ONCE involved in this famously unhappy family, it's impossible not to take sides. Jay Parini's witty, immensely moving presentation of the Tolstoys, Sofya and Leo, concentrates on the last year of the writer's life, the year he finally took steps to put distance between himself and his wife of 50 years. Parini has used the journals of both Tolstoys, their children, and the ``Tolstoyans,'' to provide as objective a view of the matter as possible. Of course this leads one to the conclusion that such judgment is completely subjective!
Though we see the dissolution of the marriage from the points of view of their daughter Sasha, Leo's physician, his secretary, and his acolyte, as well as from those of the principals, it only increases the imponderability of the affair.
Acolyte Chertkov has a secret plan to have the old man change his will, turning over the copyrights of his work to the Tolstoyans, not to Sofya. Sofya finds out and slides begins down the stair - or up - into hysteria. Money and sex: In a way it comes down to money and sex.
When Sofya married Leo, she seemed half his age. She was a pampered rich girl and he was a worldly count, a writer, a reformer. The first part of their lives together was given to establishing a home out on the farm.
Sofya proved an able manager - which meant controlling the serfs that Tolstoy was so sentimental about. She helped him write ``War and Peace'' (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). She worked alongside him during the great famine, running soup kitchens for the serfs and managing the estate as well. She gave birth to and raised 13 children, offspring of her husband's impulsive lovemaking.
Even his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 didn't alienate her from him completely, though his unconventional religious views, and insistent attacks on church and state, tried her patience.
By 1910, theirs had become very much a public marriage. Tolstoy's followers from all parts used their home as a shrine and gathering place. Yet, as Parini paints her, Sofya was a great actress, carrying herself with regal poise when she could - or succumbing to operatic displays of despair when overwhelmed. Part of the suspense of the book depends on our concern for her rapidly deteriorating mental health - but we do care about Sofya.
Which is remarkable, for in many ways, as Parini shows, Tolstoy was a saint. Parini quotes a letter of Leo's to Sofya dated 14 June 1910. It's a confession as well as a defense. Tolstoy admits his depravity in his youth (something she had begun nagging him about as he became more distant from her).
But now we can see, he says, that ``your moral development did not run parallel to mine, which has been unique.'' Many readers will agree; Sofya is called a materialist and her husband spiritually minded.
Parini produces Tolstoy's letter to Gandhi to illustrate his awareness of the inherent contradiction between the demand of loving one's neighbor and the social use of violence by the state. Apparently Tolstoy believed that by getting rid of government, the kingdom of heaven would come to Earth.
From his death bed, he preached love to his daughter Sasha. ``God is not love, but the more love there is in man, the more is God made manifest in him, and the more truly does he exist.'' This is the gospel of Leo Tolstoy. In practice, this love did not satisfy his wife, who scorned his later teaching of celibacy in marriage.
As Parini shows, Leo's love teachings also troubled some of his young followers. Parini shadows his main plot with the love affair of Bulgakov, Tolstoy's personal secretary, and an exquisite and worldly young blonde from Petersburg. Sofya befriends young Bulgakov, as does the wily Chertkov, who asks him to write detailed letters of what goes on in the home - to spy, in effect.
Bulgakov fills the letters with invention. It's not that he sides with Sofya but that his own life has an oblique relationship to the teachings of the master. Bulgakov writes: ``I do not consider myself immoral. A man must follow his own conscience, and while the Tolstoyans oppose sexual relations outside of marriage (indeed, Leo Nikolayevich has grave doubts about the morality of sex within marriage), I find myself more in accord with Plato, who said that one can progress from sexual love to spiritual love. Ideally, one should not have to suffer a split between body and soul.'' Said like a true disciple of Tolstoy.
Progress. Idealism. Conscience. In the end, Leo's own life may illustrate progress, or it may illustrate decline. As he fled Sofya for the last time, he was followed by reporters: The eyes of Russia were upon him. Though his books had been banned, he had never been silenced. His hold on the people in a revolutionary time made any move against him unwise.
Parini's portrait balances Tolstoy's profound desire to leave his comparatively soft life behind him and live with the serfs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the dangers of hypocrisy. His final decision to leave his wife was made only after he tried out the truth of the proposition that when in doubt, ``one ought surely to give preference to the decision which involves the most self-sacrifice.''
Parini's self-described ``cubist'' portrait of Leo Tolstoy does not diminish the man in any way. One of the delights of the novel - providing pleasure that qualifies the almost too intimate immediacy of our involvement - is the ironic shift in point of view from chapter to chapter. It is never irony for its own sake, however. Parini draws the reader into the tumult of the Tolstoy household.
Inserting three lyric poems by himself in chapters headed J.P. helps Parini ground the novel in something like a central human consciousness. Somehow the fragments tell a powerful story.
In the end, the most appalling thing about it is this. In a world - Tolstoy's world - where they all kept track of themselves in daily journals, where self-consciousness was perhaps the highest virtue, and where privacy seemed impossible, there was still a way for stubborn individuality to leave its mark. If Leo hadn't married Sofya, he would have had to invent her - and in a way, he did.