The Virginian-Pilot
                            THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT  
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, August 21, 1994                TAG: 9408230630
TYPE: Book Review
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   81 lines



The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy


Simon & Schuster. 400 pp. $25.

William L. Shirer, celebrated author of the Book-of-the-Month Club's all-time best seller, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, credits his wife's decisiveness and care and his young cardiologist's wisdom and boldness for enabling him to survive the three years it took to finish his last book, Love and Hatred. Shirer died in 1993 shortly after finishing this work about the troubled marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy.

Scholars have researched novelist and social theorist Tolstoy's life in minute detail. Diaries and letters have been examined, quoted and published in numerous volumes. In the first chapter of his book, Leo Tolstoy, George Washington University Professor William W. Rowe includes every twist and turn of the stormy marriage. But no writer has delved into the woeful relationship to the extent that Shirer scrutinizes it.

Before the wedding Tolstoy insisted that his betrothed read his diaries. Shocked by revelations of Tolstoy's gambling, drinking and wenching, Sonya was devastated when she learned that Tolstoy had an illegitimate son with a peasant woman who served at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Sonya would become mistress. Extracting intimate diary entries and letters, Shirer documents details of love, hatred, despair and suicide threats. The caustic relationship between Leo and Sonya continued through the tragic loss of two sons, famine, war, revolution and finally to the frantic flight of Tolstoy from Sonya and his death in Astapovo in 1910.

Caught up in the marital combat, Shirer seems to have missed the point that Tolstoy could not have had a successful marriage with any woman. His personal appearance and behavior lacked charm. He was toothless, unwashed, smelly and on at least one occasion had venereal disease. He viewed women as inferior beings, writing, ``. . . So to regard women as what they are - weaker creatures spiritually, is not cruelty to women; to regard them as equals is cruelty.''

Sonya had the burden of copying her husband's almost illegible scrawls into her meticulous handwriting. She copied War and Peace seven times. Shirer calculates, ``Since it runs to 1,453 printed pages in my edition that means that her fair copy came to at least 3,000 manuscript pages. So she must have written down in her own careful handwriting 21,000 pages.'' (Actually, Sonya's burden was much greater than Shirer envisions. Like most English translations, Shirer's edition is well shy of the Russian original. My Russian-language edition of War and Peace contains 1,544 pages; an equivalent English version would have more than 2,000 pages.)

Well aware of Tolstoy's view of women as sex objects, Sonya changed or deleted his written words. Oxford Professor John Bayley relates in his Modern Critical Views that the Countess changed Tolstoy's original description of Helene in War and Peace, to wit: . . . ``a beautiful piece of meat in a skirt.'' It was not unusual for Sonya to tone down Tolstoy's words. Hugh McLean points out in The Shade of the Giant that Sonya changed ``breasts'' to ``bosom'' in Anna Karenina.

Sonya's patience with Tolstoy was exhausted when he renounced worldly goods and gave up writing novels to live a peasant life. She lamented his preaching of the glories of poverty and abstinence while he continued to live in luxury and ``made his wife bear one child after another,'' 13 children in all. The rift was widened when Tolstoy met Vladimir Chertkov, a shrewd spiritual disciple, who became Sonya's rival for Tolstoy's attention, confidence and copyrights of his works.

Although other authors have examined every angle of the Tolstoys' torture and agony, the many diary excerpts in this book provide a better means for understanding the depth of despair suffered by both Leo and Sonya. The long drawn-out saga dwarfs the misery in any contemporary soap opera. MEMO: John A. Fahey is an associate professor emeritus of foreign languages

and literatures at Old Dominion University. ILLUSTRATION: Photo

Sonya and Leo Tolstoy on their 48th anniversary in September 1910.

by CNB