Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Burning Umbrella: Krzhizhanovsky's Epigrams

I wanted to call this blog post 'the unreadable in pursuit of the untranslatable'. Then I wanted to call it 'the weeping translator', since that describes me trying to Anglify the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's cryptic fragments. And then, as he will, Krzhizhanovsky himself gifted me a title: the burning umbrella.

As part of a larger project to translate the author's non-fiction, I was asked to tackle selections from Krzhizhanovsky's 'writer's notebooks'  for a new anthology of his non-fiction prose. There are three such notebooks, preserved by the writer's common-law wife Anna Bovshek, plus other miscellaneous jottings, all published online by Vadim Perel'muter, the poet (and chief architect of Sigizmund Dominikovich's literary legacy). The notebooks contain jottings, story ideas, bad puns, and other momentary inspirations recorded by Krzhizhanovsky; some were reworked into stories, others recycle themes (including the word 'theme') which preoccupied him throughout his life, and still more preserve ideas in amber: embryonic plots, throwaway lines, acidic quips and bitter social commentary. Translators involved in this project have been asked to keep footnotes to a minimum, so in my work for publication I must pass over the most obscure, the context-specific, and the untranslatable. And yet, as SDK (let's call him that) would surely appreciate, it's the untranslatable that I most wish to share. For example: this one-liner: Gori, zont. All SDK has done is break the Russian word gorizont, or 'horizon', into its semantic units (or, split semantics at the seams - I've been reading too much of this stuff) to create two new words that make no sense. Gori, zont means Burn, umbrella. Or as my colleague mischievously suggested: burn, brolly, burn. The blazing brolly makes no more sense in Russian than it does in English, but in translation even its semantic prehistory is lost: it reads like sheer nonsense, unless I intrude a forbidden footnote to explain that the words, reunified in Russian, mean 'horizon'. SDK loved building stories by literalizing metaphors ("In The Pupil", "The Unbitten Elbow", "The Runaway Fingers", for starters) but here we see him at his other favourite activity, unlocking individual words to let out the stories hidden inside them. Lear meets Joyce, with libretto by Lewis Carroll.

Here are more pun-puzzles, SDK thinking aloud:

Daughter of vision (Dochka zreniia). The world is the daughter of vision. (This is a play on the phrase tochka zreniia, literally 'point of view'; but since 'daughter' is not assonant with 'point', the harmony is lost in English.)
We wailed. Did you? (My vyliVy li?). (Fun with that uniquely Russian vowel, ы, and the Russian interrogative particle li.)
Welcome and Priam (Priyom i Priam.)
Dumb [speechless]. Not mine. (NemoiNe moi.)
The crown [as in the kind broken by Jack and Jill] of the theme. (Temya temy.)

If all this sounds too casual, SDK wakes us up by combining an untranslatable word (toska - ennui, longing) with a neologism (toskizm) to announce, 'I have fallen into miserabilism' (Ya vpal v toskizm).  And the notebooks contain much, much more than wordplay: Kozma Prutkov and other less well-known figures from the 19th century comic grotesque (such as Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin, playwright and satirist) stalk through these epigrams. Other aspects (such as his idea for a play called John and Jeanne, about Falstaff and Joan of Arc) relate to his critical essays on Shakespeare. But the translator's life is never made easy. SDK is enthralled by the idea of a fish learning things off by heart (in Russian, na zubok, by the tooth); which allows him to make the groaning joke, 'On znaet eto na zubok, no tolk'ko zubov u nego netu' ('He knows this by the tooth, although he's toothless'). Wonderful: except that, as far as I know, fish do have hearts, so the obvious English translation misses, to say the least, a beat: 'He knows this by heart, although he's heartless'.  Even more dispiriting for the translator are paragraph-length jokes that founder, literally in this case, on a single syllable:

The girl was very lazy. “So what will it be: yes or no?” he asked her. “Yes,” she answered, because “no” was one letter longer. They married. When her time came to give birth, she was too lazy to make an effort. Things dragged out, and when, finally, at the urging of her doctor and husband she overcame her laziness, the child emerged perfectly grown-up, with a beard and whiskers, just like you.

