Sunday, February 20, 2011

When Vampires Slept

In the July 22, 2010 issue of The London Review of Books, James Meek analyzed a bevy of Tolstoy books, including William Nickell's The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (as translated by Cathy Porter), Leo Tolstoy's A Confession (as translated by Anthony Briggs), and Anniversary Essays on Tolstoy (as edited by Donna Tussing Orwin). According to Meek, Sofia married a significantly older Tolstoy at the tender age of eighteen, and then proceeded to have thirteen children with her famous husband, although five of them would never see age eleven.

Sofia was an intelligent woman who loved her husband, hand copied his many manuscripts, and may even have helped to edit them. Sofia was charged with running a complex household and acting as Tolstoy's business manager. Toward the end of her marriage with Tolstoy, Sofia became increasingly jealous and tormented by her husband's ethical precepts, religious admirers, and business partners. Sofia was a difficult woman to be around at the end of Tolstoy's life. She lied about taking an overdose of opium, said she couldn't go for a swim because she might drown herself, asserted that her husband was having a homosexual relationship with Chertkov, his protégée, lay down in the middle of the road to court death or at least draw attention to herself, went on freezing stakeouts to secretly monitor her husband's behavior, and nearly went catatonic.

At his death, Tolstoy was an international superstar, "as if Picasso at the height of his artistic fame had mutated into Gandhi and retained artistic talent and fame." On the other hand, James Meek seems to accept the view of some of Tolstoy's critics, that he was a "second-rate moral philosopher" who was "reinventing the philosophy wheel" with his endless tracts, treatises and novellas dealing with religious and philosophical matters. If the Kruetzer Sonata's long-winded sermonizing is any indication of the quality of Tolstoy's philosophical work, Meek has a point.

On the other hand, as Meek confesses, Tolstoy did very important work in helping a persecuted sect, providing famine relief, opposing the death penalty, and so on. And this Tolstoy's death, some important part of Russia--perhaps the best part--also died. Meek quotes Blok who wrote: "While Tolstoy is alive, and gong along the furrows behind a plough, behind his white horse. the morning is fresh and dewy, nonthreatening, the vampires sleep, and -- thank god."

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