Tolstoy is the man for when you’re in recovery mode from reading a dozen new novels in a row and want to make sure that what you tackle next is Definitely Literature. (Even if you enjoyed most of the dozen new novels and suspect some of them of being Probably Literature.) My skirmishes with him so far have neatly avoided the daddy of them all, War & Peace, but I can claim Anna Karenina under my belt, which I enjoyed reading but not as much as I enjoyed the fact of having read it, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which was quite phenomenally brilliant and (don’t hate me) even more phenomenally short. And now Penguin have reissued a story of his, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), in their handsome new Great Loves series.
And it’s as spiky and as bloody as that cover suggests. It has that format so endearing to the 19th century writer, the story-within-a-story: I wonder why it was considered plausible then for a man on a train to tell a stranger his life story over 120 pages, and why the writer didn’t cut out the middleman and just give us a direct first person narrative from him. In this case, our narrator meets Pozdnyshev on a train, and learns about his marriage in direct terms: or, as Pozdnyshev introduces the subject, “I ended up murdering my wife.” The tease.
We already know he has uncompromising views on love and sex from an earlier exchange in the train:
‘Loving the same man or woman all your life – why, that’s like supposing the same candle could last you all your life.’
‘But you’re just talking about physical love. Wouldn’t you admit that there can be a love that’s founded on shared ideals, on spiritual affinity?’
‘Spiritual affinity? Shared ideals? There’s not much point in going to bed together if that’s what you’re after (excuse the plain language). Do people go to bed together because of shared ideals?’ he said, laughing nervously.
He doesn’t get any more conciliatory. He tells how before marriage, he lived a life of “debauchery – the sort of life all men do.” And worse: “My God! I recoil in horror from the memory of all my filthy acts!” So when it comes to marriage, it’s easy to see how his judgement is corrupted: “I was wallowing in the slime of debauchery, and at the same time looking for girls who might be pure enough to be worthy of me!”
Pozdnyshev’s story is filled with this sort of self-loathing, which leaks into a generalised misanthropy. It’s bracingly bleak stuff, like a sharp and bitterly cold wind. He goes on to describe the immediate disillusionment he felt when marriage did come around. Relations between him and his bride were quickly brought low:
Our amorous feelings for one another had been drained by the gratification of our senses, and we were now left facing each other in our true relation, as two egotists who had nothing whatever in common except our desire to use each other to obtain the maximum amount of pleasure.
But a little directness goes a long way, and soon I felt that despite the atmospheric account, and the brilliant portrayal of sexual jealousy as a form of self-perpetuating anxiety, I would have been keen for Pozdnyshev to think something he didn’t say. Or do I mean Tolstoy? Because when reading around the story, I found first that Tolstoy’s wife was appalled that he had drawn on their own experiences together in writing the story. And also that he later published an addendum to the story, explaining that his views and intentions were more or less the same as Pozdnyshev’s, whereas I had thought the latter to be a deliberately appalling character supposed to highlight through absurdity everything that was wrong in what he said.
Nonetheless the story is readable and at the closing scenes, highly dramatic. It’s also admirably and surprisingly direct on the subject of sex in the 19th century, and it’s not surprising that it was suppressed by the Russian authorities on publication. The US government agreed, and banned its publication in newspapers. Sex: then as now, the moral majority’s great leveller.