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One of the world’s greatest novelists, Leo Tolstoy was also the author of a number of superb short stories, one of his best-known being “The Kreutzer Sonata.” This macabre story involves the murder of a wife by her husband. It is a penetrating study of jealousy as well as a piercing complaint about the way in which society educates men and women in matters of sex—a serious condemnation of the mores and attitudes of the wealthy, educated class.Learn More
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One of the world’s greatest novelists, Leo Tolstoy was also the author of a number of superb short stories, one of his best-known being “The Kreutzer Sonata.” This macabre story involves the murder of a wife by her husband. It is a penetrating study of jealousy as well as a piercing complaint about the way in which society educates men and women in matters of sex—a serious condemnation of the mores and attitudes of the wealthy, educated class.
Definitely Off His Onion
[Lady Florence Cray believes] “...smoking is just a habit. 'Tolstoy', she said, mentioning someone I hadn't met, 'says that just as much pleasure can be got from twirling the fingers'. My impulse was to tell her Tolstoy was off his onion, but I choked down the heated words. For all I know, the man might be a bosom pal of hers and she might resent criticism of him, however justified.”
- P. G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves
Thus Bertie Wooster on Tolstoy. And I must say that, after listening to The Kreutzer Sonata, I’m right there with him.
I’m not going to try to articulate the bizarre point of view from which this novella was written. Luckily, I don’t have to. Tolstoy summed it up neatly in a defense of the book written some time after the Russian authorities had banned it:
“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 know that our popular conception of late 19th Century Czarist Russia is of a somewhat lazily authoritarian state slouching toward inevitable revolution. But I take the fact that the Czar’s censors promptly sat on this little effort from the Count’s pen as evidence that authoritarian states, however lazy they may be, sometimes have a point and act in the best interests of the populace.
The world view at the root of The Kreutzer Sonata rubs me wrong in such a visceral way that, just as I couldn’t encapsulate those assumptions with any coherence, so I must rely on G. K. Chesterton to identify, with his customary pinpoint acumen, the monumental error of the work:
"Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in The Kreutzer Sonata he weeps almost as much at the thought of love. He and all the humanitarians pity the joys of men."
He went on to address Tolstoy directly: "What you dislike is being a man. You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human."
(Many thanks to Wikipedia for putting these gems at my fingertips.)
I’m not saying I wasn’t affected by the story, or failed to feel deeply for the husband’s terrible position. The agony of jealousy, the horror of having committed murder and the hideous fact that the crime cannot be taken back are finely realized. So much so that, at the moment when the knife is withdrawn in a pathetic attempt to “undo” what has been done, I had to stop for breath. But the philosophy behind the words, the viewpoint of the murderer-husband and his author-creator, struck me as nothing more convincing than a bizarre rationalization of an indefensible act.
On the brighter side, our narrator Simon Prebble is up to his usual high standards. However, the room level of the recording tends to fluctuate rather wildly. Most of the time Prebble sounds rich and resonant. But this is punctuated too often by dull, flat patches that sound, by comparison, as if the audio engineer had mistakenly hit the wrong button.
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