Before anyone points out that I made a mistake - that 'yes' is one letter longer than 'no' - may I point out that the reverse is true in Russian. It's just easier to say 'da' then 'net' (which makes Russia's low birth rate even more mysterious). 

Or take his one-line sketch of a 'character for a comedy', which is actually a rather scary exercise in Soviet biography: 'In childhood they scared him with pipe-cleaners (trubochisty), in old age with a purge (chistka)'.  As a literal translation clearly won't cut the mustard here, I've played it safe by substituting 'purgative' for 'pipe-cleaner'. Very occasionally, SDK's punning works better in English: 'A spare pair of parents' has more assonance going on than SDK's 'zapasnaya para roditelei'; it's also a nicely reverse-Bracknell situation ('To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness; always carry a spare pair'). 

A shock revelation: SDK could be banal. He penned truisms like 'We are all mortal: we will all die', or uninspired description such as ''An unshaven cheek, rough as sandpaper (nazhdak)' is one of the tossed-away lines recorded in the First Notebook. But then he catches you out with a slow-burning witticism: 'He speaks six Russian languages' - and what sounds like a compliment peels away into a verdict of incoherence (or possibly sycophancy) on an individual who speaks his native language six different ways. Or the splendid, doubtless autobiographical aphorism: 'Luchshe uzh krasnyi nos, chem nos po vetry' - literally: 'Better to have a red nose than a nose by the wind'. The first half of this proverb references the inebriation to which SDK ultimately succumbed; the second half  derives from a Russian sailing expression, derzhat' nos po vetry, to steer the nose (of a ship) by the wind. Better to be three sheets to the wind, than to trim your sails to it? Thus changing the bogies of metaphor from the human face to the high seas. SDK can also be off-colour - there are some unoriginal, locker-roomish quips about virginity, and this odd 'reported anecdote' from a Soviet-era collective apartment:

A man in a collective apartment catches his finger on a nail in the bathroom – a bloodstain on the floor. He goes to his room, then hears quarrelling female voices through his wall: “Why don’t you clean up after yourself? Are you too lazy to clear up once a month?”  “I’m perfectly clean. That’s your blood. Mine finished five days ago…” And the man with the bound-up finger learns the hidden truth.

These scraps, however, were not written for publication. They were written as aides-memoire and bons mots by a man who couldn't even publish what he did write for publication. (This is an excellent article on SDK's life and woes by Adam Thirlwell). He called himself 'a crossed-out person', and enjoined those who were similarly crossed-out 'to believe' (zacherknutomu: verit'), although what they should believe in was not clear; certainly not Soviet literature. In a sense, all his work was already crossed-out; why blame him for a few dodgy extemporizations genuinely not meant to be seen? The real 'wonder' ('wonderful adventures inside a textbook of logic' writes SDK, apropos of nothing in particular) is that these notes, independently of his finished prose, present so much that is cogent and immanent. As Krzhizhanovsky reflected in his Second Notebook, 'As a writer, am I with the majority or the minority? If counted by the number of heads, I’m in the minority; but if we go by the number of thoughts, surely I’m in the majority?'

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Called Back: Chasing Convicts in Siberia

One of my minor hobbies (very well, obsessions) is collecting detective fiction, especially Golden Age mysteries. The British Library recently made collecting these a whole lot easier by republishing the best of a very long backlist with adorable covers adapted from period British Rail posters. I also hoard the Detective Club series of reprints. Basically, if Martin Edwards has written a preface for it, I'll collect it. I'll accumulate retro detective series by contemporary authors too - provided the perspective is ironic, not twee. (Hence Ian Sansom's The County Guides and James Anderson's Inspector Wilkins mysteries are welcome; Posy Parker and Rose Simpson less so).

