The Ancient Dream

Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review:

3 At the time of their nuptials, Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy], by then a recognized writer, was a 34-year-old count who had lived a good fifteen years with the contradictions of character familiar to all readers of literature: on the one hand, he was a gambler, a drinker, a whoremaster; on the other, a breast-beating penitent who preached love, poverty, and humility, but made his family miserable, lived in luxury, and couldn’t get enough of his own growing fame. For the mass of Russians he would become a saint; for church and state, a devil; for Maxim Gorki, a figure of genius and disgust whose humility was “hypocritical and his desire to suffer… offensive!” In his early 30s, Tolstoy already wanted desperately to be saved from himself.

Sophia Andreyevna Behrs was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Andrey Behrs, a court doctor, and Lyubov Alexandrovna Behrs, a childhood classmate of Tolstoy’s. As full of intelligent high spirits as the Natasha of War and Peace, Sophia read, dreamed, larked about, loved music passionately, and fantasized conquering the world through marriage to a Great Man. Sonya (as she was known) could, in fact, have grown into a woman of sensibility and character had she ever had some real work to do. As it was, all she ever did have was the inherent sturm-und-drang of being married to Lev Nikolayevich. This would become not only her subject, but her organizing principle, her all-encompassing reality: the circumstance that nourished a richly talented arrest.

More here.