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…

 

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Maugham on Fiction: An Inspiration for an Essay Reading Challenge

Maugham early in his career

An early career author picture

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading some of William Somerset Maugham’s essays from Ten Novels and their Authors (1954, 1978). I skipped through the book to pick out authors that I have read so far for The Landing TBR project. The collection has also reminded me (as if I needed it), that I have many books on the shelves that I have not yet tackled. Perhaps this essay collection will give me the impetus to explore writers, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky that remain on the TBR Pile. Maugham includes Tolstoy and War and Peace in his Ten Novels selection and attentive Landing readers will recall that I finally got around to reading War and Peace last year. Reading Dostoyevsky would enable me to continue the Russian literature theme that developed after my reading of Tolstoy’s novel. Maugham also writes about Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights, which caused me to want to re-read that novel, as well as to dig out the Juliet Barker biography of the Bronte family from the back bedroom stash to check a few facts.

What I do have in mind for this year however, is to begin a new Landing Challenge to explore some of the essay collections scattered around the house (not all of them live on The Landing). I was thinking of dipping into a few collections rather than solidly reading all of them. Some collections belong to me (and I am more likely to have read some of these) but the ones belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up are largely still on my mental ‘to read sometime’ list. My plan would be to tackle a few of the essay collections spaced out over the year, in between reading other books. I might set out to cover (no pun intended) some literary essays first, since chance led me to the Maugham collection.

Ten Novels

A bargain at 90p!

I have been trying to read up a little on Maugham’s life and career but have found several apparent contradictions in online sources so I won’t give you more than brief biographical details here. I am however intrigued enough to attempt to track down a definitive account so when I do, I will post up about it. Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and died in Nice in 1965. His father Robert was a lawyer and his mother Edith Snell was a writer. Orphaned by the age of ten, an aunt and uncle in England brought him up. Maugham was a homosexual at a time when it was still illegal and therefore dangerous to admit publicly, though his orientation was accepted in the literary circles he frequented. He did however enter into what proved to be a short-lived marriage with interior designer Syrie Barnardo and had a daughter, Liza. But more of Maugham’s life and times when I have researched further.

Of the subjects in Maugham’s collection, I have read Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, so I will read his essays on these books and talk about them in my next blog post.

And then there’s the remaining five novels that he discuses…..back to the TBR Pile!

Leskov and Shostakovich on The Landing

Following on from the Landing Book Shelves foray into Russian literature, with Tolstoy and Pasternak, we have Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) with The Enchanted Wanderer (first serialised in Russkiy Mir, St Petersburg, 1873) which was translated by Ian Dreiblatt. Technically this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Landing book, since I only bought it this year and it has sat on my bedside table more or less ever since. I have been reading it over the last week or so in between a couple of the inevitable library finds (I must do a library books blog post soon with a few ‘recommends’).

I had been browsing in the Rathfarnham Map and Bookshop but I was about to leave empty handed when this smart Melville House edition (2012) of the Leskov caught my eye. Melville House is another of those publishers that has had the smart idea of publishing lesser known classics (Hesperus  and Persephone are also publishers of forgotten classics) and in particular Melville specialises in novellas. The blurb on the back jacket says that many of the titles published have never been seen in book form before. I’m already lusting after more books from the publishing list, but they will have to join the mental book queue.

The Enchanted Wanderer

Simple and Elegant…

I hadn’t heard of Leskov before, but when I read the back jacket for some biographical details, I let out a small cry of delight. At this point you should be warned that I am about to digress somewhat from the topic of The Enchanted Wanderer. The reason for that unseemly public outburst was my discovering that Leskov had written a novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first published in 1865). The significance of that piece of information is that it provoked in me a burst of nostalgia. I went to see the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) on an Art College trip to London with my sister several years ago. The production was an English National Opera piece at the Coliseum. Our night at the opera was the final item in a packed day of sightseeing. I remember being in the bar of the coliseum feeling tired, footsore and too scruffy for the wonderful surroundings. Strangely enough, I don’t recall that anyone else batted an eyelid even though everyone seemed much smarter than we were.

