Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Q&A with Alexandra Popoff

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 Q&A with Alexandra Popoff

Author Alexandra Popoff talks to Open Book about her latest book, Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography (Free Press), which contests the idea that Leo Tolstoy's wife was "malicious, shrill, perennially at war with Tolstoy" and instead shows her his muse, advisor and close friend.

Open Book: Toronto:

What made you want to write about Sophia Tolstoy?

Alexandra Popoff:

Leo Tolstoy's wife has been maligned by historians and has not been credited for her contribution to the writer. I decided to write her biography when I realized that there are many misconceptions about her role and that we do not even have basic facts about her contribution to Tolstoy. Ironically, the marriage that yielded such great works as War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Kreutzer Sonata is still described as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Sophia’s life has been long misinterpreted, so my goal was to provide accurate information and tell her true story.


OBT:

Why is the current portrait of Sophia Tolstoy so negative?

AP:

It is unfortunate that Sophia was judged by her final year with Tolstoy, by people hostile to her — the great man’s disciples, particularly Vladimir Chertkov, a vain man who wanted to establish himself as the person closest to Tolstoy. The dramatic events of Tolstoy’s final year — the signing of his secret will and his flight from Yasnaya Polyana at eighty-two — have fascinated biographers and the public. But these events have not been accurately depicted. The account that has become prevalent was concocted by Chertkov, the mastermind of Tolstoy’s secret will and later the sole executor.

Chertkov portrayed Sophia as Tolstoy’s evil wife and publicly blamed her for her husband’s departure. But in fact, he anticipated Tolstoy’s flight, discussed it with him, and rejoiced when it took place. The disciples demanded an example of renunciation from Tolstoy. His flight created a great legend.

To understand why there are still misconceptions about Sophia and her, we need to know that Chertkov and his associates suppressed evidence in her favour. In fact, for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish documents challenging Chertkov’s account of Tolstoy’s flight and his marriage, which was described as martyrdom.


OBT:

What’s the most surprising thing about her that you discovered?

AP:

The character of this remarkable woman was so unlike the portrayals. Reading the couple’s correspondence, which had been overlooked by biographers, I was impressed with her sincerity, intellect, artistic giftedness, and common sense. But Sophia is still perceived mainly as a shrew, a spoilt aristocrat, and a mercenary. When I watched The Last Station I thought that Helen Mirren created a convincing and complex character, but it’s strikingly different from what Sophia was like. Tolstoy’s wife was capable of handling his publishing affairs and their family’s business affairs, while also raising a large family. I was impressed with her capacity for hard work: a mother of 13, who herself nursed and educated their children, she was a successful publisher, Tolstoy’s translator and photographer. And she participated in his causes, working alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief. Unlike what was written about her, she profoundly understood Tolstoy as a writer and man and was supportive of him. She was Tolstoy’s most competent adviser and close friend, but this is not how she became known.



OBT:

Can you elaborate on the impact that Sophia had on Leo Tolstoy’s writing?

AP:

She has been credited for copying Tolstoy’s novels, but her involvement was far greater. During War and Peace Tolstoy told many people how his marriage changed him: “I’ve never felt my intellectual powers, and even all my moral powers, so free and so capable of work....” A visitor to Yasnaya Polyana during this time called Sophia “the perfect wife for a writer” and a nursemaid of her husband’s talent. She loved Tolstoy’s art and inspired his best achievement. Her emotional support was indispensable to Tolstoy who constantly struggled with depression. After 35 years together, he wrote her: “You gave me and the world what you were able to give....” Sophia was Tolstoy’s muse, model, and active assistant during War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and these novels draw from their family life. A lot of her labour went into these works, which she also published. Tolstoy continued to use Sophia as a model in his late fiction, most memorably in The Kreutzer Sonata. She also inspired his ideas in non-fiction. Sophia was central to Tolstoy’s creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.



OBT:

Can you tell us a little about the kind of research you did?

AP:

Years ago, when beginning my research, I discovered that a memoir by Tolstoy’s wife remained unpublished. It was almost unbelievable — and I wanted to understand why this happened. I was fortunate to receive exclusive access to Sophia’s extensive file and spent six years researching and writing her biography. What I learned from Sophia’s memoir, unpublished letters and other prose, changed my perspective of this woman and her marriage.



OBT:

What was the most difficult thing about writing the book?

AP:

I had a lot of material and only a small fraction went into the book. Because I used primary sources that had never been published or translated, I wanted to use as much as possible. But I had to eliminate the material when it interfered with the narration. It was difficult to make cuts and sacrifice interesting cultural references and side stories. These also had to go because the length of my book was restricted.



OBT:

What’s your next project?

AP:

My next book is about Tolstoy’s relationship with his disciple Chertkov. In a way, it will be a sequel to Sophia’s biography. If Sophia had inspired Tolstoy’s art, Chertkov’s influence was dark and hurtful to his talent and inspiration. But Tolstoy himself believed it useful to him and was attracted to this man, despite Chertkov’s quarrelsome and despotic character. The relationship lasted three decades, but the public has yet to learn about it. There will be many surprises, as I discovered from Chertkov’s correspondence with Tolstoy and other documents, previously unavailable.


Alexandra Popoff grew up in Moscow where she was educated at the Gorky Literary Institute and then worked as a feature writer and editor at The Literary Gazette, a major writers’ newspaper. In 1992 she emigrated to Saskatchewan, where she earned master’s degrees in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto and in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan. She now lives in Saskatoon.


For more information about Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography please visit the Simon & Schuster Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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