The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolsoy

[I wrote about this novella in two sections. In my discussion of the first half there are no spoilers concerning the rest of it.]

8 March 2017
Chapters 1-14 (of 28)
This is a strange story. It was written long after the novels that made Tolstoy’s reputation, the ones that somehow transcend boundaries of time, country, gender and class. At Natasha’s first ‘grand ball’ in War and Peace, for instance, Tolstoy gets us fully into the consciousness of a sixteen-year-old girl, and presents what seems to be an utterly convincing picture. Somehow, the hopes and dreams of this privileged, immature young girl two centuries ago become vitally important to us – and later, when she makes a life decision that could be the ruin of her, we care.

I’m only mentioning it because in The Kreutzer Sonata he doesn’t seem to be attempting anything remotely similar: the selectively omniscient narrator of the great novels is nowhere in sight. Instead, the narrative is presented by an unnamed observer in the story, who himself is told a story by a different character. What we get are the words of one man, whose only motive in telling his story – and he often assures his listener that telling it is vitally important to him – seems to be to convince us of a bizarre set of beliefs he has concerning the immorality of marriage. And while this man makes some criticisms of contemporary upper and middle class Russian society that might seem fair, most of what he says sounds like the ravings of a lunatic.

The framing device seems to be offering something different at first. On a long train journey, the entry of a new passenger leads to a conversation. A debate seems likely concerning the ‘Woman Question’, that was exercising the minds of writers and politicians. A woman with progressive views, together with her lawyer friend, make a case that marriage should be for love, not arranged. And there should be easier divorce. Nonsense, says the new passenger, who seems to be in role as the archaic ‘Domostroy’ figure the woman mentions. For him, arranged marriage is best, and divorce is unnecessary if a husband asserts himself and keeps his wife in her proper place. It’s engaging enough, if rather quaint, and the main participants take up well-rehearsed positions.

But it seems that Tolstoy isn’t really interested in this, because the institution of marriage itself is never questioned by these rather flawed participants. (Earlier, for instance, we’ve overheard the conservative-minded passenger, supposedly a respectable older man, telling a racy story about the sexual exploits of his youth.)Only a few pages in, he takes the story off in a completely different direction. Amongst the other passengers there is a man who keeps himself in the background, although he sometimes gives a noticeably odd, snorting laugh that is almost a tic. And once the subject of marriage has been mentioned, he suddenly starts to take a keen interest. Eventually he joins in, hesitantly at first – ‘what are we to understand by this love that alone consecrates marriage?’ – but soon it’s clear that he has an agenda of his own that he is going to force the others to deal with….

Having insisted, shouting over them if he has to, that the ‘love’ they refer to is never more than a short-term emotion, he argues that marriage can never, ever, be the coming together of two people in absolute concord in mind and body. Quite the reverse. One option is that the married couple ‘deceive the world by professing to live monogamously. If they really are polygamous and polyandrous, it is bad, but acceptable.’ Or, if thy live faithfully in the eyes of the world, ‘then comes that infernal existence in which they resort to drink, in which they fire revolvers, in which they assassinate each other, in which they poison each other….’

In trying to end the conversation, the lawyer refers to a real case of murder, ‘the Posdnicheff affair.’ But… the nervous man with the strange laugh tells them he is Posdnicheff, and reminds them all that he killed his wife. Oh dear. We have seen from the start how he always insists on making broad generalisations out of his own experiences, and soon most of the other passengers, if they haven’t reached their destinations, change carriages. Only one person, the narrator, is left to listen to the story, as urgent as that of the Ancient Mariner.

Over the next 30 pages Posdnicheff describes his life up to the early weeks and months of his marriage. It all disgusts him, partly because he will never deviate from his discovery that society is conspiring in a massive con trick. He draws a comparison with a man – himself, he says – who visits a freak-show. It’s terrible, and obviously the ‘freaks’ are no such thing. But, on leaving, he feels too embarrassed to tell anybody, and pretends it’s worth seeing. (I remember one of the con artists in Huckleberry Finn relying on exactly this behaviour.) The man doesn’t need to explain the analogy, but he does anyway.