I have been trying to pin down the date of the London trip because unusually for me, I don’t have a programme saved. As far as I can tell from my friend Google, it was the spring of 1987 though I don’t know the exact date as I’m not sure how long the  opera ran. This was to be my first opera and a dramatic start to opera going it proved to be indeed. Our seats were up the Gods, for the princely sum of £5 if my memory serves me correctly. It still amazes me that you could go to a production of such quality for so little cost at that time and of course, in such a fabulous building.

Leskov’s book ticks all the dramatic boxes for passion, murder and jealousy and it was turned into a four act opera with some changes in the action. I’ll just briefly set the scene so as not to spoil the plot too much. The plot of Lady Macbeth tells the story of  provincial merchant’s wife Katerina Ismailova, who is unhappily married to Zinovy Ismailov. She is Zinovy’s second wife and is  constantly berated by her father in law Boris for not producing an heir for the estate. Enter a new farmhand called Sergei who is attracted to Katerina and the plot thickens.  Set against the background of provincial life, Leskov tackles the themes of adultery, the subservient role of women and murder. Here’s a plot summary of the book if you want to know who dun what and to whom.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Programme from 2001 revival

Shostakovich’s opera was written in 1932 and first performed in 1934, but fell foul of Stalin in 1936 and disappeared from the public eye until the 1960s. I discovered from an article in the Guardian from 2004 that the sex and violence in the opera didn’t go down too well with the party leadership, though Lady M had been a great success with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. When it first re-surfaced, the opera was produced in a bowdlerised form but later staging of the opera returned to the original version. Here’s a review that I dug up from The Spectator of 5 June 1987:

No problems whatsoever with David Pountney’s shattering production of Shostakovich’s second opera. The tragedy is that it should have been his last: Stalin’s notorious denunciation of 1936 effectively silenced a 27-year-old opera composer of genius. For this reason if no other, Pountney’s updating the work to the 1930s and setting it in an abattoir is an act of neat gallows-humour revenge. Brimming with pole-axing coups de theatre, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder and graced with a central performance by Josephine Barstow [Katerina]that is remarkable even by that singing actress’s own Himalayan standards, this is without doubt the best show in the West End, and to miss it would be sheer insanity. Oh, and it was absolutely ready on the first night.

I remember that the whole production, from the music to the singing, to the spectacular set design absolutely overwhelmed me. It probably wouldn’t have been the opera that anyone would recommend as beginner’s choice, but for me it was a brilliant way to start. You were picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung in at the deep end. And it was sung in English, which helped considerably. I think it was also the first time that I heard Willard White (Boris) sing and though I can’t claim to be an operatic expert, even I can tell that he had (and probably still does have) a wonderful voice and a charismatic stage presence.

We might have been high up in the theatre, but the opening bars of the music made an immediate impact on us. You should have seen weary students (and me), preparing to settle down in the comfortable seats and recover from the day’s exertions, jerk upright at the first dramatic notes of Shostakovich’s score. This is the first time I’ve thought about that trip for years and even now I can remember the excitement and the shocking action of the plot. I don’t think it will surprise anyone too much if I mention that Katerina (Lady Macbeth) comes to a sad and sticky end, as tragedy seems to be a staple ingredient of operatic stories. I was reading about the later revival of the opera by ENO  a few years ago and I’ve included a picture of the programme as I can’t locate one from 1987. Maybe sometime I’ll get to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk again, but I’ll certainly look out for a copy of the book.

All this was quite a digression from The Enchanted Wanderer, so I may have to return to him in another blog post. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer reading. Any recommendations?

Musings on Tolstoy’s Women

War and Peace, first edition

First edition, 1869

Now that I’ve finished my mammoth Tolstoy reading challenge, I’ve been trying to come up with an angle for a blog post on War and Peace without plot spoiling for any new readers. I was fortunate enough to begin Tolstoy’s opus with only a hazy idea of the plot and the knowledge that the background was Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. I studiously avoided discovering a synopsis of the novel, wishing to discover the intricacies for myself.

