Married To Trouble

I’m auditioning books at the moment for the next book I’m going to write, which will be about crises in writer’s lives and the work that came out of them. I’m hoping you’ll let me know if these are stories you’d like to hear more about (and brace yourselves; there’ll be a lot of these over the coming months).

First up is The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, a slight novella containing a maelstrom of violent emotions: misogyny, lust, jealousy and murderous rage. On a lengthy train journey in early spring, our unnamed narrator gets caught up in conversation with a clearly disturbed passenger. The man, Pozdnyshev, has recently been acquitted of murdering his wife in a crime of passion, and the majority of the novella is spent on Pozdnyshev’s recounting of the events that led up to this fatal act. It’s not just his own story that he wants to tell, however, for the experiences he has been through have congealed into a tormented philosophy about marriage, which he now insists on foisting upon his audience.

In Pozdnyshev’s view, marriage is doomed to disaster; its structure can only result in the worst kinds of gender rancour, the ugliest of scenes and the extreme frustration of both parties. Essentially this is because the ‘love’ on which marriage is based is inspired only by lust that never quite transforms into a properly spiritual and nourishing relationship. Men want women only for sexual purposes, but the quality of lust women inspire really messes with the male mind. The man becomes irrationally jealous, tied to a woman he doesn’t really like, and who irritates him no end, but whose body he cannot do without. And so marriage becomes a series of disputes, interrupted by the illusory calm of sexual bliss when they are made up. Then there are the children, whose births turn women into beautiful madonnas, until that is, the child falls ill and they become medusas of anxiety. Doctors come in for almost as much grief as women do in Pozdnyshev’s narrative, because they are never there when they are needed, or they prescribe the wrong medicine or give useless advice.

Anyway, the crisis of Pozdnyshev’s marriage arrives when a musician comes to visit, a violinist by the name of Truchashevsky. P’s wife (I really cannot keep typing that name) is delighted to have someone to play duets with, and the two become friendly. There’s no evidence of anything other than a platonic relation between his wife and the musician, but P, who clearly has no trust or faith in human nature generally, is tormented by jealous feelings. His wife does her best to reassure him, but away on a trip to visit his estates, P is suddenly overcome by anxiety and charges home to find his wife and the musician playing together. There’s no reason to suspect full-blown adultery, but P flies off the handle and stabs her. The upshot of all this? P believes that only celibacy can save the human race.

Now the way I’ve told this makes it all sound a bit ridiculous, which it is, a bit. But like all mad rants, it has disturbing kernels of inconvenient truth. The problems of marriage described here are grounded in a very accurate critique of aristocratic society in late 19th century Russia. Men of wealth and breeding were positively encouraged towards idle decadence, expected to have voracious sexual appetites that were satisfied by peasants and whores. Women were brought up to be pure and angelic and to have a respectable horror of sex. Tolstoy felt the only use for marriage was to transform these base male appetites into love, but inevitably the start of any marriage was going to be rocky under those conditions. And then, marriage is and remains a strange sort of bond, one in which partners are likely to experience more extreme emotions – and act them out – than in any other relationship. Marriage really can turn ugly very quickly, and without fundamental goodwill, it can be hard to salvage. As for the views expressed on lust and on women’s tendency to worry about children, well, all I can say is that when I described them to Mister Litlove, he had that look on his face, like he might cry for the beauty of being finally understood, mingled with a secretive sort of dissemblance that often steals across a man’s features when he fears a woman is getting too close to what he really thinks. Certain aspects of heterosexual relations may well be displeasing to women, but men have often proved resistant to changing their mentalities.

Tolstoy - demented garden gnome

Well, the authorities blocked Tolstoy’s novella for three years on the grounds that it contained far too much detail about sex, and in all the uproar Tolstoy was forced to write an epilogue, explaining his views. While we might think he would put ‘I was describing a man in the midst of a manic and irrational passion’, he didn’t. Instead he reiterated his view that marriage was hopeless and doomed, and that celibacy was the only way forward. Yes, Tolstoy really believed the madman’s viewpoint, because that madman was himself. The marriage that Pozdnyshev describes is the one that Tolstoy was living with his wife Sofya, and The Kreutzer Sonata is a highly autobiographical piece of writing. For 48 years, Leo and Sofya Tolstoy drove each other mad (quite literally in Sofya’s case), treated each other horribly, failed to understand the first thing about the other and remained fixated on their own gripes and wounds. Tolstoy never got anywhere near his much vaunted celibacy, forcing Sofya on to bearing another seven children after she nearly died from puerperal fever with the fifth; always idealising the peasant way of life he abdicated all feudal responsibilities, declaring property evil, and handing the management of his estates and literary work over to Sofya who suddenly had a huge burden of work for which she was completely unprepared, not to mention extreme worry about the family’s financial survival. Sofya hit back, naturally, with hysteria and rage. And what about the infatuation with the musician? Ah, now, interestingly enough, that didn’t happen until seven years after The Kreutzer Sonata was published. Life imitating art? Or the strange negative symbiosis that locked husband and wife into perpetual warfare at work? We can only speculate.

