BOOK REVIEW / A couple unhappy in their own way: 'Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy' - William L Shirer: Aurum, 16.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE IDEA that celebrities are miserable is an important modern myth; it soothes our envy, and reminds us that greatness has feet of clay, that life ain't just a bowl of cherries, and so on. But the desperate marriage of the Tolstoys fails to conform to this formula. It has the correct ingredients - world genius in tragic heartbreak horror - but somehow the mixture is too rich, and too depressing.

Tolstoy married Sonya Behrs in 1862, and it was love and hate at first sight. After two weeks she wrote: 'I am terribly, terribly sad, and withdrawing further and further into myself. My husband is sad and ill and out of sorts and doesn't love me. I could never imagine it would be so terrible.' Their fight lasted half a century, and they were, to say the least, unhappy in their own way: they poured their reproachful grudges into diaries, and then read each other's work. Between endearments they became expert: each knew the short cuts to the freshest wounds. You're a neurotic and shallow mercenary, he would say. And you, she replied, are a cold, unfeeling hypocrite. Help me, God, I'm going to kill myself] And off they would go to their rooms to pump out their aching hearts.

William Shirer narrates the whole terrible saga swiftly and with a careful lack of fuss. As the title implies, he takes a blithe, perhaps conventional view of the sentiments involved - Love and Hate seems like a tabloid version of War and Peace, or should that be War 'n' Peace? But at least he is happy to let his subjects do the talking. Intimate disputes scream suicidally through the extracts: Shirer ducks down and watches the plates fly overhead. He does not attempt much in the way of psychological probing, and just as well: the remarks of his protagonists are so lacerating it would be futile to adopt a superior air.

The story has been told before, but it remains unsettling. Tolstoy is one of the most commanding figures of recent centuries: a novelist of overwhelming intricacy and power who became, in his later years, virtually a saint. If Anna Karenina bursts with a warm understanding of human plights, the later works are lit by brilliant simplicity and fervour. His diagnosis of social injustice and inspiring moral vision still jump off the page.

Yet this wracked emblem of prophetic genius often seemed, to his wife, a cartoon monster, a selfish, cruel old tyrant. 'His biographers will tell,' Sonya wrote, 'how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment's rest, or his sick child a drink of water. In 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child's bedside.' We are used to this biographical convention - great work, shame about the author; yet the odd thing is not that the life doesn't match the work (how could it?), but how movingly, and with what miraculous effort, the work transcends the life.

Before they married (she was 18, he was 34 and toothless) Tolstoy insisted that Sonya read his diaries - lots of jaunty gambling and wenching. Shirer suggests that she never recovered from the shock, and lived jealously ever after. She especially hated (as does Shirer) Tolstoy's disciple Chertkov, her rival as literary executor.

But the central fight was about the wealth Tolstoy wished to renounce, and Sonya could not bear to part with. 'French talk at dinner,' Leo writes, 'and tennis, and side-by- side hungry, ill-clad slaves, oppressed by work. I can't stand it.' Tragically, Sonya refused to believe he was serious. 'I don't feel, and never have, that he was speaking from the heart.'

To her, Tolstoy's celebrated renunciations were just a publicity stunt: a few photo opportunities in the fields wearing peasant clothes to buttress his international fame. To us it is clear that she was wrong: Tolstoy was speaking from the heart, but the heart is a large place, with room for conflicting passions. Not the least of the contradictions in this book is the fact that a contemplative, idealistic life such as his was, in effect, an aristocratic luxury. Literary careers take a bit of affording: not many peasants wrote books in Tsarist Russia. Tolstoy struggled to rid himself of his wealth, but did not

risk sacrificing his more precious possession: his time.

For this, of course, we have to be grateful. We do not have to take sides, even in a row as explosive as this one, and it is hard to wish that Tolstoy had spent more time making clogs, and less time writing. He was an aristocrat who aspired to a peasant life and a hater of material wealth who famously refused to donate money to relieve famine ('Everyone is worrying about the starving people, and wanting to help them and save them. How disgusting it is]'). He was both a hedonist and a puritan, an ascetic with an unappeasable sexuality (which he blamed, in the traditional way, on women); even as he preached sexual abstinence ('I do know for certain that copulation is an abomination') he was making Sonya pregnant for the 16th time.

Isaiah Berlin once compared the fox, which knows many things, to the hedgehog, which knows one big thing. Tolstoy, he argued, was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. Sonya could see only that he said one thing and did another. 'I cannot share my husband's ideas,' she wrote, 'because he is dishonest and insincere.'

Tolstoy knew his own faults better than anyone. 'I've seldom met a person more endowed with all the vices than I am: lasciviousness, self-interest, malice, vanity and above all self-love.' There wasn't much Sonya could say that he hadn't already said himself. But he did not permit his irate domestic life to dilute the high vitality of his literature. In a curious way the Tolstoys emerge almost as equals in this book: each demanded much more than the other was willing to give; each refused to settle for less.

Perhaps it illuminated Tolstoy's already acute view of the human struggle, all this anguish. He brought vast gifts of perception and far-sightedness to the war between his opposing impulses; they kept him avid, and stirred his work with grandeur and subtlety. Nothing was reconciled; he wrestled with his conscience to the last, and took the steepest, stoniest path. He couldn't stand it, but he did stand it; and then (the truly heroic part) carried on being unable to stand it.

He was not only the fox who would be hedgehog: he was the king who would be man - an almost divine ambition, we might think. Indeed his end, described with frosty pathos by Shirer, seems almost biblically apt. When fever forced him off the train at Astapovo he took refuge in the station master's house (there was no inn). His last words, like his last adventure, were both bungled and epic. 'Truth,' he whispered. 'I love very much . . . they all . . .' And then he died.