The Kreutzer Sonata Variations: Lev Tolstoy’s Novella and Counterstories
By Sofiya Tolstaya and Lev Lvovich Tolstoy
(Yale, 384 pages, $40)
A month or so ago, This American Life host Ira Glass landed in hot water for casually tweeting “Shakespeare sucks.” Well, Glass deserved it; still, the backlash provoked a kind of counter-reaction in me. There’s more to say for Shakespeare, one hopes, than polite applause, and an audience with only that probably isn’t worthy of him.
Yet there is at least one person in the world whose robust hatred of Shakespeare cannot be so easily dismissed. Leo Tolstoy wrote more than once about how much he loathed the man’s work, and he dedicated a whole pamphlet to breaking down all the flaws in King Lear. These arguments are worth taking seriously—and there’s also something exhilarating about watching a man with a fully formed aesthetic sense claim to find Shakespeare, sacred as he is, utterly repulsive.
Myself, I love Shakespeare (especially King Lear), and am no great aficionado of the works of Leo Tolstoy. He is a hard man to love and an easy one to hate, and he does not make separating his life from his work easy. This comes out powerfully in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, a new volume from Yale University Press, edited and translated by Michael R. Katz, that collects contemporary responses to The Kreutzer Sonata, a story Tolstoy wrote in the latter half of his career (along with a new translation of the story itself). There are “counter-stories” by Tolstoy’s wife and son, an essay by the famed writer himself, and excerpts from diaries, memoirs, and reviews.
The Kreutzer Sonata was the kind of story that would provoke enough memorable responses to make such a volume worthwhile. Emile Zola called it “a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination” (and the man who wrote it, “cracked”). It’s full of a deep-rooted misanthropy that attacks almost every aspect of human life, no matter how seemingly innocuous. It tells the story of Pozdnyshev, a man who recounts to a fellow passenger on a train the story of how he murdered his wife out of (probably unfounded) jealousy.
Even as he confesses to his crime, Pozdnyshev points his accusing finger elsewhere. As he looked down at his dying wife, Pozdnyshev says, whom he had never treated well, he realized he had killed her long ago. Killed her, he claims, because of the rank sexual hypocrisy of polite society. He had killed her because of women’s clothes (too revealing), marriage (corrupt), sex (swinish), love (a fable), music (too powerful). There was no other choice. So now he warns others, and he asks for their forgiveness.
The Kreutzer Sonata is the perfect Tolstoy work that I love to hate (and I do hate it): masterfully written and gripping to read, frequently brilliant, but also repellant. It’s even saddled with a little essay at the end to make sure you’ve understood the moral (“embrace mass celibacy”), just in case you thought there were other ways to read it. There’s only one way, Tolstoy’s way; and one moral, Tolstoy’s moral; and if you thought otherwise, well, you were wrong.
Still, The Kreutzer Sonata holds a reader’s respect even as it makes itself more and more impossible to enjoy. Even at his moralizing worst, Tolstoy can’t help but see something true, though you have to be willing to put on his misanthropy to see it, too. Buried deep in The Kreutzer Sonata are observations that hurt to hear about how men and women treat one another. Its final lines, when Pozdnyshev asks the narrator for forgiveness and the narrator turns him away with a mere “farewell,” are haunting in a way even Tolstoy’s explanatory essay can’t erase and that the other responses only deepen.
The Kreutzer Sonata Variations has much to offer, particularly with its addition of writing from Sofiya Tolstaya, Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, whose stories offer a challenge to his views on marriage and a quiet reproach. Simply for capturing the divisiveness of Tolstoy’s work, the collection is worth reading. The story at its heart is so twisted no one can quite settle down on it. There is almost certainly no person who can read it without being provoked to rage. Whether or not it’s a good story is, in some ways, an open question.
This is, if you haven’t noticed, “Banned Books Week.” Though, like the various organizations behind Banned Books Week, I think books ought not be banned and that censorship is wrong, I sometimes wonder if in our opposition to censorship we promote a sterility in our reading. Here is, for instance, a lead plucked out of Time:
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume.
Each of the above is, for most people, safely tucked away in the pantheon of “good books.” But that hasn’t stopped each from seeming, for others, bad enough to ban.
Safely tucked away! If a kind of apathetic reading is the price we pay for banning no books, well—it’s worth it, but it’s a high price to pay. The Kreutzer Sonata, a banned book itself,was written to make people angry, and it did; it ran afoul of the censors, which probably surprised Tolstoy not a bit. It was written to provoke and perhaps to change the world a little—and possibly even to usher in an era of mass celibacy and end the human race—but not to be placed safely on a list of undangerous volumes.
So this Banned Books Week, allow me to extoll the pleasures of the higher hate read. Settle in with that book that you hate but can’t help admiring. I recommend The Kreutzer Sonata, but there are others. Be willing to spend some time being made angry by it. If you so desire, write a little pamphlet justifying your anger. But respond to it somehow; then, at the very least, you’ll deserve to be reading it.