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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A New Reading Challenge?

shelves of classics

Tantalising Glimpse

I have been thinking about ways of revitalising my Landing Book Shelves challenge for 2015 and beyond. Many books remain to be read, especially if I count in all of the books belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up as well. This means that I have plenty to be going on with for the foreseeable future. The astute amongst you will no doubt point out that if I stopped going to the library then I could concentrate better on the Landing Backlog. Book club books and miscellaneous items of review copies that come my way have also regularly distracted me. Alas, ‘twas ever thus (and it will probably remain ever thus!).

I have set myself ‘mini challenges’, challenges within the main challenge as it were, over the last couple of years of this blog. You might cast your minds back (assuming that you have been with me that long) to the Christmas Advent Challenge/Calendar, Poetry in June and The Landing Eight Challenge. All of these literary challenges duly documented, have appeared within these virtual pages. The first two were time specific and featured poetry, rhymes and fiction extracts. I really enjoyed doing those as it was rewarding to rootle through the shelves and search out pieces to read/reread and talk about on the blog. The third challenge centred on my reading a random selection of books from the shelves. This actually drifted on for longer than I had planned and I was relieved to finish my self appointed task. What is next for the Landing TBR Pile Reading Challenge? Some literary planning is urgently required, to give the Landing Blog some fresh topics to feature.

I need to choose a challenge theme first; then to establish a period for the challenge. A month is quite a handy length, as it is long enough to look at extracts from a few volumes but not too long, that I will be in danger of going off the page (as I so frequently do). That would work for poetry or short stories, or for selecting extracts or essays to feature. Or I could aim for a longer (more in depth) challenge of a few months, reading one book per month (book club style).

Now, the task is to work out a few options and make a decision; easier said than done methinks. One choice would be to select a publisher or an imprint and read one title a month perhaps. I could tackle some unread Penguin Classics, Orange Penguins, Modern Classics or Twentieth Century Classics. Then there is a batch of Canongate Classics and several Pimlico non-fiction titles. Not to mention my green and gold ‘Book Club’ classics series (of which Diary of a Nobody was one). Several remain unread to this day, so perhaps that would be the way to go….

I’ll let you know when I have managed to come to a decision!

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.

Tolstoy: The Next Landing TBR Pile Challenge

War and Peace

Cover shows detail from ‘The 1812 Retreat – The Battle of Borodino’ by Vereschagin

I promised you an announcement on the next stage of the Landing Book Shelves Reading Challenge and here it is at long last. As you will no doubt guess from the illustration, the challenge is the reading of War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, 1828 -1910) a big hurdle if ever there was one. This worthy challenge has been put on the Landing Book Shelves agenda because it also happens to be my book group’s project at the moment, this killing the proverbial two birds. I’m not sure how long it will take me to read War and Peace (or how long it will take my fellow book clubbers for that matter) but I undertake to offer my blog readers reasonably regular progress updates. Weighing in at 1444 pages, this lengthy tome will be read in stages in between various other books.

It is just as well that the idea of reading War and Peace for book group came up as it is likely that it would have sat on the Landing Book Shelves almost indefinitely. I say ‘almost’ because I really and truly meant to get around to reading it sometime. I bought my copy in May 1992 with the intention of reading Tolstoy’s epic during my summer holidays. After all this time I can’t recall what I did read that summer, but it certainly wasn’t Tolstoy. So, it’s better late than never on the Russian classics front I suppose.

War and Peace was first published in 1869 (I’ll fill in the publication history in a future post) and the paperback edition that I have on The Landing was first published by Penguin Classics as a two-volume edition in 1957. The one volume edition came out in 1982; the translation is by Rosemary Edmonds from 1957 with revisions in 1973. I’m by no means an expert on the virtues of one translation over another so I will have to trust to the reliability of Penguin Classics in this instance. There are more recent translations available (for example from Penguin Classics and Vintage), but as this is the copy I have on The Landing, I’ll go with this one unless any reader out there tells me that I would be better served with a different translation.

I will be embarking for nineteenth century Russia just as soon as I’ve finished my library book and a couple of review books….I promise…

#PoetryinJune: Kipling

This week sees the last of our daughter’s primary school career so I am posting The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936by in honour. She recited this poem at a school poetry recitation competition and I can safely say that we all knew it by heart by the time the event came around. We have Kipling’s poem in Penguin’s Poems by Heart  (mentioned previously) which was a very apt title as it happened.