As you can imagine, I'm in seventh heaven when one of my mysteries unexpectedly sports a Russian connection. Normally, it's just a throwaway geopolitical remark by a bobby - as in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1907), where a policeman charitably ascribes 'those chance dynamite outbreaks from Russia' to 'the outbreaks of oppressed, if mistaken, men'. (This book is also notable for the presence of a Polish anarchist called Gogol). Or take this longer excursus from R. Austin Freeman's short story "The Moabite Cipher" (1909), often anthologized to exemplify the talents of his 'medical jurispractitioner' hero, John Thorndyke. The plot opens with a visit to London by a Russian Grand Duke: the police, with proto-Trumpian enthusiasm, are seeing Jewish anarchist terrorists everywhere (although the mystery will eventually be prosaically explained as a burglary).

A large and motley crowd lined the pavements of Oxford Street as Thorndyke and I made our way leisurely eastward. Floral decorations and drooping bunting announced one of those functions inaugurated from time to time by a benevolent Government for the entertainment of fashionable loungers and the relief of distressed pickpockets. For a Russian Grand Duke, who had torn himself away, amidst valedictory explosions, from a loving if too demonstrative people, was to pass anon on his way to the Guildhall; and a British Prince, heroically indiscreet, was expected to occupy a seat in the ducal carriage.
Near Rathbone Place Thorndyke halted and drew my attention to a smart-looking man who stood lounging in a doorway, cigarette in hand.
"Our old friend Inspector Badger," said Thorndyke. "He seems mightily interested in that gentleman in the light overcoat. How d'ye do, Badger?" for at this moment the detective caught his eye and bowed. "Who is your friend?"

"That's what I want to know, sir," replied the inspector. "I've been shadowing him for the last half-hour, but I can't make him out, though I believe I've seen him somewhere. He don't look like a foreigner, but he has got something bulky in his pocket, so I must keep him in sight until the Duke is safely past. I wish," he added gloomily, "these beastly Russians would stop at home. They give us no end of trouble."

A thought no doubt often voiced by Boris Berezovsky's neighbours on Belgrave Square when he popped round to borrow yet another cup of sugar.

When I began Hugh Conway's 1883 bestseller Called Back, I was in for something special: not every British hero travels to Siberia to solve a murder (and clear his wife's name). This short novel was, according to Kenneth Harper and Bradford Booth, translated into Russian quite fast - within a decade of publication, not unusual celerity for popular British novels at that time. Its Russian title was, apparently, 'The Hallucination'. Hugh Conway (or Frederick Fargus, as his mother called him) died two years later of typhoid fever, and although his book would enjoy long-lasting success (a translation into Finnish; plagiarism by Emily Dickinson; screen versions in 1914 and 1933), his own star gradually sank below the horizon - at least until Martin Edwards wrote a preface about him. Called Back is highly sensational, but not, except for one major plot twist, very interesting today.


The hero, Gilbert Vaughan, goes blind as a young man because of cataracts; he wanders into the wrong house, overhears a murder, then gets overpowered and drugged by the murderers; unable to prove the strange incident ever happened, he tries to forget it. He then undergoes such unsafe and counterintuitive cataract surgery I almost wanted to stop reading and research 19th-century ophthalmology on the spot, but he does regain his sight - and the lure of the promised plot development pulled me on. Gilbert falls for a beautiful yet mute, almost catatonic girl; hastily marries her with the consent of her enigmatic Italian guardian. Later, holding his wife's hand, Gilbert experiences a waking dream that vividly re-creates the murder; clearly, he and the girl are both witnesses of the deadly deed; but what was the nature of her relationship with the murdered man? As his wife finally shows signs of returning sanity, Gilbert decides he must clear up the secret of her past before they can live together. The only way to clarify her background is to track down her guardian, a mysterious Italian called Ceneri who has previously boasted of spending his ward's entire inheritance on revolutionary activity. So far, so The Woman in White: but Gilbert soon leaves conventionality (and credibility) behind as he traces Ceneri, who has been implicated in a plot to assassinate the Czar of Russia. 'Although he called himself Italian, he was, in truth, cosmopolitan. One of those restless spirits who wish to overturn all forms of government, except that of republican'. After languishing several months in the Peter & Paul fortress in St Petersburg, Ceneri has been sentenced to twenty years' hard labour and dispatched in the general direction of Siberia. Gilbert hightails after him. (It might have been slightly easier to ask his wife, now she can talk again, whether she had a fiance before she went mad, but of course a fanatical republican terrorist man is more reliable than a hysterical woman any day of the week).