He starts at the beginning. At fifteen, he visits a brothel for the first time because society will have it that it’s the ‘healthy’ thing to do. (You should hear him on the subject of society’s norms, and the part played by the charlatans who call themselves doctors in perpetuating it. Scientists, he says, should put their energy into finding a cure for the sexual urge, not for the diseases that are caught through indulging it. And so on.) He is ruined at that moment, he says, and his life of ‘debauchery’ – it’s one of his favourite words, and he seems to use it to mean any example of the sexual act – goes on from there. He says he felt no disgust at the time – why should he? – only after he realised what a horrific fraud is being perpetrated. The way that young people are prepared for marriage is a sham, with women no more than cattle on show. ‘Ladies’ who make a good match are prostitutes. Eligible young bachelors are – as every single one of the approving matrons well knows – debauchees of the worst sort. And so on. Posdnicheff goes through it like everybody else, because he has never learnt better. And, as is bound to happen, by the age of 30 he has met the woman who seems to be right for him….

The courtship is like all courtships – I’ve mentioned his penchant for generalisations – which means that they have little or nothing in common. They find one another’s company boring, rack their brains for something to say, but assume that it will all come right once they are married. Hah. What really happens, during the honeymoon, is that once the sexual urge is satisfied they quarrel. It’s the first time, and Posdnicheff hopes it’s the last because it is horrible. He focuses not on his own behaviour but that of his new wife: ‘Her whole face expressed hatred, and hatred of me. I cannot describe to you the fright which this sight gave me. “How? What?” thought I, “love is the unity of souls, and here she hates me? Me? Why?”’ It isn’t the last quarrel by any means, of course, and very soon he realises the problem. When they are not having sex, or in the zone where sex is a welcome possibility for both of them, this mutual loathing is ‘our actual situation as it appeared after the satisfaction of sensual desire.’

For Posdnicheff, it is a terrible revelation. Sex and the ‘unity of souls’ he is so sarcastic about have no connection in reality. He had said this in that first discussion in the railway carriage, and now he just wants to keep on saying it. The sex act, for its own sake and not (as for peasants) for procreation, is mere debauchery. He never explains why, but succumbing to sexual urges seems to prove that human beings are no better than animals.

It reveals such a high degree of self-loathing that I began to wonder at around this point whether Tolstoy might share something with a very different writer. Nabokov’s most famous characters hector the reader with their own version of how things are, and they prove to be the least reliable of witnesses. Is Posdnicheff like this, his views held up for scrutiny so that we can find his conclusions wanting?

15 March
Chapters 15-28 – to the end – plus Afterword
I’ve read this story before, but I liked it this second half better this time around. It’s clear from the Afterword that Tolstoy shares many of Posdnicheff’s beliefs about marriage and, more bizarrely, sex. (I’ll come back to the Afterword if I can bear it.) But what makes this half of the novella so interesting is the way that Tolstoy’s main spokesman seems to go off on his own track. If Tolstoy intended him to be an Everyman, which I assume he does, Posdnicheff has other ideas.

I haven’t changed my mind that he’s a lunatic. Even in the first half, with the hindsight he’s gained after recognising the enormity of his crime, he describes absolutely everything as though it’s somebody else’s fault. That first, all-corrupting visit to a brothel? Society’s fault. His marriage to a woman he only finds striking for her looks? The fault of a cynical marriage market. And when those terrible quarrels begin, as soon as they’ve satisfied their sexual appetites, how does he describe them? I’ve already quoted his reaction to the first, and the fright he receives from the look of hatred on her face – ‘she hates me? Me? Why?’ – and from then onwards she is always somehow to blame. Poor, innocent Posdnicheff presents himself as like a lamb to the slaughter on some altar not of his making: ‘from the first weeks, I felt that I was in a trap, that I had what I did not expect, and that marriage is not a joy, but a painful trial.’