It seems to me that the real madness of The Kreutzer Sonata, fascinating little composite of blindness and insight that it is, is the generalisation that takes place. Tolstoy believed all marriages to be doomed, and that bitter conflict was the perpetual state of marital relations. There was no place in his views by now for change, mutual understanding, learning from experience and compromise, because his hopes had been frustrated by the events of his life. It’s intriguing to me that the power of his creative mind could only take him so far into understanding his situation. But perhaps Sofya loomed so large on his mental horizon that he couldn’t see past her, and in some ways that’s a tribute to the strength of his obsessive love for her, as well as to the hypnotic power of bad relationships.

13 thoughts on “Married To Trouble

  1. You may be interested to check out Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, which is a musical expression of the psycho-emotional drama of this story, “told” from the POV of the wife. Janacek had a somewhat similar marriage…he and his wife were “unofficially” divorced, meaning that they basically lived separate lives in the same house. Janacek had an intense emotional affair with a woman whom he believed to be in a highly oppressive and unhappy marriage, though whether this was true remains something of a mystery. He wrote more than 700 letters to her, most of which still exist. Anyway, the point is that the story was a powerful creative inspiration for him, probably because he identified with the nuggets of truth in the rant.

  2. Yes, Tolstoy really believed the madman’s viewpoint, because that madman was himself.

    I saw this book as deeply flawed for this very reason when I read it a while back. Anyone who read it without the epilogue (and/or without knowing very much of Tolstoy) would think he had crafted a highly unreliable narrator that the reader was supposed to…not rely on. Instead, we’re supposed to believe and be persuaded by a character who is clearly mad, even within the novel (I noted a number of internal contradictions he exhibited, for example). There are definitely interesting points, as you mention, but I couldn’t think this was very good.

  3. I was skimming through Anna Karenina recently and reading some Jung (Man and His Symbols) and wondered if Tolstoy only saw the negative side of his own Anima? I mean, his alter ego, Levin, says all women who sleep around are repulsive and obviously Tolstoy himself had troubles with his own wife. Yet he’s drawn to the character of Anna Karenina, he manages to feel some compassion for her (Levin is even briefly attracted to her but is later embarrassed by that) in telling her story, but he doesn’t redeem her, she still has to suffer and die for her sins in the end. He still sees the woman as bad (only Kitty is good for bearing children patiently), he can’t accept his own inner dark side or see the power and wisdom and creativity of his Anima. And at the end of his life, didn’t he run away from his home because he’d had enough of his wife? (Who likely wasn’t the real problem, his perception of her as bad was.) And then he died at a train station, just as Anna Karenina did. Just my theory, but I was wondering if his inability to see the good in ‘difficult’ (ie, all self-directed) women and in himself, his Anima, resulted in his own demise. Jung’s idea (I think) was that fixating on the bad in the opposite sex and how they’ve hurt you makes you a more rigid and judgmental person too, your inner Anima or Animus is negative and can even draw you towards death. Men’s perception of the femme fatale can just be their own dark fantasies, because they are unable to love and accept themselves? Tolstoy was always trying to impose harsh rules on himself to be a better person because of his own youthful ‘sins’, wasn’t he? Too bad he couldn’t just accept that he and his wife were human and let them both off the hook of perfection! I’d like to read more of Tolstoy, he’s a great dramatic writer, but his crazy moralizing does get me down.

    Anyway, I was just thinking of this recently, hope it makes some sense, you’re definitely the expert on combining psychology and literature!

    I was also very interested in what you wrote recently about Truman Capote’s life, it helped me understand how he could have written something fluffy-ish like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and chilling like In Cold Blood — Holly Golightly is probably a reflection of his own Anima, forever running away from his/her abandoned rural past, trying to lose themselves in parties, society, glamour, notoriety. And then you said he was drawn to Perry Smith because of the connection with their sad pasts again. In the book, Holly just keeps running all the way to Africa, but Capote couldn’t escape himself so easily.

    All that to say, I’m always fascinated by your analysis of writers, you got me thinking too.

