The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Sofia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter, foreword by Doris Lessing
The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

James Meek writes:

As a prelude to their marriage, Tolstoy asked Sofia Andreyevna 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. The crisis of 1910 was fundamentally about the struggle for control of his diaries between her, on one side, and Tolstoy, Chertkov and Sasha on the other. At one point, as a compromise, they were deposited in a bank vault in Tula. Sofia Andreyevna went out of her mind in 1910 not because she had lost her mind but because she thought she was losing her husband’s.

The new edition of Sofia Andreyevna’s diaries, brought out to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, is gripping to read, but it does provoke a question: if there are duelling diarists, if one spouse’s diary entry plays off or contradicts or enlarges on the other’s, surely the book we want is one that puts both Tolstoys’ records of events side by side?

(LRB 22 July 2010)

Published by Alma Books Ltd
04 February 2010
ISBN: 9781846881022