The Tolstoys' 48-year marriage was unhappy in its own way

August 14, 1994|By Judy Rose | Judy Rose,Knight-Ridder News Service

Leo Tolstoy is most quoted in America for one of the least accurate passages he wrote:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Poor Tolstoy never knew enough happy families to realize that happiness takes many forms. But he sure was an expert on misery.

For 48 years, Leo and Sonya Tolstoy lived one of the best-documented bad marriages in history. In the end, their anguish drove him to his death.

He was 82 when he snapped. Sick and exhausted, with early winter snows blowing, he sneaked off their estate during the night and spent the next few days fleeing his wife on an unheated, smoke-filled train.

Ten days after he left, Tolstoy died of pneumonia in a house in a tiny village alongside the railroad station. It was a strange and sad end for the man who was probably the world's most renowned writer at that time, who inspired Gandhi's nonviolence philosophy, and who was almost a saint to millions in his native Russia.

Until now, biographers treated Tolstoy's marriage as the great tragedy of his life. The source was Tolstoy's lifelong diaries, which criticized his wife pitilessly. Indeed, by the end of their lives, Sonya almost certainly was insane. She often ran out and threw herself in the snow or in a pond to die. Her family always dragged her back.

But now comes William Shirer with new information -- Sonya's diaries, recently translated from the Russian. It turns out Tolstoy was fully as miserable a human being as Sonya. Shirer, in fact, seems to be on her side, suggesting Tolstoy may have driven Sonya mad.

There's more than enough blame for both.

Before Sonya, Tolstoy was insufferable to an earlier fiance, Valerya. He wrote mean, bossy letters, telling her she was badly dressed and dumb. With Sonya, who was both intelligent and stylish, he was just as cruel.

He wrote letters to friends and long laments in his diary about her terrible faults. Then he had Sonya copy them over.

A few years into their marriage, he converted to the views that made many see him as a saint. He denounced luxury and wealth, put on the clothes of a peasant, and stopped bathing.

He began giving away the rights to his work, so his wife and children wouldn't have the income after he died. When Sonya protested, he ranted against her worldliness.

Yet he constantly dunned her for money and lived in leisure and luxury while she ran his estate, managed his publishing, raised 13 children and worked as his secretary.

He declared that the only good life is a chaste life -- "copulation is an abomination" -- yet to her great embarrassment, he made her pregnant 16 times.

Meanwhile, he demeaned her in his books, his diaries and in person.

Both found constant new reasons to declare themselves the most miserable human in the world because of something the other had done. Both wrote vile things in their diaries for the other to see. But off and on, until almost the end, both declared passionate love for each other.

This is the last of 14 books by William Shirer, best known for "The Berlin Diary" and "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." He died last year at 89, shortly after finishing it.

If one were going to read just one book on Tolstoy, it should be A. N. Wilson's 1988 "Tolstoy: A Biography," a highly readable and much more complete book. But Shirer's book adds much to the picture of this tormented couple.

Title: "Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy"

Author: William L. Shirer

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

-! Length, price: 400 pages, $25

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