The following chapter reads pleasingly like an abbreviated travelogue, as the hero takes the train to 'Moscow the colossal', passes 'the old picturesque but decaying town of Vladimir', steams along the Volga and Kama rivers to Perm where a 'tarantass' ('a sort of phaeton') is acquired, as well as a 'yemshik' to cajole the post-horses. Gilbert offers the odd thoughtful meditation on Russian ways - the importance of correct paperwork, the way the 'rigid and careless despotism' of the Czar is reflected in the ruler-like straightness of the railway, even a private interview in the Hermitage with Alexander II ('a tall noble-looking man in military attire...[...]. Two years ago when the news of his cruel death reached England, I thought of him as I saw him that day - in the prime of life, tall, commanding, and gracious - a man it does one good to look at. Whether - if the whole truth of his great ancestor Catherine the Second's frailties were known - the blood of a peasant or a king ran in his veins, he looked every inch a ruler of men, a splendid despot'). Although the chapter title ('A Hell on Earth') rather betrays his conclusions about Siberia, he reserves criticism for the conditions created there by men rather than the land itself: 'The weather was glorious, almost too glorious. The cultivated country we passed through looked thriving and productive. Siberia was very different in appearance from what is usually associated with its name. The air when not too warm was simply delicious. [...] The wild flowers, many of them very beautiful, grew freely; the people looked well and contented. Altogether my impressions of Siberia in summer were pleasant ones'. On he goes, past Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk, all the way to Irkutsk -  described as charming towns except for the presence in each one of an 'ostrog' or jail, for convicts in transit: 'a gloomy square building, varying with the size of the place, surrounded by a tall palisade, the gates of which were barred, bolted, or sentried'. Gilbert recounts with horror the overcrowded cells where prisoners were housed 'like sardines in a box', with high mortality rates and extra pressure on space during spring floods: 'Men, sometimes unsexed women with them, huddled into rooms reeking with filth, the floors throwing out poisonous emanations - rooms built to give but scanty space to a small number, crowded to suffocation'. Eventually, Gilbert catches up with his particular convict, elicits the information he needs, and returns reassured to his bride - not without a pang or two of conscience at leaving the Italian revolutionary behind to penal labour in the mines at Nertchinsk (an important trading station on the Amur river, which was visited by Jeremy Bentham's brother Samuel in the previous century).

Engraving by Fritz Eichenberg (Resurrection)
I wish I knew whether Conway visited Russia, or which accounts by British travellers (there are surprisingly many) he read. What impresses me is his enthusiasm for describing the injustice of the Russian penal system sixteen years before Tolstoy got to grips with the same theme in Resurrection (1899). Compare this passage from the latter (in the Maudes' translation) with Conway's comments on overcrowding and disease:

The strictness of the inspector was chiefly due to the fact that an epidemic of typhus had broken out in the prison, owing to twice the number of persons that it was intended for being crowded in it. The isvostchik who drove Nekhludoff said, “Quite a lot of people are dying in the prison every day, some kind of disease having sprung up among them, so that as many as twenty were buried in one day.”

