November 1, 2010

The Comfort of Tolstoy

Posted in Books, Family, Health, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

I am not sure when I read my first book by Tolstoy, but I know this – he was in my life long before I was born.

Tolstoy was my mother’s favorite writer.

We had old, worn out, hard cover copies of his books sitting on our bookshelf. I don’t know where they came from, maybe my mother’s schoolgirl days.

Each book was divided into a number of volumes. The books were bound in soft, stained red leather. The paper inside was fleecy white and had a distinctive dusty, book-y smell.

The feel and the smell of those books has been imprinted on my consciousness forever.

And the characters and the stories? They live with me every day.

I named my daughter Natalia (nicknamed Nena) after Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. Sam’s middle name is Leo (Tolstoy’s first name.)

Both my mother and I reread all of Tolstoy’s books many times during our lives. We talked about them again and again. We changed our minds about different characters and interpreted events and relationships in contrasting ways. Tolstoy gave us the vocabulary to discuss themes and subjects that we might not have had the courage to discuss otherwise.

As my mother grew sicker from Alzheimer’s Disease, she grew fearful and suspicious of the world around her and all its inhabitants. She slept less and less. Nothing seemed to follow the rules of behavior that her reshaping mind dictated.

Except for Tolstoy.

In the last year of her life she could not read. She hardly slept. She did not know who any of us were. She had lost most of her connections to the outside world.

But many nights, Jeff and I found her lying on the living room sofa tightly holding on to one of the volumes of the soft, worn out copy of War and Peace. She pretended to read.

Sometimes she held the book upside down.

When none of us could bring her comfort, Tolstoy did. Not with direct words anymore, but with the deeply ingrained memories and shadows of the world he created. Of the girl and woman that she once was. It was the one stable, unmoving constant in a life rapidly degenerating out of control.

My mother held on to that book until she died.



  1. Jelena said,

    One of your most beautiful posts. Thank you for sharing!

  2. ellen joy said,

    Thank you for this piece today. I had been thinking of my mother who died this year at 89. She had a strong intellectual bent, was an avid reader, and had a joyful outlook until the end of her days, despite the dementia that slowly enveloped her last few years. She was not a reader of fiction as I often was, and so I missed having her as a reading partner for many things that I have loved over the years. A few years back it was my Year of Proust (she DID read Swann’s Way!), and this year is my Year of Tolstoy. I have the new translation of War and Peace on my Kindle, my iPod Touch, and the lovely, weighty, hard cover copy at my bedside. I am tucking your lovely article into my book.

    • Liliana said,

      I am sorry for the loss of your mother – there is nothing more difficult than parting ways with those one loves. Thank goodness for reminiscences! And Proust would know a thing or two about that.

      A year of Tolstoy! That sounds like an adventure. I hope it a is a glorious year for you. Enjoy every second.

  3. rx said,

    you´re great! thanks for sharing your thoughts… keep doing it.

    Love, R.

    • Liliana said,

      You are very kind. Thanks for your encouragement.
      Best to you,

  4. LHC said,

    A beautiful story. This may or may not sound crazy but you have moved me to read Tolstoy. I have heard of him but have never actually read any of his books after browsing around online today the bits and pieces I have read are absolutely amazing. I have already bought two of his books and am looking forward to reading. Thank you so much.

    • Liliana said,

      I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.
      Which of his books are you reading first? Please write and tell me how you like him.
      Best wishes,

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