  4. For some reasons, I always think of films whenever I read your posts. Have you seen “The Last Station”? Helen Mirren as Sofya and Christopher Plummer as Leo aptly bring out the fiery dynamic between the two. LT’s own life and his works (as you mentioned, art imitates life) are ready dramatic materials, don’t you think? Especially the eccentricities, or should I say ‘madness’? Another work of his that will be an upcoming movie, is Anna Karenina, with quite a marvellous British cast of young actors. I’ve got the book through a book sale a couple of year ago but still have not the tenacity to start reading it.

  5. I liked the Kreutzer Sonata a lot when I first read it at 16 or so. What I liked most was to see how it works with the music. One does really have to listen to the Sonata to understand how this could push someone over the edge who is already entangled in some dark thoughts. I don’t remember the generalisation at all. i thought it was the description of one tragic case. I must have overread it. For me it illustrated that love and jealousy are mutually exclusive. Passion can engender jealousy but not love.

  6. I do not know “The Kreutzer Sonata”, but I would very much like to hear more about it, and about crises in writer’s lives and the work that came out of them. Looking forward to the auditioning!

  7. David – that is a fantastic link, thank you. I’m really intrigued by the parallels in the two relationships, and the way that pieces of music are involved in both. I don’t know the Janacek but I will seek it out now.

    londonchoirgirl – I like the way your mind is working! I confess I’ve never read Hardy (I know! such an omission!) but now you have pointed me in his direction, I will certainly be seeking out the book and the story behind it. Thank you!

    nicole – I’m very interested in your point of view but I don’t quite follow it. Are you saying the book is bad because Tolstoy’s intention behind it is a bit skewed? It doesn’t matter what Tolstoy’s intention was, does it? I think it’s a convincing ‘unreliable’ narrator novella, and that the character’s instability shines through, whether Tolstoy intended him to be persuasive or not. At the same time, it’s the excessive, distorted truth of his assertions that I found most intriguing; I think people who have been through bad marriages know a circle of hell that the rest of us should be thankful to have avoided, and I suspect that men bruised in love would find much to agree with in the narrator’s point of view. Or are there aesthetic concerns about the text that make you think it’s not very good?

    Carolyn – your thoughts here are fascinating. I know very little about Jung, only I did happen to read a chapter in a book about him recently. I admit that the idea of the animus is most intriguing. This notion that the unresolved, troubled parts of us form an alternative personality that thinks and acts when we are under severe stress – so interesting. I’ve heard Tolstoy described as a split personality, a man in conflict with himself, and that seems to bear out what you are saying very neatly. Also, wonderful thoughts about Capote. Yes, I quite agree that you can see him in the personality of Holly Golightly. He did try to escape, wandering around exile for several years, but the things that were troubling him were bound up with fame and fortune and so he couldn’t leave them alone. Thank you for your comment – so much valuable stuff here for me to think about!

    Arti – I am always so grateful for all the links and recommendations you so kindly provide for me! As you may have figured out, I know nothing about films at all. Mister Litlove was straight away looking the film up after reading about it (he is as keen on my comments as I am) and it does look very good. I had no idea a movie was forthcoming about Anna Karenina. I began that novel and enjoyed it, only I got a bit bogged down in grass harvesting and moved onto other books in a fickle way. I’d like to get back to it one of these days.

    Caroline – I admit I don’t know the piece of music but your comment makes me very interested to hear it. The ideas about marriage come in the early part of the conversation on the train and are intermingled with the personal history P has to tell. So I can see that it would not necessarily stick in one’s memory! Interesting thought about love and jealousy. So the desire to possess (exclusively) would not be a loving gesture, then?

    Sigrun – that’s so kind of you to encourage me, and so dangerous!😉 I need very little encouragement…

    Anonymous – thank you! I’ll definitely be airing more of it on the blog as I do my research.

  8. Do indeed continue auditioning! I found this post thoroughly engaging even though I am very much not a fan of Russian literature generally (I know! Terrible to make such sweeping statements!), and I’m looking forward to hearing about the other books you are considering.

  9. Well that bit about Tolstoy’s views on marriage just slid a few puzzle pieces in place about him. The idea for you book sounds fascinating. I would love to hear more about this one especially since, as you note, it pulls in Russian cultural issues too so goes beyond even a personal crisis.

  10. Your project sounds great! Tolstoy is one strange man, isn’t he? Not terribly likable in all kinds of ways. It certainly is interesting what you say about the failure of his great imagination when it comes to marriage.

  11. Somehow this explains a lot about Anna Karenina. I’m not entirely sure I like him, though I’ve read his two big books and might be talked into reading more of his work. I’m just not sure I want to know more about *him*. I love your book idea, though, and look forward to the rest of the books up for audition.

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