In that monomaniacal way of his, he finds himself of the subject of sexual needs. Whose fault can this be? He harangues his hapless listener: ‘man has need of her, you are going to say. At least, so the priests of science assure us.… It follows that God did not know how to arrange matters properly, since, without asking the opinions of the priests, he has combined things as they are. Man needs, so they have decided, to satisfy his sensual desire, and here this function is disturbed by the birth and the nursing of children.’ Ah, children. At least, for some years, there seems to be some pupose in the marriage. But not really. All it does is reduce the woman to a breeding animal, with all the instincts of other animals plus a pointless extra feature: unlike animals, human mothers know how to worry obsessively. God’s got it wrong again.

And society’s got it wrong again. Or somebody has. During pregnancy and while nursing children, wives should not be sexually active – hence Posdnicheff’s complaint about God and the priests having got it wrong about marriage supposedly being the correct manner for man’s needs to be serviced. How can it be any such thing when for a huge proportion of the time during the first years of marriage the woman is sexually unavailable? Of course, Posdnicheff has made a big thing of how society encourages young women to make their sexual attractiveness the most important thing in women’s lives. Where, he asks, does that leave poor, helpless men? (I’m paraphrasing.) He finds the idea of taking a mistress, or to resolve the sexual need in any other way, as disgusting as you would expect.

So… contraception, yes? Don’t even ask what he thinks about the idea of women being mere vessels for the pleasuring of men. Just don’t. But that’s the option his wife goes for after bearing six children in (I think) only eight years. She is fine with it – he describes with a kind of ghastly fascination how good she looks on her new-found freedom, still an attractive woman at the age of 30 – but it solves absolutely nothing for him. And if it isn’t fine for him, his thoughts soon turn again to the idea of suicide or murder. And I haven’t mentioned anything after Chapter 16 onwards. It gets a lot worse…

…because what Tolstoy throws into the mix – and, unless it’s merely a driver for the murder-plot, I can’t begin to guess why – is another obsession for Posdnicheff to work himself up about. Jealousy. We’d already caught a glimpse of this, just after the birth of their first child, at the end of Chapter 14. Doctors – doctors! – insist that his wife should not nurse this first child herself, and this is a recipe for trouble: ‘there was again awakened in my wife that coquetry which had been sleeping during the nursing period. Thanks to that, she reawakened in me the torments of jealousy which I had formerly known, though in a much slighter degree.’ In fact, he has never mentioned jealousy before. But we recognise the pattern anyway: his wife, with society’s permission, unleashes something on him that he doesn’t know how to cope with. (‘Coquetry’ is his word for what anybody else would call the normal attractiveness of a woman in her early twenties. But this is Posdnicheff, and it has to be a conspiracy.)

It sets the tone for the opening of the next chapter, in which he expounds upon jealousy for the first three paragraphs, blaming – guess. He describes ‘that unconscious jealousy which inevitably accompanies every immoral marriage, and which, having no cause, has no end. This jealousy is frightful. Frightful, that is the word.’ And it’s all the fault of those pesky immoral marriages that society has tricked him into. After the birth of their sixth child, and after conspiring with the doctors again, his wife decides not to have any more children. For all other men, as Posdnicheff often remarks, this would be marvellous. But for him it’s disgusting and…

…and why am I finding this story so difficult to write about? How about this for the opening of Chapter 15, the one in which Posdnicheff introduces the theme that dominates the second half?

‘Yes, jealousy, that is another of the secrets of marriage known to all and concealed by all. Besides the general cause of the mutual hatred of husbands and wives resulting from complicity in the pollution of a human being, and also from other causes, the inexhaustible source of marital wounds is jealousy….’

His monomania is so relentless, and his own sense of being trapped by society’s great con-trick is so overwhelming for him, that the reader feels as trapped as that hapless passenger in the train. Posdnicheff’s vocabulary takes no prisoners – ‘jealousy… mutual hatred… marital wounds… pollution… jealousy’ – and it contributes to the sense of unremitting claustrophobia.

