I am mad about Russian literature.
And I am fascinated by the development of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, as writers began to experiment with point of view and psychologization. What a century! Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.
But is there any greater writer than Tolstoy?
If you a admire his realism, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of characterization, you read and reread War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. And then you turn to his stories and novellas, though they are less satisfying than his novels: Tolstoy needs space. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (Penguin), translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, is a collection of four stories about the consequences of love and sex.
“Family Happiness” is an early story, a predecessor of Anna Karenina. It is an astute, if somewhat rambling, story of a marriage. After her mother’s death, the narrator, Masha, falls in love with her guardian. They had meant to move to the city for Masha’s “coming out.” in society, but now she is stuck in the country with her governess and younger sister. At the age of 17, she is depressed.
The loss of my mother was a very great grief, but I must admit that there was also a feeling that I was young and pretty, as everyone told me, but that I was wasting a second winter in seclusion on our estate. Before the end of the winter, this feeling of melancholy, loneliness, and sheer boredom increased to such an extent that I never left my room, never opened the piano and never took a book in my hands…. In my heart a voice said: “Why? Why do anything, when the best days of my life are being wasted like this?”
Sometimes falling in love is a matter of being primed for an emotion. Sergei, their neighbor and guardian, arrives in March for a visit, and Masha plays the piano for him and enjoys their conversations. Masha makes the first advances in the summer, while Sergei is, appropriately, picking cherries for her. He feels too old for her, and they discuss the nature of love. They get married and are sexually compatible and very happy. Masha has a baby. Then Sergei takes her to the city and she finally enjoys the whirl of society. As Masha becomes excited by flirtations with other men, she spends more time in cities and travels. Perhaps Sergei was never her soulmate, but they do manage to work out their problems after Masha glimpses the ugliness of a potential lover’s cynical view of her. And so it is an optimistic story, though Tolstoy clearly believes that first love cannot last.
Tolstoy’s famous novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” was banned in 1890 by Russian censors for its sexual content. It is by far the most idiosyncratic story in this collection. It is misogynistic to the point that Tolstoy’s wife Sofia wrote her own version, as did their son. (The counterstories are published in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, along with Tolstoy’s novella, translated by Michael Katz)
Set on a train, this brilliant novella is told in the form of a frame story. In the opening chapters, the narrator describes his fellow passengers and recounts their discussion of marriage and divorce. A merchant claims that women’s education has ruined marriage: a feminist woman believes women should not have to live with their husbands if they fall out of love. And then another passenger, Pozdnyshev, tells his story to the narrator: he murdered his wife but was acquitted because she committed adultery. He verbally attacks the “animal” nature of human sexuality, women’s use of contraceptives (one of the things that pushed him over the edge), and preaches abstinence. But Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was the trigger for the murder, when he found his wife and a violinist playing it together on the piano. One of Tolstoy’s later, quirkier beliefs was that music could be too “infectious.” You had to be careful that art didn’t affect your mood! But in many ways the story is redeemed by the reaction of his dying wife, who shows her contempt for him and screams, “Nurse, he’s killed me!” He cannot take it in that he really killed her.
Fascinatingly, Tolstoy meant this story in part as an attack on Turgenev, whose lyrical, philosophical writing he disliked, according to Donna Tussing Orwin, the editor of the Penguin edition. And “The Kreutzer Sonata” duplicates the structure of Turgenev’s First Love (1861) and Spring Torrents (1871), in which philosophical dialogues about love predominate.
In these stories Turgenev depicts failed romantic love and opportunities that his characters usually lacked the courage to pursue. By contrast, The Kreutzer Sonata attacks romantic love, and even associates it with murder.
I admire the brilliant structure, but must admit I hate the story.
In the last two stories, Tolstoy brilliantly continues to explore sexual problems. In “The Devil,” the hero is torn between love of his wife, who does not sexually excite him, and lust for another woman. In “Father Sergei,” the handsome hero breaks off the engagement when he learns his fiancée used to be the czar’s mistress. He becomes a monk, then a hermit, to get away from women, who continue to pursue him sexually. But his ineluctable fall is in a way his return to grace.
Tolstoy is a superb writer, though his philosophy is sometimes cranky. Yet these stories are structurally little gems.