LOVE AND HATRED
The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy
William L. Shirer
Given the Tolstoys' voluminous, unsparing, often shared, and ultimately rather deranged diaries, writing about this prizefight of a union is not much harder than simply showing up at ringside. Using the straight-line, calendar-like procedure of his famous Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer simply follows the count and countess through the rounds of their agonies. Shirer (who died last December) revisits Sonya's devotion as secretary (the woman copied her husband's manuscripts out by hand many times over during their composition -- a Herculean task); Leo's personal renunciation of one of the most fabulous gifts of talent in world art in favor of his own brand of obnoxious humility as a Christ figure; the ensuing acolytes; the jealous and largely ignored children; the comings and goings of fellow Russian writers and disciple-ish suck-ups; Sonya's pathetic attempt to snare the attentions of the epicene composer Tanayev and thus win for herself a little well-deserved appreciation. All that's here is complete enough -- less schlockily pitched than in Anne Edwards's Sonya (1981) but finally no deeper. A great man's marriage is of legitimate interest, but we need to have some sense of the greatness first. Shirer's stabs at lit crit are negligible ("Again, in the telling of that rough journey to purgatory," he writes apropos of Resurrection, "Tolstoy is wonderful in his descriptions. And he introduces some memorable characters..."), and even his historical references to the foment of Russian society churning around the Tolstoys, to which they certainly contributed, are bare, slack, and unshaped. A.N. Wilson's Tolstoy isn't challenged here by Shirer; it remains the best portrait of the man and the work and the marriage, the troika without any one part of which nothing seems to really move forward.