Book Review

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

Photo on 25-08-2015 at 20.14 #3

This is a late novella of Tolstoy’s, and one famous for espousing a narrative rooted in his late-life, anti-sexuality, opinions. I first learnt about it in an academic text called Erotic Utopia: Russian Sexuality in the Fin de siècle (well, I thought I did) that I have been slowly reading over the last couple of months whenever I’m feeling relaxed, sober and inquisitive but not tired.* In her chapter on Tolstoy, Olga Matich discusses the development of his attitude towards sex and sexuality, both in his fiction and in his life.

As a young man, Tolstoy was a sensualist. He – as was apparently normal at the time in Tsarist Russia – shagged around in his youth, fucking lots of prostitutes (and women who weren’t prostitutes) whenever the opportunity arose. He married, calmed down his range but kept up his energy, siring more children than most men have lovers. In his old age, though – probably as a result of the natural decline in desire and erectile potency that accompanies physical maturity – he began to change his mind.

Sex, the late Tolstoy believed, was the devil, and Desire nothing more than the sole agent of human, moral, destruction. To feel desire is to be weakened, to act upon it begets a society where all is geared around the pursuit of love. Not love, sorry, coitus. Tolstoy believed that fashion, art, politics, all were rooted in the attempt to normalise the idea that women were nothing but vehicles of pleasure, and men nothing but seekers of the same. There is a taint of granddaddyish religiosity to some of what he says, but there is also an awareness of the importance of an inner peace brought through physical and intellectual toil. There is no peace to be found, Tolstoy writes, when “love” (something he does not believe in) is all a person wants from life. There is particularly no joy to be found when a person also loves to lust. Tolstoy believed that an enjoyment of sex and sexuality was utterly incompatible with a monogamous relationship (ie the traditional place for naughty desires to be indulged) because two people will not have the same libidos, same “needs”**: in a marriage there is intrinsic frustration, and even if that frustration doesn’t result in adultery (which he believes in turn pretty much always leads to murder or suicide), it will definitely lead to feelings of resentment and some level of mental anguish.

There is no happiness to be felt in the flesh, that was the aged Tolstoy’s opinion and this permeates the narrative and – oddly sympathetic tone – of the text. The novella is narrated by an old man making a long journey east from Moscow, out into the deep wilds of Russia. He is accompanied at the start of his trip by a few other people, one of whom is conspicuous and weird, a little unhinged. It turns out that this man has recently been released from gaol after his acquittal for his wife’s murder. He did do it, he freely admits that, but the jury felt his crime of passion was justified, so in the mid-19th-century way that century had, the man is let out back into the world – believed a danger to no one but the wife he has already killed. As the train gets further from Moscow and the carriage empties, the murderer gets up close to our narrator, and begins to tell him his tale.

It is, like many of the plots in Tolstoy, loosely influenced by his own life, but with none of the positivity of his marriage’s fictional depiction in Anna Karenina. Here, again, is the scene where the former man of pleasure makes his naive wife read the salacious contents of his youthful diary, here too is a marriage characterised by lots of shagging. But there the similarities end. In The Kreutzer Sonata, a marriage of flesh is very much not a marriage of mind, or even of love. The protagonist and his wife argue like horny stags then fuck like a horny stag and a horny doe. Their marriage goes through cycles of hate and horn. They are sexual partners, but nothing more, the children they produce evidence of raunch and not the symbols of love that such things are often depicted as being in fiction.

After the fifth or sixth child (I forget), there is a medical issue and, to prevent it reoccurring, the wife is taught about contraception by her doctors. Doctors are another source of evil in this text – there is something very odd in reading a novel that demonises medicine*** to such an extent. Doctors are evil, their knowledge of the human body is corrupting – not just in their ability to be the masters of life and death, but in their magical, devilish methods to allow fornication without reproduction. They’re not just against god, but they’re against nature. Tolstoy – and the murderous husband who shares his beliefs – hates them.

So, with a wife able to be fucked without bringing forth children, the confused narrator becomes more confused, and drifts from his marriage. His physical distance leads to feelings of insecurity and wild jealousy, she makes friends with a man who may or may not be her lover, and the husband kills her, stabs her to death with a knife. He feels guilty, confesses, is held in gaol while investigated but then let go, albeit sans access to his kids. He then leaves the city and tells his story to a sympathetic old man, who nods along and smiles in the right places. Maybe he’s right, the old man concludes, and sex itself is the biggest evil in the world.

Tolstoy’s arguments would probably be described by many people as toxic, as encouraging repression and limiting the happiness people are able to gain from life. However, what the fuck’s wrong with repression? Why can’t people contain their sexual desire and live amongst others with respect and no interactions rooted in falsity or lust?

The strangest thing for me, whilst reading this, was an odd sense of deja vu that began to permeate about halfway through. I felt like I’d experienced everything before, that I knew what was going to happen – the way the relationship would go, even to the point where I knew how Tolstoy would describe stabbing someone in the chest. I thought, ‘Maybe Olga Matich quotes it to extreme levels in the book she wrote’; but she doesn’t. ‘Perhaps Tolstoy self-plagiarises more than the diary scene from Anna Karenina,’ I pondered. But no.

