Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata"

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Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata" by Isabel Florence Hapgood
Book Review
First published in The Nation, Vol. 50 (April 17, 1890)
NIEDERDORF, TYROL, March 29, 1890

What are the legitimate bounds of realism? To what point is it permissible to describe in repulsive detail the hideous and unseemly things of this world, simply because they exist, when it is quite impossible to say what the effect will be upon thousands of people to whom such description conveys the first knowledge of the existence of evil? It has been proved that public executions, far from inspiring horror of the deeds which led to them, and deterring others from the commission of like deeds, through fear of the result thus presented, actually give rise to crimes copied after those which are thus brought to general attention. The same thing is true in the case of crimes which are minutely described in the newspapers. But books? On the whole, although a sensational realistic book may never reach as many people as an article published in the popular newspaper, it probably produces as much effect because of the weight and respectability which the binding and comparatively high price give to it.

One has occasion to reflect upon this topic rather frequently in these days of "psychological" romances; but it is not often necessary, I think, to meditate so seriously as one is forced to do over Count Lyoff Tolstoi's last story.

When I first reached Russia, in the autumn of 1887, I heard that Count Tolstoi was writing a new tale: it began on the railway, and a man murdered his wife, and it was to be of the searching psychological type exemplified by Ivan Ilyitch. So much seemed to be known in well-informed circles. I asked no questions when I made the Count's acquaintance a year later. But one evening last July, during a visit I made to Yasnaya Polyana, at the Countess's invitation, the Count spoke to me of his story as being near completion, and asked me to translate it when it should be finished. I promised, and inquired whether it was in a condition for me to read. "You may read the last version if you like," he answered, "but I would rather have you wait." His wife showed me sheets of the fourth version, which she was then copying, and advised me not to waste time in reading it, as it was quite likely that he might suddenly see the subject in a totally different light, and write it all over again from that point of view. So I read nothing, asked no questions, and waited, being informed from time to time that the book was progressing. How many different versions were finally made, I do not know, but this winter one of these versions began to make the rounds in Petersburg. The solitary manuscript flew rapidly from hand to hand. I was warned, however, that it or any copy from it would be imperfect, incomplete, and not approved by the author, who was at work upon the final version. I contented myself with the verdict of those who were too impatient to wait, and who had not been promised the first complete copy, as I had been. That verdict was, "Shocking!" "Beauties mingled with horrors," and so forth. It was said that it was not allowed to be printed-the usual cry; but, as there is nothing religious or political in it, its morality must have been the cause of the prohibition, if true.

At length I received the first copy of the genuine story (the second went to the Danish translator), with the information that, although the substance was nearly identical with that of the version which had already been circulating, and which was said to be in process of translation into foreign languages, the execution had been so altered that "not one stone was left upon another" in some places, while in others whole pages, and even chapters, had been completely rewritten by the author. My copy was corrected by the author especially with a view to translation, and was, therefore, to be regarded as the only one sanctioned by him for rendering into other tongues, and this version is yet unattainable in St. Petersburg.

Why, then, do I not translate a work from the famous and much-admired Russian author? Because, in spite of due gratitude to Count Tolstoi for favoring me with the first copy, and in spite of my faith in his conviction that such treatment of such a subject is needed and will do good, I cannot agree with him. It recalls the fable of his countryman, Kriloff, about the man who borrowed his neighbor's water cask, used it for wine, and returned it impregnated with vinous fumes to such a degree that the unfortunate lender was obliged to throw it away, after using every possible means, during the space of two years, to expel the taint so that the water should be pure once more.

"Too frank and not decent," was one of the Petersburg verdicts upon this Kreutzer Sonata. This is so true that, although thus forewarned, I was startled at the idea that it could possibly be beneficial, and, destroying the translation which I had begun, I wrote promptly to decline the task. It is probable that the author and his blindly devoted admirers will consider that I have committed an unpardonable sin. But they must remember that his "comedy", The Realm of Darkness, although it was acted in private, in high Petersburg society, and in public in Paris, has never been translated into English, so far as I am aware, at least. I yield to no one in my admiration for and appreciation of Tolstoi's genius, as displayed in certain of his works. I tried to get American publishers to bring out War and Peace and Anna Karenin in 1881, five years before American readers were treated to the mangled versions of those works through the French. They declined, and one noted Boston publisher said, with great frankness: "No one in Russia knows how to write except Turgeneff, and he is far above the heads of Bostonians." I predicted a change of opinion, and if I am now morally compelled to appear unfaithful to my own former admiration, my regret is certainly more deep and sincere than even the regret of those who merely repent their failure to grasp an opportunity for making money, or of those who, consciously or unconsciously, follow the literary fashion of the hour.