My search for a blog theme proved tricky, as I am sure you can imagine, working with such a long novel full of plot twists and turns. In the end, I have come down to the idea of looking at Tolstoy’s female characters, if I can do so without giving too much vital information away. The novel has a long cast list that includes several important female characters who are involved in the main threads of the drama. The women are members of the small group of families that the story follows during the years leading up to 1812 and the fall of Moscow. Here is a snap shot of some of Tolstoy’s women, as we meet them in Part I:

I think I will have to begin with Natasha (Natalie) Rostov as her part in the story is so crucial. The members of the Rostov family as a whole are very likeable but Natasha seems to be the bright, vivacious heart of the household. At the beginning of the novel, she is still a young girl who is not yet ‘out’ whose close companion is her cousin Sonja who lives as a sister with the family. The two girls are very close friends despite (or perhaps because of) their differing personalities. We first meet Natasha on her and her mother’s fête day, which was celebrated with a huge party attended by anyone and everyone. You get a glimpse of the daughter’s possible future in Tolstoy’s description of the elder Natasha as ‘evidently worn out with child-bearing – she was the mother of a dozen children. Her languid movements and slow speech due to her frail health gave her an air of dignity which inspired respect’.

All this is still a long way off for young Natasha who at this stage is still a child who ‘with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life’ and still enjoying childish games. Still apparently not much more than a child (and yet already with child) was Lisa Meinen, married to Prince Bolkonsky. Her first appearance is at a small party given by Anna Pavlovna who is one of the Empress Marie’s maids of honour. Lisa hardly seems to be a woman at all, but a child in grown-up costume. Everyone refers to her as the ‘little princess’ and ‘enjoyed seeing this lovely young creature so full of life and gaiety, soon to become a mother and bearing her burden so lightly’. The only person who seems not to be enamoured of the little princess is her husband, ‘the face of his pretty little wife was apparently the one that bored him most. With a grimace that distorted his handsome countenance he turned away from her’. I won’t say any more about their relationship in case I give too much away.

Prince Bolkonsky’s sister Marie is mentioned early on in the novel, during Anna Pavlovna’s reception as a possible bride for Prince Vasili’s son Anatole. He’s costing his father a fortune so a suitable heiress is required to plug the hole in the family finances. Princess Marie is devoted to her eccentric, tyrannical father and to her religious duties. Tolstoy mentions Marie’s ‘beautiful eyes’ several times but she is not beautiful or lively in the mould of Natasha or Lisa. She has a ‘heavy tread’ and a ‘thin, sickly face’ which appeared beautiful when her eyes shone with tears or emotion.

In complete contrast is Prince Vasili’s daughter Hélène who is very beautiful and fully aware of her charms, ‘she even appeared a little apologetic for her unquestionable, all too conquering beauty. She seemed to wish but to be able to tone down its effect’. Hélène is described by Tolstoy as being ‘statuesque’ which is a clear contrast to the delicate girl/woman figures of Natasha and Lisa. At this early stage of the story all we can glean about Prince Vasili’s daughter is that she has great beauty and a wonderful figure which she is not shy about displaying. She is a blank canvas compared to the other women, whose personalities we can glimpse soon after meeting them.  

I’ll leave my introductions to some of Tolstoy’s women at that, in the hope that if you have never tackled War and Peace, you do decide to at some point in the future.  As I mentioned before, I am continuing a Russian theme with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which I will post about soon.   

How is your New Year reading going?

   

Doctor Zhivago: More Russian Literature

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

This reading year is beginning briskly with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (Vintage Books) which is a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves. Pasternak’s epic novel was a Christmas present from He Who Put The Shelves Up to enable me to continue my Russian reading period after finishing War and Peace. I just managed to finish the latter on the cusp of the New Year and I can still feel a modest glow of success at that achievement. Now that I’ve finally read War and Peace I would like to go on to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so perhaps that might be a possibility for later this year.

I haven’t yet set any aims for this reading year but my broad plan will be to continue to tackle long neglected novels (and perhaps auto/biographies too). I was interested to come across a similar challenge on Twitter where writer Lynn Shepherd is inviting people to join her in reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa beginning tomorrow. A mammoth literary task if ever there was one (see @Lynn_Shepherd for more information and to join in).

