Leo Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata

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.


  1. Tolstoy’s marvellous – isn’t he? W&P is my #1. I treated myself to a 3-volume collection of his shorter fiction earlier this year and intend to binge on them next year. Though after this review, I may just find myself starting sooner rather than later.

  2. He sure is, and I’ve been eyeing the collections of stories myself. I haven’t the heart for War & Peace though, not this decade at least. Though I see a new ‘original version’ has been brought out, which is ‘only’ 800 pages long… Hmm.

  3. I havent read anything Russian for a while. I liked Anna Karenina, and Dostoyevksy tempts me in every now and then. But I might have to read this one for the stunning cover alone.

  4. I keep picking up that new edition of W&P. So far I’ve managed to resist – do I really need a 3rd edition? Tell you what – if you succumb, so will I.

  5. I have read War and Peace twice, the first time in high school. I reread it in 2001. The only daunting thing about this book is its length. I couldn’t put it down. It surely ranks at the top of any list of all time greats and the war is not the main character. You should give it a try.

  6. I admit to not having read either The Keutzer Sonata or War and Peace, but I have read The Death of Ivan Illych, which I thought was beautifully written and Anna Karenina, which became my all time favorite book, surpassing Wuthering Heights. I think anyone who wants to read Anna Karenina should read the “new” Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It really made a difference to me.

    I agree. That cover is gorgeous.

  7. Thanks Kate. I think I read the Constance Garnett translation of Anna Karenina, which of course is a bit creaky now (she knew Tolstoy, didn’t she?) but on the other hand does have the period feel, which I rather liked. But yes, I have heard that Pevear and Volokhonsky are the way to go with the Russians generally, so will keep an eye out!

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