Or take this bitter observation on the "justice" meted out to political prisoners in the aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II (which Ceneri had ostensibly pursued):

Terrible and endless as were the torments which were inflicted on the criminals, there was at least some semblance of justice shown them before and after they were sentenced, but in the case of the political prisoners there was not even that semblance, as Nekhludoff saw in the case of Sholostova and that of many and many of his new acquaintances. These people were dealt with like fish caught with a net; everything that gets into the nets is pulled ashore, and then the big fish which are required are sorted out and the little ones are left to perish unheeded on the shore. Having captured hundreds that were evidently guiltless, and that could not be dangerous to the government, they left them imprisoned for years, where they became consumptive, went out of their minds or committed suicide, and kept them only because they had no inducement to set them free, while they might be of use to elucidate some question at a judicial inquiry, safe in prison. The fate of these persons, often innocent even from the government point of view, depended on the whim, the humour of, or the amount of leisure at the disposal of some police officer or spy, or public prosecutor, or magistrate, or governor, or minister.

Tolstoy was, as we know, fond of reading British sensational novels (often aloud in the bosom of his family) - and his heroine Anna Karenina read a mysterious British bodice-ripper on the fateful train journey back to St Petersburg. But could he have read Conway too? Could Gilbert's whistle-stop tour of Siberian jails have inspired Resurrection? Sadly, there's no evidence of the book ever having crossed the threshold of  Tolstoy's home, Yasnaya Polyana. But who knows? Conway's novel was translated as 'The Hallucination', after all - perhaps Tolstoy just dreamed he read it.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Twenty-Six Men and a Dinosaur



Last week I caught myself recommending a student to read "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl". 'Easy to find in translation,' I assured her, then I wondered: was it really? In a second-hand book-cave at the weekend, a shabby Heinemann school edition from 1992 fell into my hands: The New Windmill Book of Nineteenth Century Short Stories. A slightly chewed-looking cover with an out-of-focus print of Frith's The Railway Station; a short and almost exclusively Anglophone contents list, skewed aggressively in favour of female proto-modernists (Olive Schreiner, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her eternally yellow wallpaper). This story by Gorky, with Maupassant's "Country Living", solitarily represented all literature by furriners throughout the 19th century. 



Today, twenty-five years later, Gorky's stories are no longer automatically anthologized: it's hard to imagine an anthology that would pick his fiction over Chekhov's or the revitalised translation of "The Queen of Spades". Socialist realism is no longer recent history; Gorky's importance as its gatekeeper has lapsed. Yet, in an excellent 1993 short book on Gorky's early writing, Andrew Barratt suggests that "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" is 'arguably the best of his early stories', and still one of the best-known. 

Barratt's book is suffused with limpid wit that makes me regret the almost inevitably small circle of readers for such a finely focused academic study. The chapter on "Twenty-Six Men" is subtitled "Sex and the Russian Baker"; my other favourite section is called "Games Tramps Play". Beyond these jabs at the mystique of Gorky and Soviet gor'kovedy (Gorky scholars), Barratt makes a serious case for considering this story outside of its usual context as pathetic naturalism.

Gorky's insight into his subject matter - twenty-six men earning slave wages in a cellar, endlessly turning out pretzels that they can't bear to eat - comes from his own experience as an assistant baker, in the troubled period of his earliest revolutionary activity and teenage poverty leading up to his suicide attempt. The men are so enfeebled mentally and spiritually by their situation and the universal contempt in which they are held  ("we all had yellowish-grey faces, three of us had syphilis, some had skin disease [...] we wore filthy rags, with down-at-heel shoes or bast-sandals on our feet, and the police would not allow us in the park") that they greet the daily appearance of Tanya, a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old seamstress from upstairs, with anxious veneration. It doesn't matter, as Barratt points out, that Tanya is not actually very nice to them and possibly not very nice at all - she only visits them to collect their ritual offering of freshly baked pretzels, and scornfully laughs down one man with the temerity to ask her to stitch his torn shirt. Tanya becomes their goddess of chastity precisely because they are outcasts, because they need someone to admire and not least, as the narrator admits, because she is beautiful to look at (although the men strictly avoid sexualising her in any way, even in her absence). Hence the story is valuable both as a naturalistic account of poverty and as a study in human nature - even in extreme humiliation, Gorky shows us, we still glorify someone or something which we perceive to be better than ourselves. I was struck, re-reading "Twenty-Six Men", by an extra refinement of Gorky's naturalism: the detail that the windows of the bakery had been barred by the boss "with close-meshed grilles" not to prevent the bakers from climbing or seeing out, but to stop them from giving any bread through the windows "to the beggars and those comrades of ours who were unemployed and starving". This is interesting because of the assumption that the very poor, that is the bakers, will still give to those worse off than themselves; and because of the boss's cynical device to stymie any such philanthropy at his expense. One man's theft is another man's charity, but there are no Robin Hoods in Gorky's Russia.

