Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Kreutzer SonataThe Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" [...] the world does not contain a scoundrel of however deep a dye who, if he only made a thorough search, would not discover another scoundrel in some respects worse than himself, and a reason therefore for feeling proud of, and satisfied with, himself."

Of the five Leo Tolstoy's novellas The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is probably as famous as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) but for me only the latter - a penetrating study of the process of dying - may be considered an undeniable masterpiece and one of the best novellas ever written. While a magnificent work and a true classic I find Sonata too disjoint to merit the highest rating; however, I am probably biased against the story because of one of its main themes.

During a long train ride in Russia the narrator meets a certain Mr. Pozdnichev who recounts his life story. Before the tale gets to the gruesome events of Pozdnichev murdering his wife, it is an impassioned diatribe against the hypocrisy of marriage and against the sexual aspects of the union between a man and a woman. While Tolstoy's observations of the institution of marriage are an insightful document of social mores and norms in the 1880s in Russia, I am unable to stomach or even just simply understand the author's apotheosis of the concept of sexual purity. Through Pozdnichev's words Tolstoy seems to glorify
"simple, clear, pure relations with womankind, relations as of a brother towards his sister."
Of course, people should have a right to practice purity but why condemn consenting adults for expressing their humanness through sexual behaviors?

Pozdnichev's sharp and rather extreme views on the institution of matrimony - I understand they at least partly express Tolstoy's own views - provide a lot of food for thought. He chides the marriage meat market: mothers selling their daughters' charms and men falling into the marriage trap. He denounces the inequality of sexes where it is not in the woman's power " to choose her husband, but she must wait to be chosen by him." He writes
"[...] while, on the one hand, women are reduced to the lowest degree of humiliation, they are all-powerful on the other."
The imbalance of the situation where women serve as "an instrument of pleasure", a "degraded, demoralized serf" yet are still in full charge of the relationship through the power of dispensing sexual favors worries the author. Pozdnichev's view of married life as the process of building the "mutual hatred" that starts in the days right after the wedding and keeps growing until further life together becomes dangerous to both parties is, sadly, quite an astute analysis of relationship dynamics in many marriages.

Let's forgive the author his lunatic ramblings about purity: the final part of the novella delivers a near masterpiece in its sharp examination of the nature of rage and the mechanisms of jealousy. The final description of the killing is clinical and unforgettable - it reads with more authenticity that most crime dramas of today. The ending is frightening in its raw power of truth about the human beast.

Four stars.

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