The Way Through the Woods

Woodland landscape

The Way Through the Woods

They shut the way through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anenomes.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods.

I may dig up even more nostalgic pieces for #PoetryinJune this week, so be warned…

Photo Credit: D.J.L. 2012

#PoetryinJune : A Sonnet

Sonnet (number XLIII) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

book jacket of Poems by Heart

To love and remember

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion, put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with the love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I did mention yesterday that I was thinking of choosing one of Shakespeare’s sonnet’s before opting for some verses from a play, so today I have indeed given you a sonnet. This one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was originally written in 1845 and published in 1850 as part of a collection called Sonnets from the Portuguese. I have taken the sonnet from the small but beautifully chosen anthology published by Penguin Classics (2009) and selected by Laura Barber that is pictured above. I think I bought this originally as an ideal travelling companion as it is neat enough to fit in pocket or bag.

Elizabeth Barrett had been writing and translating poetry and essays for several years before she was introduced to her future husband Robert Browning in 1845, who later persuaded her to publish her love sonnets. My first awareness of Barrett Browning had been though the story of the couple’s love affair and elopement which was set against a background of parental disapproval and Barrett Browning’s invalid status. The film The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934 version) made a great impression on me, as Charles Laughton was so terrifying as Mr Edward Barrett. All this for me, initially overshadowed her values and achievements. She wrote in support of the anti-slavery movement (her family money came from Jamaican plantations) and also of child labour reform legislation. By the time Robert Browning asked to be introduced to her, she was a very well-known and critically acclaimed writer.

If you want to know more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life and work I can recommend a biography by Margaret Forster (1989) and also Lady’s Maid (1990) in which Forster went on to explore the life of Barrett Browning’s devoted maid Lily Wilson. For something more unusual, but well worth reading try Virginia Woolf’s Flush: a biography (1933) told from the point of view of  Barrett Browning’s pet dog which was given to Elizabeth by the writer Mary Russell Mitford. Finally, I have discovered that there is a Browning Society which promotes and discusses the work of both Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

 

MGM poster of Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Charles Laughton

Original film poster

More tomorrow!

(Film poster taken from Wikipedia)

A Glimpse of the TBR Pile: A Reading Challenge

shelves of classics

Tantalising Glimpse

A friend has given me a suggestion for a way of tackling my TBR Pile Reading Challenge, so I am basing this piece on that feedback (thanks Teri!). Never let it be said that I fail to listen to sensible advice (especially when I asked for it in the first place).

Various tantalising glimpses have been given of my Landing Bookshelves, but I have not actually written down any of the titles that I may tackle during my trek around the TBR Pile. This post is an attempt to remedy the lack thereof. It will probably be a random list as I am about to leave my computer and browse the shelves for ideas. The plan is to simply jot down any title from the TBR Pile that takes my fancy and present the list to you, dear reader, as an indication of my future (good) intentions.

Before I set off for uncharted (and possibly shockingly dusty) territories, I will just draw to your attention that I have set up a Bibliography page on the site, where I plan to list all of the books mentioned (however briefly) in the Reading Challenge blog posts. Some titles may be out of print, but I will try to remember to give details of dates, publishers etc in case anyone wants to follow up on anything. I hope to update the page regularly and even to maintain strict alphabetical order (that might be a challenge in itself).

(Noises off...)

Now, that was quick; I am back already from the cobwebby wastes of the upper storey with my list of books; in no particular order I hasten to add.

On the menu: The Landing Eight

A pile of classic novels

Progress…

 

The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey (Orange Penguin)

The Frontenac Mystery François Mauriac  (Penguin Modern Classics)

The Go-Between L P Hartley (Penguin Classics)

In a Free State V S Naipaul (Orange Penguin)

The Periodic Table Primo Levi (Everyman)

The Diary of a Nobody George & Weedon Grossmith (Guild Publishing)

Murderers and Other Friends John Mortimer (Orange Penguin)

The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan (Orange Penguin)

Some of the above will be re-reads but most of them are genuinely from the TBR Pile that constitutes much of the Landing Bookshelves, but I will leave it until a future date to disclose which are which, thus creating a modicum of suspense. I will not promise to read them in any particular order, but rather as the fancy takes me. I have also spotted a more few books that I would like to write about, but I will tuck them in here and there as a surprise literary morsel in between courses.

Feel free to suggest any preferences as to reading order. In the meantime, I will be busy cleaning my bookshelves; I may be some time.

Until we meet again behind the TBR Pile…