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  • My Life by Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya
  • Myroslav Shkandrij (bio)
Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya. My Life. Edited by Andrew Donskov , translated by John Woodsworth and Arkadi Klioutchanski University of Ottawa Press. 2010. 1160. $89.95

Written over the first two decades of the twentieth century, this work covers the period 1844–1901. Surprisingly, the original was published in its entirety only recently. Now available in English translation, these writings by Tolstoy’s wife represent, as the editor notes, ‘the most important documentary source for Tolstoy scholarship to be published in many, many years.’ The text presents a challenge to the idealized image of Tolstoy held by his followers and to the ideological view of the writer held by Soviet authorities. This in large part explains the fact that only fragments of the work have appeared until recently.

Sofia (Sonia) was also Tolstoy’s assistant, adviser, and copyist; she often oversaw the publication of his works, meeting with the tsar at one point in order to request lifting of the ban on The Kreutzer Sonata, and corresponded with a wide range of prominent individuals. Readers encounter vignettes of repeat visitors, among them the writers Fet and Turgenev, the painters Ge and Repin, the publisher Stakhov, and the ‘Tolstoyan’ Chertkov. There are, of course, scores of brief encounters. This is a source book for what the family and entourage was reading and viewing (‘He read Hegel,’ Sofia writes, ‘but said of him that it was just an empty set of phrases’), how it entertained itself, what music it listened to, what art it appreciated, and what issues it discussed. The text contains reactions to the reception of Tolstoy’s works and reports of current events. There is extensive coverage, for example, of the work done to relieve the famine of 1891–92 and Tolstoy’s criticism of the government, which caused an international scandal. A significant amount of space is devoted to Tolstoy’s criticism of Russian jingoism, especially during the 1878–79 war with Turkey; his contempt for the Russian Orthodox Church which called for ‘trampling the enemy … underfoot’; his excommunication from this church (Sofia protested the secret church order not to bury the writer after his death); and the censoring and banning of his works. Most readers will be shocked by the repeated complaints of domestic strife. These cover Sofia’s struggle to maintain copyright of Tolstoy’s works as a source of income for her children and clashes over the division of the inheritance. However, rich material for feminist studies can be found in her numerous complaints concerning her own stifled creative and spiritual life and her revelations concerning her husband’s attitude toward women. ‘His reasonings about women,’ she writes, ‘were invariably derogatory.’ In another place she admits, ‘My soul was becoming literally exhausted in these efforts to [End Page 589] understand and please Lev Nikolaevich.’ Much of this is already known, but the presentation of the full text expands, contextualizes, and adds nuance to the available material. The editor’s introduction, for example, draws attention to Sofia’s prose and poetry, particularly to her story ‘Who is to blame?’ which was a response to The Kreutzer Sonata. He defines it as ‘a polemic less about the battle of the sexes and more about the nature of egoism.’

Of course, much of the material concerns family matters: births, deaths, accidents, illnesses, trips, moods. Although this ‘excessive’ detail has been cited as a reason for not publishing the text earlier, it is much more likely that this was due to comments that Tolstoy’s ‘self-adoration was showing itself everywhere,’ or about the fact that he was ‘deaf to people’s sufferings and yet would shed tears over a book, or music, or what people said aloud.’ Yet the demythologization is bracing; it expands our awareness of the complex internal life of the great writer. Sofia’s text will provide further stimulus for Tolstoy scholarship. Its rich real-life details provide material both for historians and literary scholars.

The book is well translated and splendidly edited. It contains a poetry appendix, 39 Russian poems cited by the author (some are her own), 110 illustrations, 4 pages of genealogical tables...


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pp. 589-590
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