I don’t know if this is what Tolstoy wants. The first time I read it (not long ago), I really didn’t like being browbeaten like this. I resented what Tolstoy was doing to me – it isn’t the passenger on the train who is ‘hapless’, as I just described him, it’s the reader. But I re-read it and… it might be more interesting to think of Posdnicheff as a case-study instead of a bore. This opens up the possibility of that Nabokov-style unreliable narrator I mentioned, the one whose real story is hidden behind the one he’s telling. Tolstoy, the creator of those great novels in his thirties has, in his sixties, created a cold-blooded murderer who only realises that’s what he is after he’s killed his wife.

It means that what Tolstoy describes as his own motive in the Afterword – to make a case against marriage and in favour of a life of celibacy – is overtaken by his fascination for his creation. Posdnicheff makes no attempt to explain his own jealousy beyond the assertion I’ve quoted: in modern marriage, it is the inevitable consequence that nobody will acknowledge. It is, he says, ‘known to all’ – in other words, his feeling of jealousy is no different from everybody else’s. Ok. And earlier on, he has made a different all-embracing assertion: that if the man doesn’t have affairs, or seek release for his ‘sensual desire’ as he likes to call it, the pair will soon want to kill themselves or each other. So she’s got to go. He has constructed an argument he entirely believes…

…but, of course, in a civil society he couldn’t possibly act on it. What civil society needs is a motive it can understand – so Posdnicheff supplies one. His wife, now that the children are not so all-consuming of her time and energy, has begun playing the piano again. She’s rather good, but ‘there, at the piano, the adventure began. [New paragraph] Yes, that man appeared.’ And from now on, perhaps not even realising what he is doing, Posdnicheff puts his murder plot into action. The man, a violinist, is always described by Posdnicheff in dismissive, sarcastic terms. He is second-rate, ‘worthless’ – but nevertheless seems the object of a kind of obsession for him. ‘With moist, almond-shaped eyes, red smiling lips… and an insipidly pretty face…. He even had a specially developed posterior like a woman’s, or such as Hottentots are supposed to have.’

This is very strange. It is as though, having found an object for his obsession, he has to objectify him. Is there something homoerotic about the way he focuses on rather intimate physical details? Or is he somehow equating the man so closely with the true object of his hatred, his wife, that he has to feminise him? Whatever. He allows the man, Troukhatchevsky, to visit the house. Why wouldn’t he? In society’s terms, all is perfectly above board…. But Posdnicheff doesn’t think in society’s terms. After some time, the musical pair are ready to perform for their friends, and it is all arranged. Posdnicheff arrives home one evening a few days before the planned performance and sees Troukhatchevsky’s overcoat hanging in the hall. It’s the trigger he needs, and from now on he is certain they are having an affair: ‘everybody knows that precisely in these occupations, especially in music, many adulteries originate in our society.’ (Get that: ‘everybody.’) He approaches the music room stealthily, by an unaccustomed route, and – nothing. But he notices, or thinks he notices, something suspicious, he says they look terrified… and before the end of the next day, he lets out all his anger and hatred of his wife.

Or not quite all. It’s as though there’s something controlled about what he does: ‘I leaped upon her, but at the same moment I understood my condition, and I asked myself whether it would be well for me to abandon myself to my fury. And I answered myself that it would be well, that it would frighten her… instead of resisting, I lashed and spurred myself on.’ However, he can’t kill her yet. He has grabbed hold of her arm, and he really would like to kill her, but ‘I realized that that could not be, and I restrained myself. I drew back from her, rushed to the table, grasped the paper-weight, and threw it on the floor by her side.’ If he killed her now, he would be in trouble. He’ll have to bide his time.

