A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Thus we passed two years more. The method prescribed by the rascals [doctors] had evidently succeeded. My wife had grown stouter and handsomer. It was the beauty of the end of summer. She felt it, and paid much attention to her person. She had acquired that provoking beauty that stirs men. She was in all the brilliancy of the wife of thirty years, who conceives no children, eats heartily, and is excited. The very sight of her was enough to frighten one. She was like a spirited carriage-horse that has long been idle, and suddenly finds itself without a bridle. As for my wife, she had no bridle, as for that matter, ninety-nine hundredths of our women have none. – The Kreutzer Sonata, Chapter XVIII
I hate Tolstoy. This always horrifies people, outside of Russia anyway, because Tolstoy is one of the Great Russian Authors People Know. OMGWTFBBQ you don’t like Tolstoy? ! As if Tolstoy was compulsory; as if not liking him was an insult to the Great Russian Soul. Again, this is outside of Russia. Perhaps within Russia my boundless geek-love for Pushkin gets me off the hook. (Pushkin is probably the ultimate holy cow of Russian-literature-not-in-translation). But at any rate I’ve yet to be denied a Russian visa for not finishing Anna Karenina, although I’ve met plenty of zealous anglophone Tolstoyans who would deny me one if they could.
Now, just to be clear, it’s not that I don’t believe Tolstoy is Important. Of course he’s Important, he’s a Great Writer, and with my literary analysis hat on I can see exactly why. I still hate him though, with his simpleton peasants and his vacuous women and his delusions of supreme ethical and religious authority. And to remind myself why (and make this review more interesting), this week I went back to that steaming, stinking torrent of moral vomit that is The Kreutzer Sonata.
The Kreutzer Sonata is the story of a man who kills his wife out of jealousy, and who later tells his story to a stranger he meets on a train. The man is clearly a disturbed individual with a number of fixations, notably about the evils of sex, the impurity of women and the corruption of family life. Discovering that his wife, whom he hates, has started an intimate friendship with a violinist, he kills her quite deliberately. As he tells his story, he continually harps back to his obsessions, and the narrative of his marriage becomes framed in the terms of a struggle between purity and corruption. It looks, in outline, like the psychological portrait of a madman.
But no! The Kreutzer Sonata is not some mere piece of literature! It is supposed to teach us all a lesson! We know this because Tolstoy, ever the preacher, wrote us a nice epilogue just to make sure. It is a long epilogue with a number of well-elaborated points, and it’s not within my power to sum it up here. But this short extract conveys the essential thrust (sorry, Lev Nikolaevich) of the argument:
Fashionable dress to-day, the course of reading, plays, music, dances, luscious food, all the elements of our modern life, in a word, from the pictures on the little boxes of sweetmeats up to the novel, the tale, and the poem, contribute to fan this sensuality into a strong, consuming flame, with the result that sexual vices and diseases have come to be the normal conditions of the period of tender youth, and often continue into the riper age of full-blown manhood. And I am of the opinion that this is not right.
Above all, Tolstoy wishes us to understand that The Kreutzer Sonata is not merely a novella narrated by an unbalanced, homicidal, misogynistic character. It is a polemic from which we might all learn a valuable lesson. The reader is not allowed simply to read. We must read as we are told to! We must arrive at the correct conclusion, and to that end, we require the guidance of the Wise Man holding the pen! Oh, if we read The Kreutzer Sonata merely for enjoyment (perish the thought) then we should fall into the same trap as the poor lost souls Tolstoy describes. We would languish in a pit of brutish, sensual corruption, or something.
So, following the Great Writer’s instructions, let’s have a look at The Kreutzer Sonata and see what we can learn.
1. Sex is bad. Sex outside of marriage, of course, is morally wrong and corrupts the poor woman who is the object of some man’s “imagined” desires; because let us not be mistaken, the sexual urge is a false construct and there is nothing natural or laudable about it. Sex within marriage is as bad, if not worse. It validates “love” – also a false construct – as the basis for marriage, and it distracts both man and woman from the primary purpose of marriage which is to have and raise children.
2. Did I mention that only men have a sex drive? Women, the poor deluded creatures, are raised in such a way that their tiny brains are addled with the necessity to attract a man; no, men, because a woman will only be happy when she has a number of admirers. Indeed, “every sort of feminine education has for its sole object the attraction of men”. Poor, misguided girls! If only Woman had not lost sight of the purity of the humble peasant who lives to gestate and nurture her children. Childbirth and nursing is “the only remedy for coquetry”, and coquetry is… well, anything that is not childbirth or nursing.
3. The evil doctors conspire in this subjugation of women by providing their female patients with contraception, and thus “allowing” them to have sex without conceiving. This can lead to the woman developing an unnatural and undesirable degree of freedom, as shown in the extract at the head of this review.
4. Children are the greatest duty and greatest joy of human life. They are also a burden and further complicate the already sinful, angry picture of the average marriage. They are to be loved completely (by their mother) and cherished to the exclusion of all else (by their mother) but on no account should they be treated when sick, or otherwise fussed over. Your child is dying? Get over it and make another one, but try not to enjoy yourself. (By this point I’m experiencing a violent rage of my own, and wish to strangle the Wise Man with his own beard.)
And so, over 28 short but pungent chapters, the narrator returns, again and again and with varying degrees of coherence, to the four cardinal points outlined above. By the time he finally kills his wife, we are supposed to understand that he was driven by the unnatural and sinful feelings created by the state of marriage and, ultimately, the sexual act itself. Are we expected to forgive him, or to understand him, or to see him as a puppet in the control of some stronger, baser force? By this stage, I for one no longer know or care. My overriding feeling is that read in isolation, without the nasty little Epilogue and without any previous knowledge of Tolstoy and his convictions, The Kreutzer Sonata could be an astonishing experience. A story of love and hate and violence told through the eyes of an obsessed madman; a disturbing story that would force you to confront levels of human behaviour far removed from the norm; an exploration of ideas about sex and marriage in which the reader could make up his or her own mind. But instead it is presented to us as a polemic, and one filled with spite and prejudice at that; and if we do not read it as the author intended, we have failed to learn the lesson correctly. The moral of the story must always, for the good of the reader, for the good of society, be explicit.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I hate Tolstoy.
The Kreutzer Sonata is shortly to be released in a new translation from Penguin Classics. The quotations in my review are from the version published on Project Gutenberg, because I could not bring myself to sit and translate the original myself.