Barratt departs from standard readings by arguing that the story is most significant when read as a psychodrama, a 'case study in perverse psychology' (124). The men's relationship with Tanya is perverse; it is not sentimental worship, but unhealthy abasement. The gifts of pretzels are ritual 'acts of idolatry' (128). When a handsome ex-soldier starts work as a higher-status bread-baker upstairs,  he threatens to depose Tanya as the men's ruling idol by offering a charismatic masculine alternative for adoration. It is thus inevitable that the men will test the new idol against the old by daring the soldier to seduce Tanya - even while they comfort themselves that Tanya is unapproachable. And it is equally inevitable that the soldier will ruin their illusions by deflowering Tanya. 

Barratt calls the scene of Tania's seduction the 'most memorable in all Gorky's writing' (129), primarily because it re-establishes Tanya's moral irreproachability in the face of her apparently very immoral behaviour. Crudely, cruelly, the twenty-six men reject Tanya, pouring on her the calumny and sexualised insults they had reserved for all other women (some of whom, the narrator comfortingly suggests, deserved it); and with unflinching dignity, Tanya rejects them right back. She walks out of their lives serenely, confirmed in her womanhood; they retreat to their cellar. Which underlines, as Barratt argues, one of many eloquent gaps in Gorky's narrative: the story describes an inescapable, dead-end situation for the men, yet one of them has clearly escaped to tell the tale. How can this be? Barratt probes further: Tanya's final attitude of righteous contempt is not just an expression of confident femininity, but an analogue to Gorky's own complex attitude to the very poor. He had lived among them, but like Tanya with her apron full of pretzels, he was able to withdraw and shut the door; his 'narrating consciousness' (134) (not just in this story but in much of his fiction) is a troubled combination of sympathy and contempt for his subjects. Gorky can empathize, but he is more inclined to judge. Ultimately, therefore, in Barratt's reading, this story is a window not just on 19th-century labour conditions, or on the construction of femininity, but on Gorky's contradictory relationship with the topic of poverty, on which his own success and reputation were built.

Despite my reservations about the "New Windmill" anthology, I was pleased to see that the editors picked the 1981 Penguin translation of "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl", which is by D. (D.J.) Richards, former Head of Russian at Exeter. The students' magazine from 1977 describes him as 'a prolific author and partial to a pint of a dinnertime, when he is to be seen sitting in the Ewe with another member of staff who shall remain nameless'. I like to think of my predecessors in Russian sitting together in a bar that no longer exists, discussing the complexities of Gorky's prose over pints, pies... and pretzels.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Opportunity, Glory, and Doom: Married to Tolstoy

A recent rummage through the remoter shelves of the Russian literature section of the University of Exeter caused me to acquire (as happens all too often) two obscure, charmingly crumbly volumes not on my list: Lady Cynthia Asquith's Married To Tolstoy (Hutchinson of London, 1960), and The Life of Tolstoy by "Paul Birukoff" (Pavel Biryukov), published in an anonymous translation in 1911. The temptation to read them in counterpoint was irresistible: to vicariously retrace the great conflict of Tolstoy's mature life, between the 'Dark Ones' (Countess Sofya Andreyevna's nickname for the Tolstoyan acolytes) and the Countess herself, or simply "Sonya", as Tolstoy always called her. In real life the Tolstoyans, or, in Gorky's words, 'the pestering parasites who fed on his mind' may have had the best of the struggle; but in the field of biography, Sonya wins hands down.
                                               