Which he does. The planned performance will go ahead, and it is during their playing of the Kreutzer Sonata that we see Posdnicheff’s obsessive nature in all its glory. Music like this, he says, is unfit for performance in polite company. ‘They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully (I speak for myself), but not in an ennobling way…. How shall I say it? Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own….’ He describes how some music has a purpose, like a military march or a sung mass in church. ‘But any other music provokes an excitement, and this excitement is not accompanied by the thing that needs properly to be done, and that is why music is so dangerous, and sometimes acts so frightfully.’ At the end of the performance, perhaps surprisingly, he is not disturbed by the looks that his wife and Troukhatchevsky give each other: ‘I saw them all and attached no importance to them, believing that she felt as I did, that to her, as to me, new sentiments had been revealed, as through a fog. During almost the whole evening I was not jealous.’ This is sensible. Like him, she feels emotions that the composer has placed there, and he realises that nothing should be read into them.

Hah. Shortly after this, he attends a planned council meeting almost a day’s journey away. All is well, and on the second day he receives a letter from her. She mentions that Troukhatchevsky had dropped some scores round to the house, but that she refused his offer to practise with her. And it’s another trigger. At first, he is a little annoyed that Troukhatchevsky is still around, and hadn’t remembered any music he’d promised to bring. But e’s busy with the meeting’s agenda…. And then he isn’t. ‘And now I remember their faces on Sunday evening, when, after the Kreutzer Sonata, they played… a piece passionate to the point of obscenity.’ He knows perfectly well how much concentration it takes to play a duet, and why their faces would look as they did after such a piece. But he’s made up his mind, and decides to return home early. The journey, especially the eight hours spent on the train – for a while, this remembered journey and the one that frames the story become as claustrophobic as each other – is torture. And, when he arrives home… there is the man’s coat again, hanging in the hall.

What’s a controlling, obsessively jealous husband to do? Very carefully, he removes his shoes, chooses a dagger hanging decoratively on the wall – thinking, bizarrely, of how he will be careful to replace it properly in its scabbard when he has finished with it – then tiptoes to the music room. And Posdnicheff, usually so keen to argue how he behaves like everybody else, pays no attention at all to his supposed rival. It isn’t Troukhatchevsky he’s interested in, but his wife – and we are taken, moment by moment, through the details of the murder. The way he elbows her face as she struggles, the way he has chosen beforehand exactly the spot beneath the breast where he will insert the knife, the feel of the material of the corset as he does so….

By this time, Troukhatchevsky has made his escape by scrambling under the piano – an action that seems to confirm the wife’s view, when Posdnicheff had first confronted her with his suspicions much earlier, that she feels insulted that her husband could imagine she would have an affair with such a man. Whatever. The crisis has come, and it doesn’t go away for Posdnicheff. His wife doesn’t die immediately and, some hours later, her sister goes to the room where he is waiting. He is irresolutely musing over the loaded pistol he thought he would have used against himself by now, and he goes to his dying wife. He expects – I’m not joking – that she will ask his forgiveness for her ‘treason.’ But when he sees her bruised face and realises she really is about to die, he suddenly realises what he’s done. He craves her forgiveness instead, when he eventually asks her for it she is bitter: ‘Forgiveness—that is nothing…. If I only do not die! Ah, you have accomplished what you desired! I hate you!’

This is only a page from the end, and we realise that Posdnicheff is doomed to live with the remorse he feels for his action for the rest of his life. We have seen his obsessive, Ancient Mariner-style desire to confess almost from the start, and now we know why. After a long internal struggle as he reaches the end of his story in the train carriage, sobbing now, he tells the narrator: ‘I began to understand only when I saw her in the coffin…. Then only, when I saw her dead face, did I understand all that I had done. I understood that it was I, I, who had killed her.’

The narrator is full of sympathy. I suppose that Tolstoy wants the reader to be full of sympathy too: a corrupt institution, marriage as conducted in modern society, has brought a man to this. But I don’t think that’s what we feel at all. We have seen the working through of a bizarre, self-serving obsession, and it has led to a conclusion that we knew from the start was coming. In its way, it’s brilliant – but it doesn’t do what Tolstoy apparently hoped it would. Celibacy, however unattainable, as a desirable aim for all men? I suspect that it will take more than a tale told by a narcissistic, controlling obsessive to convince anyone reading it.