When it comes to Russian literature, there’s often a Tolstoy v. Dostoevsky split, and despite having read quite a bit of the former, I always come down in favour of the latter. However, as I’ve read both Tolstoy’s epic big works, I’ve been trying to make my way through some of his shorter works, though it’s a little while since I got to any. However, I was reminded recently of this little volume of four collected works that Mr. Kaggsy gifted me some time ago:

I’ve read the first two stories, “Family Happiness” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and found them both interesting, although I could see Tolstoy’s rather troubling views about marriage forming. However, I confess to having stalled at the third story in the book – “The Kreutzer Sonata“. I tried to read this some years back (possibly pre-blog) and I abandoned it after a few pages – the extreme anti-women spouting of the main character was just too much for me. However, I’m pretty sure this was before I read “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”, so I determined to be strong and give it another go. I rather wish, however, that I hadn’t….

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a later work by Tolstoy, and the introduction to my edition describes it as controversial; it’s not hard to see why. Set during a train journey, the narrator encounters a fellow passenger who turns out to have murdered his wife, and this man tells his story to the narrator. It’s not a pretty one, laced as it is with misogyny, guilt, obsession, jealousy, lust and moral rantings. It’s uncomfortable reading at the best of times, particular as a woman, and this is made worse with knowledge of Tolstoy’s behaviour to his long-suffering wife and the fact that some of the nastier elements in the story are drawn from the author’s life.

I guess it’s worth remembering that later in his life Tolstoy had become a bit of a religious fanatic, and this informs much of the narrative. However, if the views of the husband are those of Tolstoy, they’re actually terribly worrying. One minute he’s berating men for seeing women only as sexual objects, then he’s chastising women for taking sexual pleasure, then saying women should be virgins, then saying that any act of sex is debauchery, and so on. It’s desperately contradictory and when you read the afterword where Tolstoy states his views following the release of the story, it gets worse. He *does* have a point when he goes on about the marriage market, as pre-Revolutionary Russian was notorious for this, marrying young women off to rich old men (although I’m sure just about every Western country did the same). However, he seems to believe that love between man and woman can’t and doesn’t exist, marriage is only to allow the “animal” love, and that basically everything is the woman’s fault. This is not nice, to put it mildly, and if he had such a problem with sex he should have stopped putting it about, frankly. For goodness sake, he even thinks that music is an issue!

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a horrible book to read; a madman raving about the horror of sexual relations, about his wife being burdened by childbirth and then rediscovering some kind of pleasure in life, about his wild jealousy and his murder of his wife, and this is someone who’s supposed to be making a moral point for Tolstoy? His beliefs were obviously pretty extreme by this point (as well as contradictory), and the fact that the murderer is acquitted just reinforces the nastiness of this story. Apparently G.K. Chesterton was very critical of Tolstoy’s beliefs as reflecting that what the Russian disliked was being a man, going on to say, “You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human”. Certainly, I think Tolstoy had problems…

Tolstoy used real instances from his life in “Kreutzer” (for example, the fact he showed his wife to be a diary of his earlier sexual activities) which kind of makes this book even worse. By the end of his life he’d obviously moved to a position of rigid fanaticism, and as someone who has no problem with the sexual act I can’t begin to get into his mindset. This really is a nasty book; I have no sympathy with Tolstoy or his characters, and I can’t imagine what his poor wife had to put up with. The book is hysterical, muddled, skewed, dismissive of sexuality (female in particular), judgemental and downright disturbing. I’ll continue to read Tolstoy, and explore more of his shorter works, but I shan’t touch this one again with a bargepole. And it’s going to be Dostoevsky for me *any* time….