Asquith's light-touch literariness and deft style - she wrote fiction (I have long admired her ghost stories) besides biography - lend the Sonya camp a major advantage. "Marriage to a genius can seldom be easy; to be married to one as immense and self-contradictory as Tolstoy was proportionately difficult": Asquith's first sentence delicately echoes the famous opening line of Anna Karenina. She generally takes the side of Tolstoy's wife against the husband and media who jointly condemned her; citing, for instance, in Sonya's support the frequently ignored medical evidence that the Countess was ill with stress even before Tolstoy fled on his quixotic final journey in 1910. Asquith calls herself "a self-appointed Counsel for the Defence", relying on diaries by both spouses and other family members, as well as records left by other family friends (Urusov, Turgenev, Gorky) to vividly frame "the story of the woman whose opportunity, glory, and doom it was to be married to Tolstoy" (16). She coins regular well-cut phrases which demystify some of that portentous "glory and doom", referring to the younger Tolstoy's moral fixations accompanied by rather less than moral behaviour as "curdling themes". 

Like Rosamund Bartlett, whose Tolstoy biography I discussed in a previous post, Asquith brings the tensions and shenanigans of the Yasnaya Polyana household vividly to life: the hideous, uncomfortable and supposedly character-forming clothes which Tolstoy wanted his eldest children to wear became mockingly known in the house as the "philosophical garments", while these same children enjoyed traditional family games such as their father's impossible challenge to stand in a corner while not thinking of a white bear - or the much-loved chase known as the Charge of the Numidian Cavalry. One of Asquith's many astute psychological asides is her observation that Sonya, in late middle age, was tired of endlessly following Tolstoy's lead; she was worn out charging with the Numidian Cavalry. She intelligently assesses Tolstoy's existential 'Arzamas' crisis as physical and emotional reaction to finishing War and Peace, and in this context, her assertion that Tolstoy's passionately expressed aptitude for Ancient Greek (which Sonya fiercely opposed) was a form of psychological "dope", makes perfect sense. (Next time you want a re-up of Herodotus, call your local Loeb dealer). 

Two more Tolstoy insights are worth repeating here: "Tolstoy [unlike Dostoevsky] could not sin his way to God. Painfully, laboriously, he had to reason his way to him" (85). On Tolstoy's reaction to the 1891 famine in central Russia, and even earlier to urban poverty in Moscow, Asquith observes: "As a man he seemed less able than others to conceive of anything which he had not been an eyewitness. Not until he was shocked by the actual sight of some horror did the thought of it ever greatly concern him. Than his imagination would be so fired that all sense of proportion vanished" (100). The tellingly titled chapter "The Sky Darkens" indicate the marital crisis exacerbated by the Tolstoys' first extended move to Moscow, where his wife and daughter Tanya indulged a carefree materialism that now alienated him. After the birth of Sasha, whom Sonya had emphatically not wanted, her role as Tolstoy's literary agent adjusted from a source of pride and connubial partnership to a lonely, burdensome task. Tolstoy had made it too plain that he gave her the rights to market his work has a concession to her cupidity and pragmatism rather than as a gesture of respect and affection; now, partly in revenge for his contempt, Sonya's literary work became an explicit excuse not to feed the unwished-for baby (another weapon in their complicated strife). 