But I will turn to the book. After making due allowance for the ordinary freedom of speech, which has greater latitude in Russia (as elsewhere in Europe) than is customary in America, I find the language of the Kreutzer Sonata to be too excessive in its candor. At the same time I admit that if that subject was to be treated in that way, no other language would have answered the purpose. I mention this first because it is the first thing which strikes the reader, and because it is also the special thing which hovers over the horrors of the tale with an added dread, and lingers long behind in the reader's mind, like a moral bad taste in the mouth. Next, the style and construction. The construction is good, as is usual with the author. The style errs in the direction in which all his books are faulty, viz., repetition. The unnecessary repetition of words or phrases occurs in his greatest works, while in the later, the polemical, writings, it has become greatly exaggerated. It forms a feature of this book, and although it gives strength at times, it is too marked on the whole. One must think that this tautology is deliberate on the author's part, since he is never in haste to publish uncorrected matter; but the result is harshness, which increases with every fresh work. Nevertheless, the book is well written. And the story? It is that of a man who kills his wife out of jealousy for a semi-professional violinist, who plays Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with her one evening.

The author begins by narrating how he is making a long journey by rail. In the compartment with him are a lawyer and a lady, masculine in appearance and attire, who converse, and a gray-haired man with brilliant eyes, who avoids all attempts to talk with him and utters a peculiar sound from time to time. A merchant and a clerk enter the railway carriage at one of the stations. A partly inaudible conversation between the masculine lady and the lawyer about some woman who has fallen out with her husband, leads the lawyer to remark upon the amount of attention which is being bestowed all over Europe upon the question of divorce, and to say that there was nothing of the sort in olden days. The merchant answers him that there were cases even in old times, but they were less frequent; and people had become too "cultured" nowadays. In the discussion which ensues, the merchant advocates the old-fashioned arrangement of marriages by parents, and strict government on the part of the husband, as most conducive to wedded happiness, alleging that love will come in due season. The masculine lady argues that it is stupid to join in marriage two people who do not love each other and then feel surprised if discord ensues between them, and that the day for such unions is past. The merchant maintains that the day for obeying the New Testament rule, "Let the wife fear her husband," will never pass away; that although unfaithfulness, which is assumed to be impossible on the part of the wife, may happen in other classes, in the merchant class it does not happen, and that the carouses of married men at the fair, which the narrator has heard him relating, and of which he reminds him, form a special topic which must be excluded from the discussion.

Here the merchant leaves the train, but the conversation is continued by the passenger with gray hair and brilliant eyes inquiring to what sort of love the masculine lady has reference. What is "true love," and how long must it last-a month, two days, or half an hour -when it has been defined as the preference for some one man or woman above all other men or women in the world! He contends that only in romances does this preference last for a lifetime, as per theory; whereas in real life it endures for a year, generally much less, and is felt by every man for every pretty woman; also, that this love is never mutual, and if it were, and if it lasted a lifetime on one side, it would not on the other. Identity of ideals, spiritual likeness, he does not admit as a ground for entering upon marriage. He gives a brief sketch of the manner, in his opinion, in which marriages are entered upon, winding up: "And the result of this is that frightful hell which makes men take to drink, shoot themselves, poison, and murder themselves and each other."

The lawyer, with a view to putting an end to the unseemly conversation, replies that "there are undoubtedly critical episodes in married life." Whereupon the speaker remarks: "I see that you recognize me. I am Pozdnisheff, the man with whom occurred the critical episode of murdering his wife." In fact, no one knows anything of him, but the lawyer and masculine lady change into another compartment as soon as possible, while Pozdnisheff offers to withdraw if his presence is disagreeable to the narrator. Finding that it is not, he offers to while away the night by relating the story of his life. I may remark here, in view of the above, that the author gives not a hint of his own opinion as to which is preferable, a marriage of love or a marriage de convenience, and also that some of the points suggested do not seem to be answered thereafter.

Pozdnisheff begins his tale with his introduction to evil at the age of sixteen. Shorn of digressions, his story would be brief. But the digressions attack many accepted views of things-or views which he says are accepted. The present order of society and life, modes of marriage, dress, and so forth, form the topics of these digressions. Pozdnisheff states that he has taken to analyzing the subject since his own life reached a climax in his crime. Many of these remarks I recognize as substantially identical with attacks on those subjects contained in all the author's serious writings. The sentence, "I never see a woman clad in ball attire that I do not feel like shouting, `Police!' and ordering her to be removed as dangerous," closely corresponds to former utterances upon low-necked dresses and so on. He repeats former denunciations of higher education for women, but, astonishing to relate, instead of winding up with the moral that women should devote themselves solely to becoming the mothers of the largest possible families, he praises the Shakers because they do not marry, and declares that woman will only rise to a higher plane, cease to rule in false ways as an offset to oppression, and acquire her full rights, when virginity shall have become the highest ideal of womanhood.