I hope to tie up War and Peace with one more blog post (if I can manage to write something without plot spoiling) and I will give an update on the Doctor Zhivago progress as soon as possible. I’m toying with a couple more ideas for future reads as well, so watch this space!

Meanwhile why not drop me a line below to let everyone know about your 2014 reading challenges. Happy New Reading Year to one and all!

More on the War and Peace Challenge

This short War and Peace post is a diversion from the actual text of the novel, being a clip from the 1956 film version of Tolstoy’s novel. I’ve never seen a screen version of War and Peace so recently I trawled  YouTube to investigate what adaptations had been made. Imagine the delight of a Audrey Hepburn fan on finding that the future the star of My Fair Lady (1964) once played the part of Natasha Rostov. I’m not sure that she was right for the role (possibly an unfair observation given that I’ve neither finished the book nor yet seen the film) but in the snatches that I’ve looked at she’s never less than as delightful as usual.

The clip below is taken from the scene depicting her first ball and her first dance with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, which is the part I had got up to reading last night:

Having read that scene last night, I’d say that the filmed version doesn’t really capture Natasha’s experience of the ball or her emotions on dancing with Andrei; very Hollywood-ish. Neither am I convinced by Mel Ferrer as Andrei, though perhaps he was cast in the part as he was Hepburn’s husband at the time.

Meanwhile I am loving the novel, though I have broken it up with another couple of library reads. I’ll do a more detailed post next time.

Now all I want for Christmas is….

YouTube credits: uploaded on 17/5/12 (Movieclips)

War and Peace was directed by King Vidor and produced by Carlo Ponti

The First Bulletin on War and Peace

As I’m sure my readers will be pleased to know, my War and Peace challenge is making relatively good progress. Note that I’m hedging a bit here by using the word ‘relatively’ to describe my rate of reading. I have actually reached page eighty-five and I’m at the point where Count Bezuhov has suffered his sixth stroke and is not expected to live. Naturally enough the heirs presumptive are getting anxious as they can see a fortune slipping from their hands into those of Bezuhov’s illegitimate son Pierre.  I wonder what skullduggery may be afoot in the aftermath of the count’s death.

First Edition of War and Peace

First Edition, 1869

Already many aspects of human nature have popped up during the drama; I’ve met a diverse cast of characters in the action occurring between Moscow and St Petersburg. Not surprisingly I was rather taken with the younger players in the story, who were enjoying (and suffering) their first pangs of love. Natasha Rostov is delightful and I am almost apprehensive about what vicissitudes her life will throw at her, but I’m trying not to leap ahead and plot spoil for myself. I’ve never seen a film version of War and Peace and I’m studiously avoiding plot summaries that I’ve come across.

The thing that I find particularly fascinating is the sheer number of princes and princesses in the novel, to the extent that I’m tempted to try to find out just how many there were in Imperial Russia at that time. It also seems that having the title of prince or princess didn’t necessarily mean that you were wealthy. Having consulted Wikipedia, I’ve discovered that the titles of prince and princess belong to the titled nobility (which could be acquired) as opposed to the ancient hereditary nobility. Wikipedia goes on to point out that,

By 1805, the various ranks of the nobility had become confused, as is apparent in War and Peace. Here, we see counts who are wealthier and more important than princes. We see many noble families whose wealth has been dissipated, partly through lack of primogeniture and partly through extravagance and poor estate management. We see young noblemen serving in the Army, but we see none who acquire new landed estates that way’.  

A Noble Assembly

Nobles in the time of Catherine the Great

So presumably that accounts for poor old Princess Anna Drubetskoy desperately trying to obtain a placement and funding for her son Boris. This little bit is quite telling, ‘The mother smoothed her dyed silk gown, glanced at herself in the massive Venetian mirror on the wall and briskly mounted the carpeted staircase in her down-at-heel shoes’. A few lines above, her cloak is described as ‘threadbare’ which is noticed by a sharp-eyed servant.

I’m going to dive back into Imperial Russia now, having had a short break to finish a couple of library books, so I’ll hope to post up again soon with a further update.

Back soon….and if anyone else is tackling a hefty tome at the moment please let us know about it!

Picture Credits: Thanks to Wikipedia for the illustrations.