Biryukov's biography, which might (in contrast, and in view of his failed courtship of Masha Tolstaya) have been titled 'Not Married to Tolstoy's Daughter', simply cannot compete. It lacks personal detail; letters and diaries are cited only occasionally, and as extensions of the generally hagiographic approach to Tolstoy's personal life and public achievements. Sonya's dangerous enemy, the opportunistic Vladimir Chertkov, appears here only as 'Tolstoy's friend, V.G. Tchertkoff', [who] gave a great deal of moral and material assistance' to the Intermediary publishing project. As an unpaid assistant and later editor of Intermediary, the former naval cadet and ex-physicist Biryukov could have revealed much about the stress of everyday interaction with the ambitious and Machiavellian Chertkov; but his account is both vague and neutral. Asquith, on the contrary, suggests that Chertkov manipulated the Intermediary specifically to supplant Sonya as Tolstoy's publisher; and she regales us with this rather splendid anecdote: 

"It was a very hot night and [the Tolstoy family, with Chertkov] were having dinner on the verandah. [...] All were in a happy mood, joking, and laughing. The only drawback was the swirling haze of mosquitoes. After a quick amused glance at Chertkov's lofty head, Tolstoy, grinning like a boy, adroitly swatted its bald top. A smear of blood and the crushed remains of a huge mosquito showed how good his aim had been. Everyone roared with laughter, including the swatter, but Tolstoy's laughter abruptly died when gloomily affronted, without a flicker of a smile, Chertkov portentously said: 'Lev Nikolaevich, what have you done? You have taken the life of a fellow living creature. Are you not ashamed?' Stifled giggles continued to escape, but everyone felt uncomfortable" (139).

Asquith's clear-sightedness occasionally fails her: she has a (very English) mistrust of excessive emotional vulnerability, and draws attention to Sonya's self-pity and supposed lack of a sense of humour. On the short story "Whose Guilt Is It?" written by Sonya in reaction to her husband's radioactive The Kreutzer Sonata, Asquith feels it was "fortunate" that this "self-exonerating" response was never published (146). (It has since been both translated and published with Sonya's other short fiction in a new edition by Michael R. Katz). When, shortly after the birth in 1881 of Alyosha, her eleventh baby, Sonya writes despairingly to her sister that "bending over the flushed face of my new baby fourteen times a day, I almost faint from the pain in my breasts", Asquith ripostes unsympathetically, "Why, it may be asked, did she need to nurse her baby fourteen times a day [...]?" (113). Now I know the answer to that one, and I'm not even a mammal. The incident certainly explains why the breastfeeding of babies became a political football in the Tolstoy family long before the Daily Mail invented the Breastapo. Thankfully, Tolstoy never met Benjamin Spock (whose ideas about feeding infants at set intervals probably influenced Asquith); both men might have spontaneously combusted. All that Biryukov offers on the topic of familial discord at this period of the Tolstoys' lives is a cautious observation that "The strenuous activity of the seventies, his family cares and duties, the question of the education of the children, his successful literary career, his beneficent social work - all these did not fully satisfy Tolstoy" (87). Of course, as a long-time friend of the family, Biryukov would not have wished to embarrass any of them.

Biryukov's book necessarily closes with Tolstoy's death ("With contented, happy thoughts the great teacher of life had passed into eternity [...]. It is our duty to strive with all our strength to realise his ideal of Love and Reason" (155-6)). Asquith also gives surprisingly little space - just one brief chapter - to Sonya's last nine years. Her sources for this part of Sonya's life are limited, although she cites Tolstoy's daughter Sasha for a glimpse of Sonya at table in 1918, consuming a formal meal served by an elderly Yasnaya Polyana manservant with silver plate and a starched tablecloth, although the meal itself consists of boiled beetroot and black bread. Every day, she walked to Tolstoy's grave and she spoke constantly, if silently, with her departed "Leovochka" [sic]. Just before her death, she confessed to Sasha that she felt her bitterness in Tolstoy's final year had "killed" her husband (281). I like to think that this was just one last flicker of the melodramatic instinct that made Sonya such a successful actress at the early, happy Yasnaya Polyana family parties; and that v tom svete - in the other world - Sonya and Lev no longer glower out from plates fixed to opposite sides of a leaf, as they do in Asquith's biography. I hope that they finally fit on the same page, side by side.