DEBORAH AMOS, host:
One of the most famous sentences in literature is the opening of Leo Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina." All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Tolstoy's own marriage seems to have fallen into the second category. Here's what his own wife, Sophia Tolstoy, wrote in her diary about their long marriage.
Unidentified Woman: For a genius one has to create a peaceful, cheerful, comfortable home. Must have his works copied out innumerable times, must be loved and spared all cause for jealousy so that he can be calm.
AMOS: She did hand-copy his manuscripts. She cared for their many children, but he didn't care much for her interests - in music and photography.
With us now in the studio is Leah Bendavid-Val, author of "Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy."
Ms. LEAH BENDAVID-VAL (Author) Thank you.
AMOS: The cover of the book is a self-portrait. Describe what she looked like.
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: She was a beautiful woman, a stately woman - dark, dark vivacious eyes, and considered very beautiful.
AMOS: That's what so interesting to see the photographs and the diaries. When read the diaries, their marriage seems right out of one of those novels. How much of that marriage ended up on Tolstoy's page?
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Well, I think not only some of the marriage, but also many of the characters and her family ended up on Tolstoy's pages. In "War in Peace," for example, the heroine, Natasha, is modeled after Sophia's sister, Tanya, who is a bubbly, effervescent, musical, younger sister of Sophia. Beyond that, their marriage started off in a beautiful way. They were madly in love when they got married in 1862, and they shared everything, including their diaries. They use their diaries to talk to each other. And, of course, she, as he said, copied his manuscripts and he listened to her opinions, which was very gratifying to her.
AMOS: So they can be kiss and tell even in great literature?
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Oh, right.
AMOS: Can you read us one of the diary entries where she addresses this issue of marriage?
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Yes. There's one that she wrote on the 22nd of May, 1902.
(Reading) "I was lying in bed today, wondering why a husband and wife so often find a certain estrangement creeping into their relations, and why relations with outsiders are often so much more pleasant. And I realized that this is because married couples know every single aspect of one another, both the good and the bad. We do not like people to see our bad side. We carefully conceal our bad traits from others and show ourselves off to our best advantage. With the husband and wife, though, this is not possible, for everything is so transparently visible. One can see all the lies and all the masks, and it's not at all pleasant."
AMOS: Was it as bad as that for her?
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Well, both of them, first of all, were very emotional, very passionate, and their love was full and passionate and deep and rich, and so was their hatred. And, unfortunately, the hatred seems to have won out in the end.
AMOS: Tell us about how it doesn't.
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Well, as the years went on, Tolstoy gathered followers around him who believed that Sophia didn't belong there. And he began to hide his diaries. He hid his will. They were married for 48 years. And after that 48th wedding anniversary, she began to be obsessively afraid that he had written another will, and she made her way into his study and started to search. He heard that searching going on, and he was outraged and he decided this is it. This is the last straw. I'm leaving. So he got up, wrote her a farewell letter and left. And he became very, very sick on the train and was carried off the train in Astapova. And Tolstoy died there.
AMOS: He couldn't have even made that up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: That's true. That's about as dramatic as it gets.
AMOS: Tolstoy's literature goes deeply into human nature. Could he have done that without Sophia - without that long relationship?
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: My feeling, very strongly, is that they needed each other. Neither of them could have lived as full and rich a life without the other.
AMOS: Thanks very much.
Ms. BENDAVID-VAL: Thank you.
AMOS: Our guest, Leah Bendavid-Val, is the author of "Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy." You can see some of Sophia Tolstoy's photograph on our Web site, npr.org.