Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata - Leo Tolstoy

"that only happens in novels"

The opening line of Anna Karenina is one of the most famous in literature. It is often brought out to illustrate the difficulty of writing about happiness, as if it could only occur within a framework of cliched mundanity. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

However the main character in The Kreutzer Sonata, Pózdnyshev, posits an opposing view, that all families (marriages at least) are unhappy, and that the differences are slight. Love, he says, is an illusion. "The husband and the wife merely deceive people by pretending to be monogamists, while living polygamously. That is bad, but still bearable. But when, as most frequently happens, the husband and wife have undertaken the external duty of living together all their lives and begin to hate each other after a month, and wish to part but still continue to stay together, it leads to that terrible hell which makes people take to drink, shoot themselves, and kill or poison themselves or one another..."
The story takes place in a train carriage and after some initial conversation which revolves around love and divorce and modernity, we are harangued at great length by Pózdnyshev as he explains how it came to pass that he killed his wife. He blames the conventions of love and marriage and how little they chime with the conventions about the behaviour of rich, young men.

Before we get to hear Pózdnyshev we hear a conversation between other people in the carriage, including woman and an old man, a peasant. She proposes that marriage must be based on love - "how is one to live with a man when there is no love?" The old man thinks that the old ways and arranged marriages were better - "As times are now they can't help happening. People have got too educated." However Pózdnyshev changes the whole tenor of the conversation when he declares "I am that Pózdnyshev" who "killed his wife."

The narrator then ends up sitting beside Pózdnyshev in an emptied carriage. The killer wants to tell his story, saying that "it is painful for me to be silent."The murderer's tale/treatise centres on how society's lies about the nature of love and marriage led to the killing. It is a barely fictionalised polemic against the lies that underwrote love and marriage in upper class Russia of the time.

He tells how he was sexualised before he was ready: "I had not yet known any woman, but, like all the unfortunate children of our class, I was no longer an innocent boy. I had been depraved two years before that by other boys. Already woman, not some particular woman but woman as something to be desired, woman, every woman, woman's nudity, tormented me." What 'depraved' means in this case I am not fully certain of. Does it simply mean that he was introduced to a way of thinking bout women or, as I understood on first reading that he was abused sexually by older boys.

It is not this being 'depraved' that he sees as the crucial incident, however, but his first sexual contact with a woman. He recalls how "a so called good fellow - that is, the worst kind of good-for-nothing - who had taught us to drink and to play cards, persuaded us after a carousal to go there." There is clearly a euphemism for a brothel and there he feels he lost something he cannot recover and even at the time was overwhelmed with sadness -  "before I left the room, I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to cry - to cry for the loss of my innocence and for my relationship with women, now sullied for ever."

He expounds on how this 'debauchery' has been normalised by society but is simultaneously covered up in other arenas. Pózdnyshev notes that "when we thirty-year-old profligates, very carefully washed, shaved, perfumed, in clean linen and in evening dress or uniform, enter a drawing-room or ball-room, we are emblems of purity, charming!" This leads to a false foundation being created upon which relationships are built. In some ways this book has the same target as Don Quixote, emphasising as it does the difference between romance, especially fictional romance, and reality. "In all the novels they describe in details the heroes' feelings and the ponds and bushes beside which they walk, but when their great love for some maiden is described, nothing is said about what has happened to these interesting heroes before: not a word about their frequenting certain houses, or about the servant girls, cooks, and other people's wives! If there are such improper novels they are not put into the hands of those who most need this information - the unmarried girls."

However, no less than the Don, Tolstoy's antihero can be read as a deluded madman rather than a unsentimental lover of truth. He is argument ad absurdum made flesh. He finds a crack in the way life is lived and imagines the Grand Canyon. He has a vested interest in the whole of society getting it wrong. It would make him and his actions less wrong. He blames more than the way forms of male sexuality are encouraged in private and dissembled in society, blaming diet and lifestyle - "You see our stimulating superabundance of food, together with complete physical idleness, is nothing but a systematic excitement of desire."

