The Kreutzer Sonata

Holy shit – now this is a frightening book.

It’s a novella written by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1889, about a man whose life has essentially been consumed by his ‘passion’ for his wife. The story opens on a train journey. The protagonist is riding the train, and becomes involved in a conversation about marriage with some of the other passengers. This conversation inflames one particular passenger, Pozdnyshev. A very intense man, he leaps up and draws the listener close, offering him a glass of strong tea and pulls him into his tale, not unlike the homeless guy who fixates the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Turns out that Pozdnyshev has endured a very unhappy marriage which ended in the murder of his wife. As he relates his tale, he drinks strong tea and smokes cigarettes. He shares his tea with the protagonist, who finds it so strong that it induces an agitation. Pozdnyshev sets the intricate details of his story, drawing us and his listener into the rings of its complexities. Let’s face it; this is the kind of fellow-traveller we wish we shared a carriage with. In real life, it’s always the guy from the Tylenol ad.

It’s all first-person stuff; Pozdnyshev tells about his marriage entirely from his own perspective. It makes it hard to believe everything we are told, of course; as a reader, even more than as a listener, we want to hear what the wife, who became his victim, has to say. But the interesting thing about the story is that once I got into The Kreutzer Sonata, I found myself caught up in what Tolstoy does best; the man is a master psychologist. In a book like Anna Karenina, you’re privy to events and interactions, whereas this novel is more like a monologue. But this has interesting properties; you are drawn into the internecine crawlspaces of this desperately unhappy man’s psyche.

From a ‘modern’ point of view, Pozdnyshev’s story seems a bit ‘cart-before-the-horse’. It appears that his story is woven of a logic which has sprung up around mental illness. After the last line had descended on me like a ton of bricks, I scrambled for my Wikipedia to try and find some dry explanation to get free of the horror which clung to me. I found a quotation from the man himself, which reads as follows;

“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.”

While all this may be true, I found the novella a deeply disturbing, indeed horrifying experience because it did what the best horror always does; it dunks you into the fishbowl so you’re wet, rather than simply allowing you to look passively through the glass. Pozdnyshev relates an enormously complex philosophy which swings from proto-feminism to genuine misogyny, and at times, most frighteningly of all, contains ideas which I myself agree with, and from what I hear discussed in gyms, pubs and other places where men don’t think they’ll be overheard, are in pretty common currency.

So here I am, reading this book, half repelled, utterly riveted, and most disturbingly of all, agreeing with some of the rantings of this lunatic. One of the main tenets of his story is that a relationship based on ‘love’ as defined by the exclusive preference for one person over all others is that it is driven almost purely by carnality. Sexual attraction completely blinds you to an individual’s actual personality, and eventually the whole thing devolves into hatred. Personally, I’ve been there, many times. Every time, in fact, except most recently.

If anything, The Kreutzer Sonata is a confronting, terrifying read for a modern reader because it challenges the rites of passage of ‘modern’ love where attraction is grounded in sexuality, and sexual gratification is probably the first commonality to be meaningfully explored. While I’ve never behaved violently to any woman in a relationship (and never felt compelled to), I know exactly how Pozdnyshev felt in terms of that beatific love that miraculously changes into abject hatred. In fact, reading the book felt like one of those dreams where you’re being chased down an alley and when you turn around at the touch on your shoulder, the face you are confronted by is your own.

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