girls love me. Masha clings to me. Letter from Chertkov and an officer.
Like so much in both diaries that sort of entry is touchingly commonplace. Everyone ‘forgets what I did’, and wants wives and daughters to love them. Happiness in families is all the same, as stated in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina, but the unhappiness of the Tolstoys certainly had some rather special features. There was Chertkov for one thing, an insinuating aristocrat and former guards officer who had seen the light and become one of Tolstoy’s most dedicated disciples. Sofia couldn’t stand him and in this her instinct was surely right: he was a home-breaker of the most disagreeably high-minded kind. Sofia even goes so far as to suggest in her diary that there is between him and her husband a homosexual attachment. Here she was clearly wrong, but pardonably so when one considers that she was dealing with a man who was trying to get all the family assets, copyrights and literary properties into his own hands. He haunts the pages of her diary before her husband left home to die.
In the early entries, when he was stationed in the Caucasus, Tolstoy is predictably frank about his sexual feelings, about both men and women. Lust he regarded as an illness, attendant on seeing a desirable woman, and to be got rid of as soon as possible by having her. Disgust of course afterwards. ‘I have never been in love with women,’ he remarks at that stage. He finds it embarrassing to look at men he is – or has been – in love with, as with a company commander whom he regards as a good solid homely type, backbone of the Russian Army. But in general he believes he has fallen in love with men for some sort of excitement or delicious fear, ‘the fear of offending or not pleasing the object of one’s love’.
I fell in love with men before I had any idea of the possibility of pederasty, but even when I knew about it the idea of the possibility of coitus never occurred to me. A strange case of inexplicable sympathy was Gautier. Although I had absolutely no relations with him except for buying books I used to be thrown into a fever when he entered the room. My love for Islavin spoilt the whole eight months of my life in Petersburg for me. Although not consciously, I never bothered about anything else except how to please him ... I always loved the sort of people who were cool towards me, and only took me for what I was worth ... There is the case of Dyakov ... I shall never forget the night when we were travelling from Pirogovo, and, wrapped up under a travelling rug, I wanted to kiss him and cry. There was sensuality in that feeling, but why it took that course it’s impossible to decide, because, as I said, my imagination never painted any lubricious pictures; on the contrary, I have a terrible aversion to all that.
This is straightforward enough. Shakespeare and Stendhal probably had the same sort of feelings, and Tolstoy had them on the same scale as he had everything else. But it is easy to see why his wife hated Chertkov so much. Nothing could be more infuriating than a man like that whom your husband was always trying to please, though he never made an effort to please you. No doubt with Chertkov, a guardsman and aristocrat with whose upbringing he felt in deep if unconscious accord, Tolstoy may have experienced in some way ‘the fear of offending or not pleasing the object of one’s love’. Even though Chertkov was his disciple, Tolstoy saw in him an idealised version of himself, free from his own humiliating family entanglements.
It is an odd paradox that Tolstoy’s novels seem so ‘English’ – as he wanted them to be – but his family life and temperament were as ‘Russian’ as could be: mad, grotesque, touching, funny as anything in Dostoevsky. Boring too. You see the point and it begins to bore you. Unlike her husband, Sofia was a bore in herself, but her diaries are more vivacious than his, more zestful and surprising. Part of the pleasure is to see her getting her own back while at the same time cosseting her husband, who was that not unfamiliar type, a red-blooded hypochondriac. Both were also masochists on a truly Dostoevskian scale, and Sofia seems to have enjoyed nothing more than copying out her husband’s diaries. ‘There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion. I only wish I had read that remark 29 years ago, then I would never have married him.’ (Tolstoy, one notes, rejected romantic ‘love’ as emphatically as D.H. Lawrence was to do, as something fit only for women.)
Self-admiration runs through all his diaries. It is strikingly obvious that people exist for him only if they directly concern him ... He would like to destroy his old diaries, as he wants to appear before his children and the public as a patriarchal figure. Still the same old vanity!
Copying the diaries was no doubt a way of preserving her spouse’s feet of clay for posterity. It grieved her terribly when he shouted at her, as he did most days, that he must leave this ‘hell’: and yet few days passed without a reconciliation, tears, kisses, and hugs of love. Like many marital opponents, they needed each other in spite of everything, and it is likely that the final departure would only have been temporary if Tolstoy had survived. After his death Sofia’s writing loses its zest and becomes exculpatory and tedious. Cathy Porter has done an excellent translation of the complete diaries, adding as appendices Sofia’s notes on her girlhood and the early part of her marriage. Detailed family trees enhance the quality of the book’s production.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.