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.
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.