And it is not just food. The food of love is blamed too. Here is Pózdnyshev on the titular Kreutzer Sonata "Ugh! Ugh! It is a terrible thing, that sonata."..."And in general music is a terrible thing! What is  it? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? They say music exalts the soul. Nonsense, it is not true! It has the effect, an awful effect - I am speaking of myself - but not of an exalting kind. It has neither an exalting nor a debasing effect but it produces agitation." But agitation and excitement aren't necessarily the prelude to the action he has taken.

He also attacks science, saying that if the same effort was put into erasing debauched behaviour as is put into finding a cure for STD's that they would have been erased already. It seems as if Tolstoy may have believed some of these delusions and he held ideas on chastity and hard work which put him firmly in the crank register. The Lord Baden Powell of literature.

Tolstoy followed The Kreutzer Sonata with an essay the following year in which Tolstoy outlines his own views on the issues raised by The Kreutzer Sonata relating to love, sex and marriage. He holds that celibacy should be the target of all good Christians as it is a truth revealed in the Gospels that it is the better way and that Christian marriage is a failure rather than a desirable aim - "not only to form a liaison, but even to contract marriage, is, from a Christian point of view, not a progress, but a fall." However, even reading the essay there is a recognition of the fact that these are ideals that contradict essential nature. His logic is that perfect ideals will help to strengthen weaknesses in humanity while it is just as 'logical' to say that his system guarantees failure, and that one failure may lead to another as in the novel.

The novel, whatever it's weaknesses and however strongly you may disagree with Tolstoy's view on the subject matter explored in the novel, opened up subjects for discussion which are still often hidden away. It is also possible to arrive at quite different views to Tolstoy from a reading of the book, as its polemic is framed in such a way that we are not pushed to accept Pózdnyshev's views as anything other than self-justification.

It is possible to see the book as showing up the damage that lying and disguising our sexuality can do, and that those lies can be of the libertine or puritanical variety. An interesting read, full of thought provoking lines and passages, a couple of which I will end this post with:

"It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness."

"Slavery, you know, is nothing else than the exploitation by some of the unwilling labour of the many. Therefore to get rid of slavery it is necessary that people should not wish to profit by the forced labour of others and should consider it a sin and a shame. But they go and abolish the external form of slavery and arrange that one can no longer buy and sell slaves, and they imagine and assure themselves that slavery no longer exists and do not see or wish to see that it does, because people still want and consider it good and right to exploit the labour of others. And as long as they consider that good, there will always be people stronger or more cunning than others who will succeed in doing it. So it is with the emancipation of woman: the enslavement of woman lies simply in the fact that people desire, and think it good, to avail themselves of her as a tool of enjoyment. Well, and they liberate woman, give her all sort of rights equal to man, but continue to regard her as an instrument of enjoyment, and so educate her in childhood and afterwards by public opinion. And there she is, still the same humiliated and depraved slave, and the man still a depraved slave-owner."

"...I considered myself to have a complete right to her body as if it were my own, and yet at the same time I could not control that body..."

And just to show that Leo could be funny: "I wanted to run after him but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."


  1. I remember reading this a while back, but very little else remains of the experience (except that I enjoyed it). I'm sure I'm trying to say something here, but I'm not quite sure what it is...

    1. It is more like an essay than a novel for a large part of it, which may account for it slipping from the memory. Anyway, it would be unfair to expect commenters to know what they're saying when I'm far from sure what I'm saying in the actual post, but doing so in a lot of words.

  2. I have Anna Karenina coming up later in the year, so I'm glad I won't have to butt heads with this work just yet. I think I'd lose! "I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible" is kind of a cool line, though; I can imagine Nick Cave crooning it on one of his mid to late '80s Australian Elvis LPs with the Bad Seeds.

    1. I can now hear that line in a totally different way. Look forward to your posts on AK. It's a long time since I read it.