Monday, January 12, 2015

Tolstoy re-visited

Somewhere on the net tonight I saw brief mention of Tolstoy having had a venereal disease as a young man, and thought to myself "did I know that before?"  Googling around, I stumbled across a lengthy extract from Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, which I read around 20 years ago, and indeed, it did have a full chapter on the many - and I mean many - character flaws of Leo, including the bit about VD. 

Intellectuals remains the most amusingly appalling book about character flaws of the famous that I have ever read.  Even though I am clearly forgetting the details, I remember how much I liked it at the time.  Of course, later it came out that Johnson had engaged in a lengthy marital sexual indiscretion himself, which would not have been quite so hypocritical if he hadn't spent so much time in his columns criticising the British Royal family for not sucking it up and foregoing extra marital relationships as an example to the nation.

Anyway, back to Tolstoy.  Another website (PBS, so the tone is slightly less scurrilous) talks at length about Tolstoy's life-long, um, neuroticism? about women and sex.   It seems he would, in modern parlance, probably be classified as a sex addict, but seemingly spent his entire life not only   intellectually disgusted with it, but also blame shifting onto women. 

It's a wonder his wife went ahead with the wedding at all:
Leo Tolstoy waited until he was 34 years old to marry, but once he had settled on 17-year-old Sofia Behrs, "Sonya," as his bride, he saw that events moved very quickly. At his insistence, but a single week elapsed between his proposal and their wedding on September 23, 1862 -- and in the course of that week Tolstoy asked, really required, his fiancée to read the intimate diaries he had kept for much of his life.

Sonya, the middle daughter of the Tsar's court physician, had grown up in the sheltered, innocent circumstances typical of girls of her class and time, and she had scant knowledge of men, including the man she had agreed to marry, beyond mild flirtation and adolescent fantasy. But now, days before her wedding, she found herself plunged into the sexual autobiography of a vigorous man in early middle age -- page after unsparing page recounting his initiation by a whore when he was 14, the string of impulsive, guilt-ridden erotic adventures with parlor maids, gypsies, and married women, the repeated bouts with venereal disease, and finally, and most recently, the deeply satisfying love affair with a peasant woman, with whom he had fathered a son just a few months before proposing to Sonya.

"I don't think I ever recovered from the shock of reading the diaries when I was engaged to him," Sonya wrote nearly 30 years later. "I can still remember the agonizing pangs of jealousy, the horror of that first appalling experience of male depravity."
 This episode apparently features in fictional form in Anna Karenina.

The article gives a short chronicle of how their marriage deteriorated (and yes, I had remembered that it developed into a high conflict relationship - I wonder if that is made clear enough in that recent movie about the end of his life?).  But this detail shows his incredible insensitivity:
In Sonya's eyes the ultimate affront was "Kreutzer Sonata," a story Tolstoy wrote in 1889 about a man driven by hatred, jealousy, and sexual disgust to murder his wife. Aside from the murder, it was an exact transcription of his feelings about her and the state of their marriage. At the heart of "Kreutzer Sonata" is a savage indictment of marriage as "legalized prostitution," of women as vengeful sirens bent on seducing and controlling men, and of human sexuality itself. For Sonya it was as if Tolstoy had hauled her naked onto a vast public stage and proceeded to sermonize about her moral and physical hideousness. And on top of everything, after railing against the act of love as "perfidious" and piglike, he continued to force himself on her sexually. To her, it was a betrayal worse than adultery. 
I really think he should have spent more time looking into her eyes.   (Ha.)

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