Behind Every Great Woman...

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Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy by Leah Bendavid-Val (National Geographic Society)

Count Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilych, and so many other masterpieces (to use an overused, but totally apt word) seems like he should have lived in another eon. Surely he must have hung out with Socrates, or Aeschylus, or, at the very least, Shakespeare. But he didn't. If not quite of our time, he did manage to live into the 20th century (1910 to be exact), and there are films and photographs of him.When I first opened Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy, I have to admit I was most interested in catching some glimpses of this titan, some snapshots of the man behind the voice that shows what the novel is capable of -- what human beings, artists, are capable of. Sure, his wife had a camera (a gigantic Kodak bellows job) and she snapped shots of him. But the interest was him, The Master.

Until I started reading and looking at the book. Not more than a few pages in, Sophia, the photographer/wife started to loom larger and larger in my mind. Not only are the photographs masterful, in keeping with the other photographers of this first great era -- many of them well-to-do women, as the book's author and editor Leah Bendavid-Val points out (women such as Juliet Cameron), but the diary entries, the observations, and the mere facts of this remarkable woman's life loom large. Start with the fact that Countess Tolstoy had 13 kids. Then, continue with the fact that she copied out Tolstoy's scrawled manuscripts, adding her own input no doubt, often staying up until three in the morning to do so while her baseball team and then some worth of kids were sleeping. (The book shows a couple of thrilling examples of Leo Tolstoy's manuscripts, including the first page of Anna Karenina -- you can see the license Sophia had. Oh, and she copied out, by hand, the entire text of War & Peace seven times!) In addition to that, she ran the estate, painted beautifully, played the piano, wrote books, including a children's book, started a publishing company, and formed the other half to this immortal figure. There love was as intense and fraught as anything he imagined in his fiction, it fueled it.

And then, there are her looks at the world, the pictures themselves. They are masterful. Serene, powerful, inventive. She seized the power of the emerging medium of photography. She did formal portraits, but none were stuffy. Life was being lived, all around -- and it had a way of seeping into her images. The people jump off the page, with sympathy. And her landscapes capture another world. Look at these ancient buildings, sparkling clean. A haunting image of the swimming pond, covered in lily pads, a bathing hut at its back, recurs.

And while Tolstoy was not of the Aeschylus world per se, he certainly lived in another world. Pre-revolutionary Russia is just the start of it. While the photos are a kind of time machine, like everything about Tolstoy, the strength of his humanity makes him as current as the man next to you on the bus. She shows his reality. He was a larger than life figure -- and it seems he knew it. (Is there a hint of sarcasm in some of Sophia's shots of him? Is her adulation mixed with a bit of vinegar?) Nevertheless, with his beard flowing like a crazed prophet, his eyes piercing, one scans these amazing photographs for every detail, every nuance. Was he smiling here? Doesn't he love kids? What are those books on his shelves? Here Tolstoy is with Chekhov. Here he is with his family. Here he is with his wife, proud, despite his flowing beard, on his new bicycle -- looking every bit like something you'd see today. Here he is wasted by cholera, here he is, in his seventies, astride a horse, looking every bit the cavalry man he was in his ribald youth, before he eventually wrote his masterpieces, rewrote literature, and by the way, gave up sex, drink, gambling, fancy clothes, and heaven knows what else.

And here they are together, Sophia and Leo, 35th anniversary, 40th, 45th...she with him, every step of the way despite legendary fights, affairs, estrangements, and disagreements. Having helped him bring Anna and War & Peace to life, was she was merely scribe, or muse, or perhaps co-creator? She outlived him, barely; the book includes a couple of shots she set up at her late husband's grave -- she was, as Bendavid points out, one of the innovators, and masters, of self-portraiture.

Photographs, I have always thought, are "one frame silent movies." Great ones resonate like Renoir's Rules of the Game, all in one shimmering image. In this sense, this beautifully produced, and reproduced, book is an essential document proving that Tolstoy lived, loved, hated -- and had a wife and family and life. If only Plato's partner, or Da Vinci's, or Shakespeare's, had had a camera! - Ken Krimstein

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Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.

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