I am tempted to a personal digression at this point. Count Tolstoi one day praised the Shakers in this manner before a table full of people. I was afraid to ask him his meaning, lest he should explain in detail, so I questioned his wife in private as to whether this new departure was not somewhat inconsistent with his previously advocated views on woman's vocation. She replied: "Probably it is inconsistent; but my husband changes his opinions every two years, you know." The explanation which venture to offer is, that just at that time he was reading Mr. Boswell's An Undiscovered Country, and that he is impressionable. At all events, however clearly one can understand from these too frank digressions what a man should not do, it is quite impossible to comprehend how he thinks a woman should dress, behave, and live.

Returning to the thread of his story, Pozdnisheff relates how he proposed for his wife after a very brief acquaintance, fascinated by her jersey, her well-dressed hair, and a boating excursion, and adds that, had it not been for the tailors who dressed her well, and the close jersey, etc., he should never have married. This does not agree with the statement that all through his vicious bachelorhood he had firmly intended to marry if he could find any one good enough for him. An interesting point here is that he shows his betrothed his bachelor diary, just as Levin shows his to Kitty in Anna Karenin, and with precisely the same effect, only less well told. The repetition of this incident and the probable rarity of such diaries seem to hint at a personal experience.

They are married. The description of the honeymoon and of their married life nearly up to the date of the final catastrophe is, like what precedes, unquotable. Suffice it to say that they quarrel promptly and continue to quarrel frequently and fiercely, eventually using their five children as moral battering rams, so to speak, against each other. This last is very well done. At about the age of thirty, his wife becomes plump and prettier, and begins to take an interest again in pretty clothes. His mad jealousy interprets this into a quest for a lover, though there are no proofs of such a thing even alleged. The description of his jealousy is, however, the best part of the book. Presently the object for jealousy for whom the husband has been on the lookout, makes his appearance in the person of a handsome young man, of good family, who has been educated in Paris by a relative, as he has no money, and who has become a very fine and semi-professional violinist. The young man comes to call on his old acquaintance, Pozdnisheff, on his return to his native land. Pozdnisheff instantly fixes upon him, in his own mind, as the fated lover. Nevertheless, or rather in consequence of this, he is unusually cordial, introduces the musician to his wife (quite unnecessarily), and begs him to bring his violin that very evening and play duets with her. The musician comes, behaves with perfect propriety, as Pozdnisheff admits, but jealousy causes him to see what he expects. He urges the musician to dine and play at his house on the following Sunday, still impelled by the fancies of his own disordered brain. The musician accepts; but, having called in the interim to decide upon the proper music to present to the company, he drives Pozdnisheff to such a pitch of unreason that the latter uses vile language to his innocent wife and throws things at her, whereupon she promptly retires and takes poison.

She is rescued, a reconciliation ensues, the dinner comes off, and the Kreutzer Sonata in the evening is a great success upon the violin and piano. But the husband's jealousy and imagination are all alive, and interpret every glance of the players to suit himself. On taking leave that evening, the musician bids Pozdnisheff and his wife a final farewell. Pozdnisheff is going to the country on business, and the musician says that he shall leave Moscow himself before the former's return, intimating that he shall not call upon Madame during her husband's absence. Pozdnisheff goes to the country in a tranquil frame of mind, but a letter from his wife, in which she mentions that the musician has called to fetch her the music he promised, sets his jealousy aflame again. He hastens back to Moscow, finds the musician eating supper with his wife, and murders her. On trial he is acquitted on the plea of "justifiable homicide" and when the narrator of the story meets him in the train, he is on his way to a small estate in one of the southern governments, his children remaining with his dead wife's sister.

The whole book is a violent and roughly worded attack upon the evils of animal passion. In that sense, it is moral. Translation, even with copious excisions, is impossible, in my opinion, and also inadvisable. The men against whom it is directed will not mend their ways from the reading of it, even if they fully grasp the idea that unhappiness and mad jealousy and crime are the outcome of their ways, as Pozdnisheff is made to say in terms as plain as the language will admit of, and in terms much plainer than are usually employed in polite society. On the other hand, the book can, I am sure, do no good to the people at whom it is not launched. It is decidedly a case where ignorance is bliss, and where uncontaminated minds will carry away a taint which a few will be able to throw off, but which will linger with the majority as the wine of the fable lingered in the cask meant for pure water. Such morbid psychology can hardly be of service, it seems to me, much as I dislike to criticise Count Tolstoi.

ISABEL F. HAPGOOD