Today I picked up The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy in their new translation by Cathy Porter, and nearly dislocated my wrist. The book weighs in at slightly over 600 pages. How those Czarist gentry could write! Just think how many tweets it would take to amass that number of pages!
I learn from dipping into Porter’s comprehensive and enticing introduction that while bearing over a dozen children, managing a large estate, reacting to tumultuous national events, cosseting her tempermental husband and endlessly making fair copies of his scribbles, the wife of famed author Leo Tolstoy also managed to write over half a million intimate, spiritual, mundane, ecstatic, despairing words of her own, from the year 1862 until her death in 1919. How, I wonder, can I possibly encompass all this matter in a short review?
I ponder if I can instead possibly substitute a viewing of The Last Station, the film from 2009 about the final years of Tolstoy. Or perhaps Helen Mirren, who played Sofia Tolstoy, has recorded the Diaries as an audiobook.
I go on the internet and look at pictures of the beautiful Helen Mirren for a while. Then I wiki up the entry for Sofia Tolstoy, and discover that she actually looked like Mama in the Katzenjammer Kids. Damn your fetishization of glamour, Hollywood! I next link over to Leo’s entry, and am startled to see a color photograph of the dour Russian. This highlights the oddly disturbing reality that while we tend to think of the Tolstoys as purely nineteenth-century creatures, they both lived into the twentieth century, Sofia outlasting her famous husband by nine years.
All of this indecisive yet hectic activity has left me ennervated and wan, and I retire to my fainting couch.
I spent all day yesterday confirming that Mirren has not produced an audiobook of the Diaries, and playing various Flash games online, so I must now perforce dive into the printed pages before me, if I am to meet my deadline.
I find the Foreword by Doris Lessing to be inspirational. Lessing reports that reading the Diaries stimulated her to conduct imaginary conversations with Sofia. If I can only instantly get on the same astral wavelength, I can ask Sofia for a précis of her marital-maternal journals.
But no such luck. So I turn to the first entries, made when Sofia was a twenty-two-year-old new bride. Amazed, I discover how fluid Porter’s translation is. But more significantly, I become astonished by the depth and maturity and insights of this young woman. What average twenty-two-year-old today could harbor such complex sentiments as this, or, feeling so, transcribe her emotions with such elegant syntax? “He cannot understand that his past is another world to me, with thousands of different feelings, good and bad, which can never belong to me, just as his youth, squandered on God knows what or whom, can never be mine either.”
Soon, I am racing through the years, each one of which is prefaced by some useful historical context from Porter.
I have been lost for who knows how many days amidst the myriad homely and exotic scenes conjured up by Sofia’s vivid prose. It is not as if I have been watching a movie unfurl, but rather as if I have been witnessing a rapid succession of gorgeous paintings by some Impressionistic or naturalistic Russian artist of the period. Children playing croquet at twilight. Various sickbeds. Passing judgment on peasants who cut down birch trees. Sofia bravely pleading with the Tsar to remove the ban on The Kreutzer Sonata. The colorful imagery constitutes a river of life, bearing the reader along.
What I take away from all this is confirmation of Porter’s capsule description of Sofia Tolstoy as “a complex woman, a human dynamo with an iron constitution and a poetic soul.” More generally, I marvel at certain lessons from Sofia’s life: how the things we most fear seldom come to pass in the exact forms we imagine; how convoluted love and passion are; how we tend endlessly to rehash the same obsessions without closure; and how one’s life amounts to a big mosaic composed of each day’s smallest elements.
Sofia’s words are ringing in my ears: “Today I was thinking that nine tenths of all that happens in this world is caused by love, in all its various aspects, yet people are always anxious to conceal this, since otherwise all their most private emotions, thoughts and passions would be revealed: it would be like appearing naked in public.”
I have grown my beard down to my chest, donned a long white peasant’s smock, coarse breeches and muddy boots, and am bound for a cold and lonely waiting room somewhere on Amtrak’s Eastern Corridor.
–PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.