Penguin Books ‘Great Loves’ series: Leo Tolstoy and The Kreutzer Sonata

Today’s post on Leo Tolstoy means a return to my occasional Russian theme, though yet again it is a digression from the TBR Pile. There is however, a good reason for the latest diversion from the straight and narrow as it resulted from my first ever visit to The Secret Book and Record Store in Dublin. As with so many things, I can’t believe that it has taken me years to get around to exploring this treasure trove of books (I haven’t yet tackled the record stock). Of course, I couldn’t come out without buying anything could I? Not only that, I had to fetch The Bookworm and show her what I had discovered, so yet more book buying occurred that day.

The Kreutzer Sonata

A striking jacket…

One of my finds was a novella by Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata published as one of Penguin’s Great Loves series of twenty examples of ‘the most seductive, inspiring and surprising writing on love in all its infinite variety.’ The book, originally written in 1889 apparently drew on Tolstoy’s own marriage (1862) to Sofya Andreyevna, which by all accounts was a rather stormy relationship. The introduction states that ‘together they had thirteen children’. The writer fails to point out that the brunt of that would have been borne (pun intended) by poor Sofya. Sadly, of the thirteen children that she bore, only eight survived to adulthood.

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy sets out his case against marriage and carnal love, with the story of a marriage that went disastrously wrong. The narrator of the sad tale is a train passenger called Pozdnyshev, who begins to relate the story of his life and marriage to a fellow passenger, after a disagreement between the travellers about love, marriage and divorce. I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, for those who haven’t read the book. Suffice to say that it isn’t a very cheerful read, as the main character can see no justification for marriage, or indeed any sexual relationship between men and women, as the result of his experiences with women. Pozdnyshev’s theory is that it is impossible to maintain a long-term relationship and that love and attraction does not last:

But when, as is most often the case, the husband and wife accept the external obligation to live together all their lives and have, by the second month, come to loathe the sight of each other, want to get divorced and yet go on living together, it usually ends in that terrible hell that drives them to drink, makes them shoot themselves, kill and poison each other.

If that was Tolstoy’s view, based on his own experience, then you can see why Sofya was not impressed that he chose to use that material in his book. But to be fair to Tolstoy, he seems to be saying, through his tormented fictional character, that marriage was not particularly good for women either, in particular so-called love matches. He goes as far as to compare the process whereby young women were taught to use their arts and finery to attract to a husband as immoral, saying that ‘As a rule we may say that while short-term prostitutes are generally looked down upon, long-term prostitutes are treated with respect’. Pozdnyshev goes on to say that ‘a woman is like a slave in a market or a piece of bait for a trap’. He rails against the idea of choice in a match, rather than the old-fashioned way of a matchmaker making a bargain. He maintains that it was fairer to both parties that way; less degrading than the prospective brides’ mothers parading them before men to take their pick.

Pozdnyshev then goes on to explain to his companion that the problems stem from women being so dominant. His fellow traveller is sceptical and asks how this can be so, when men have ‘all the rights and privileges’. Pozdnyshev puts forward his theory that this is to do with voting and has nothing to do with sexual rights, which is where the real issue, as he see it, lies.

No, it has to do with the fact that in sexual relations, she’s not the man’s equal. She doesn’t have the right to avail herself of the man or abstain from him, according to her desire, to select the man she wants rather than be the one who’s selected…And, in order to compensate for this, she acts on the man’s sensuality, so that he’s only formally the one who chooses… And once she has mastered this technique, she abuses it and acquires a terrible power over men.

And what do the wicked woman do to facilitate their seduction and domination of men? Well briefly, they go shopping. They are consumers of luxury goods, ‘keeping nine tenths of the human race in servitude, doing hard labour’ and have ‘turned themselves into such effective instruments for acting on [men’s] senses that [the men] can’t even speak to them with equanimity.’ So, in case you missed something there, what Tolstoy, through his mouthpiece Pozdnyshev, appears to be saying is that men are such poor weak creatures that they are unable to resist women’s lures. In other words, it’s all the fault of those pesky women using their fancy frocks (not to mention flesh) to get what they cannot get by legal and above-board means.

As you can probably imagine, the narrator’s marriage did not end well, but I won’t go into details and give away the ending. In The Epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata (1890), Tolstoy explained his view on carnal love and marriage thus:

Let us stop believing that carnal love is high and noble and understand that any end worth our pursuit — in service of humanity, our homeland, science, art, let alone God — any end, so long as we may count it worth our pursuit, is not attained by joining ourselves to the objects of our carnal love in marriage or outside it; that, in fact, infatuation and conjunction with the object of our carnal love (whatever the authors of romances and love poems claim to the contrary) will never help our worthwhile pursuits but only hinder them.

I cannot help thinking that it was a pity he didn’t discover this view of carnal love before he caused his wife to endure childbirth thirteen times. It was rather late to get to be so high-minded about carnality.

After my Russian period, I’m not sure where I’m heading for my next post, but I will promise to try to stick to the TBR Pile…