It turned out I had read The Kreutzer Sonata before, less than a year ago. Last Winter I read it within a compendium of short Tolstoy works (review here) and wrote a scathing review about its unhelpful conclusions and problematic attitudes towards relationships and human interaction generally. In the time since then – having essentially abandoned/given up/put on the backburner for an indefinite period all my hopes and dreams – I’ve changed a lot. I’ve shaved my head, as a kind of penitent point to symbolise my lack of engagement with myself, and I have attempted to come to terms with the fact that I am not – and never will be – successful in the ways that I had always wanted to be.

In some ways, that’s good, and healthy. While Herman Melville may have been able to pin a bit of paper saying “Never forget the dreams of your youth” beside his writing desk in old age, Melville was achieving the dreams of his youth from his youth onwards. Melville was a lauded novelist, producing glorious literary art. I am not, and am unlikely to ever be/do so. All the hopes I had when I read The Kreutzer Sonata the first time have been dashed – as the many, many rejections for the novel I wrote last year piled up, as I returned to full time work and lost the time to write another, better, one, as the months passed and the novel I’d been half-researching never began to morph into the phenomenal text I thought it would be, as my hairline continued to recede and as my health slowly deteriorated due to my unhealthy lifestyle, optimism faded.

Now, it’s been months since I tried an agent or a publisher, now it’s been months since I shaved my hair off and I still haven’t gotten over it****, and now I read The Kreutzer Sonata and my response is “Yes.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Yes, Tolstoy.

No one should try to do the things they want to do, no one should try to be free to be who they want to be, whatever that it, because the failure causes unhappiness. Having desires, wanting something – whether that is to be a floppy-haired novelist, or just to wiggle your willy inside someone – leads to disappointment. It is not possible for 99% of people to go through life getting what we/they want. So don’t even bother.

Want nothing.

That is Tolstoy’s message and I will take it as mine.

Desire nothing from your life, do not hunger for food, for company, for friendship (animal or human), for love, for literature, for work, for warm weather, for a cooling breeze, for time to relax.

Want nothing, and you will never be disappointed.

Waive your desires, repress everything.

Constant disappointment is no way to build a life.

Take what happens, be guided by others. Because then, at least then, you’ll be unhappy because you’re directionless, not because the direction you chose was unworkable.

This is one of the posts that I’d regret writing if I was rational.

Oh, the book’s fine. Yeah.


*Hence why I’ve only read three chapters since May.

** Not that he saw them as “needs”. And neither, to be honest, do I.

*** Though other people would probably see the demonisation of sexuality as equally as ridiculous.

**** I feel a phantom fringe, like amputees feel their missing limbs. I brush hair out of my eyes that doesn’t exist, sometimes I find myself reaching for a hairdryer that would only burn my scalp, sometimes I even find myself looking at displays of hair product in supermarkets, close to tears. Yes, I look more intimidating (which is useful), and yes, I was going to have to do it eventually because the hairline was getting further and further back, but like turning off the life-support of a comatose loved one, it isn’t easy whenever it’s done – it will always haunt me. I was, and technically still am, balding (like the metaphorical comatoid is dying), but being bald isn’t much fun (like being someone who’s lost someone they care about or being someone who is dead) and
-Does this imagery stand up? Possibly not. I’m oversharing. At least it’s not as extreme as the oversharing I did on here two summers ago. (Click here for my favourite of the “breakdown whilst travelling” blogs.)

4 comments on “The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Id say “oh, dont give up, all the good ones struggled before they made it” but ehh, I don’t even believe it myself and neither would you (although I thouroughly enjoy your writing and would love love love to see you published). I’m still crying over not getting into law school… which doesn’t come off as a very noble pursuit on a literature blog maybe, but whatever. Point is I still relate profoundly to the very real sensation of just being fucking done. Done with ambition, done with wanting, craving, striving… needing. Just let me be


  2. I would say from the evidence of this blog that you do have great gifts as a writer. Don’t let agents grind you down. Agencies have little interest in literature, only in potential bestsellers. Their dream is to find a book that zombies like Richard & Judy will select for their next reading list. The agents I’ve known were astonishingly badly read as far as good writing is concerned. I don’t think Malcolm Lowry would ever have found a publisher for Ultramarine if things back in the early 1930s were like they are today. He also managed to get stories published, and that kind of market has also collapsed. That kind of publication allowed Lowry to think of himself as a real writer and go on to write Under the Volcano. Though even that was never as successful in Britain as elsewhere. Today’s commercial publishing is mostly not where you go to find good writing these days. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was published by a tiny independent press. One of the most interesting novels of recent times, The Wake, was crowd-funded and published independently. I get the impression you could write a terrific novel about the experience of reading… There’s a narrative going on in this blog. I find it compelling. Don’t give up!


  3. Pingback: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – Triumph of the Now

  4. Pingback: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner – Triumph Of The Now

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