“The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy
(First publication: 1889 / This edition: Penguin Books, Penguin Great Loves 2004)
Taken with French-pressed coffee and roses—goes well with the book cover. 😉
All considerations other than those related to action went abruptly out of my head. I entered that state a wild animals knows, or the state that’s experienced by a man who is under the influence of physical excitement at a time of danger, and who acts precisely, unhurriedly, but without ever wasting a moment, and with only one end view.” (pg.131)
I just fall more and more in love with Tolstoy’s writing—I love the way he expresses human emotions and weaknesses. I feel like he makes you feel all kinds of emotions and makes you feel that you can understand and even relate. This short story (143 pages) is about a murderer, and even I feel like I can relate to him and “forgive” him for his deeds.
This is my first book from the “Great Loves” collection. (Turgenev’s “First Love” is also in this collection but I have a different edition).
I didn’t really know what to expect—I didn’t even know what “The Kreutzer Sonata” means; I found later in the book that it’s a Beethoven. But since it’s in the “Great Loves” collection, I assumed I would be in for a truly epic sweet love story.
…the “tagline” for this book is: Love can be murderous.
It’s like there was a plot twist in my mind before I even began reading.
Anyway, this was the most thrilling and exciting Tolstoy I’ve read so far. It’s not as heart-wrenching or beautiful or scenic like “Anna Karenina”. It’s not as depressing or mind-blowing or existential crisis-ish as “A Confession”. It’s just so intense and action-packed. I felt like I was in the mind of a psychotic jealous man.
The story is about a conversation between two men on a train. One man had murdered his wife. They had an unhappy and abusive relationship. When he started suspecting her to be in an affair with a young musician, he became more and more jealous. The jealousy drove him to insanity and he ended up killing her.
Now that sounds like a cheesy Blockbuster movie. Butohmygoddd.
I was grasped from the very beginning of the book. (I had actually been reading another book, and started this one on the train—and ended up prioritizing it over all the other books in the world.) The first half or so actually made me think of Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love”—because I felt like it was showing Tolstoy’s (or the protagonist’s) thoughts on the philosophy and nature of “love” and “relationships”. “Relationships” and “sex” are explored in a pretty harsh and sexist way, but some parts made sense or are just like, “That’s harsh and unfair, but I see it happening”.
The protagonist is very sexist, misogynistic, and has the strangest, most closed-minded view of women. I was scoffing at his opinions of how selfish, advantageous, and deceitful women are. I feel like the protagonist is like someone who thinks he knows all the women in the world even though he had only been with a handful—maybe a sack-ful, but definitely not enough to stereotype “woman”. He supports and encourages debauchery and somehow justifies that it’s okay because of the way women were raised.
While reading, I just thought about the Seven Deadly Sins and how he was pretty much checking off more and more on the list—definitely “Envy (Jealousy)”, Wrath, Pride, Lust, and Greed. That’s why his character is just a chock-full of intensity and emotions.
So, the story starts off with him being very sexist and douchey; and ended with him being all heartbroken, regretful, and depressed. As ridiculous and mad as the protagonist is, Tolstoy explored “jealousy” and the psychology side of it so in depth that I found myself nodding and thinking, “Yes, yes, I know how that feels, I feel you, I’d be raging, how can she behave like that, I can see that she’s lying, you have every right to be suspicious.” I ended up empathizing with him and even became enraged at his straying wife.
Oh, the feels:
Even if she hadn’t been unfaithful to met yet, she wanted to, and that made it even worse. It would have been better if she’d actually done it and I’d known about it, so there wouldn’t have been the uncertainty.
I wouldn’t have been capable of saying what it was I wanted. I wanted her not to want what she couldn’t help wanting.
It was complete and utter madness. (pg.125)
I would recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of Tolstoy or is a Tolstoy virgin. It’s such a thrilling read. I wouldn’t say this is a favorite but it has definitely left an deep, hard footprint in my mind. The story just overflows of emotions.
Side note, apparently some say that Tolstoy wrote this based on his marriage and his wife—which, of course, pissed her off. Interesting article about it here.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
It’s really quite remarkable how complete the illusion is that beauty is the same as goodness. (pg.28)
And music in general’s fearful thing. What is it? I don’t know. What is music? What does it do to us? And why does it do to us what it does? People say that music has an uplifting effect on the soul: what rot! It isn’t true. It’s true that it has an affect, it has a terrible effect on me, at any rate, but it has nothing to do with any uplifting of the soul. Its effect on the soul is neither uplifting nor degrading—it merely irritates me. How can I put it? Music makes me forget myself, my true condition, it carries me off into another state of being, one that isn’t my own: under the influence of music I have the illusion of feeling things I don’t really feel, of understanding things I don’t understand, being able to do things I’m not able to do. I explain this by the circumstance that the effect produced by music is similar to that produced by yawning or laughter: I may not be sleepy, but I yawn if I see someone else yawning; I may have no reason for laughing, but I laugh if I see someone else laugh.
Music carries me instantly and directly into the state of consciousness that was experienced by its composer. My soul merges with his, and together with him I’m transported from one state of consciousness into another; yet why this should be, I’ve no idea. (pg.110-111)
That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you, that’s what explains this curious phenomenon: from one point of view, it’s perfectly correct to say that woman has been brought to the lowest degree of subjection, but from another point of view it’s equally true to say that she’s the dominant one. (pg.39)
They’ve emancipated woman in the universities and the legislative assemblies, but they still regard her as an object of pleasure. Teach her, as is done in our society, to consider herself in the same light, and she will for ever remain an inferior being. Either, with the help of those sharks of doctors, she’ll prevent herself conceiving offspring, and so will be a complete whore, will descend to the level, not of an animal, but of a material object; or else she’ll be what she is in the majority of cases: mentally ill, hysterical and unhappy, as are all those who are denied the opportunity of spiritual development. (pg.63)