TOLSTOY/ Aleksandra Tolstaya on “The Kreutzer Sonata” (literary critique)


Aleksandra Tolstaya on
from 'Tolstoy: A Life of My Father'.



It was spring and they were in their house in Moscow. Among a group of guests gathered there were the painter Repin, the actor Andreyev-Burlak, a student at the moscow Conservatory, the tutor of the Tolstoy boys Andryusha and Misha, and Lasoto, a violinist. Seryozha and Lasoto were asked to play.

Seryozha was different from all the other Tolstoys because of his great shyness and reserve. he often concealed his emotions, his outbursts of tenderness or passion, under a cloak of deliberate rudeness, or brusqueness. The most serious-minded and industrious of all the Tolstoy brothers, he had his own separate existence; he did not lean toward either his mother, or his father, andhe rarely confided his thoughts to the members of his family. It was only when he sat down to the piano and for hours played his beloved Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, or attempted to compose something himself, that everyone listened to him. It was said that Seryozha had a remarkable touch. As a matter of fact it was only to the piano that he laid bare his heart: in sounds that were tempestuously passionate or tenderly singing one sensed the sadness, the inner struggle of this ill-favored and reserved youth.

It must have been that on this spring evening the young man played the Beethoven sonata dedicated to Kreutzer with especial verve. the first part, which tolstoy particularly liked, strongly affected everyone present. They spoke of how fine it would be if Tolstoy wrote a story on the theme of the Kreutzer Sonata, and Repin illustrated it and Andreyev-Burlak acted it. this idea was never realized; Andreyev died shortly afterward. But in tolstoy the idea continued to mature. It is difficult to say exactly when the theme of *The Kreutzer Sonata* first entered his head -- that evening, under the influence of the music, or very much earlier, when in the 1870's he sketched out and then abandoned a story called *The Murderer of His Wife*.

On April 3, 1889, when Tolstoy was visiting his friend S. S. Urusov in his country place, he jotted down in his diary: "It is early, I intended to write something new, but I reread just the beginnings and settled on *The Kreutzer Sonata*. And on the 5th of April he wrote: "I wrote a great deal on *The Kreutzer Sonata* and it was not bad."

But Sophia Andreyevna wrote in her diary in December, 1890, that "the idea of making a real *story* was given to him [Tolstoy] by Andreyev-Burlak, an actor and wonderful storyteller." Then Sophia Andreyevna added: "It was he who told about how once in a railroad train a man confided in him the misfortune of his wife's unfaithfulness and this was the subject used by Lyovochka."

In creating his main character, Pozdnishev, there is no doubt that Tolstoy drew upon various aspects of his own relations with his wife: the periods of tenderness and coolness, the discord, the quarrels, and faithfully described some of Sophia Andreyevna's more annoying characteristics fully aware of this, she did not care for *The Kreutzer Sonata*.

"There were words and expressions of hatred because of the coffee, the tablecloth, the carriage, a lead in a card game -- all things without any importance to either of them," Tolstoy has Pozdnishev say in *The Kreutzer Sonata*. "In me, in any case, hatred toward her boiled furiously. I watcher her sometimes as she poured tea, swung her foot, carried her spoon to her mouth, noisily sipped the liquid, and I hated her as much for this as for the worst kind of act. I did not notice at that time that the periods of resentment came over me quite regularly and at equal intervals and corresponded to the periods of what we called love. A period of love -- a period of bitterness -- a spirited period of love -- a long period of bitterness -- a weaker manifestation of love -- a brief period of bitterness... We were two prisoners who hated each other, fastened to the same chain, ruining each other's lives and trying not to see it. I still did not know at the time that nine- tenths of married people live in this hell in which I lived and that this cannot be otherwise."

Tolstoy's ideas about marriage and continence were upsetting to Sophia Andreyevna.

"You are harassing and killing yourself," she wrote him on April 19, 1889, to Yasnaya Polyana. "I...have been thinking: he does not eat meat, nor smoke, he works beyond his strength, his brain is not nourished, hence the drowsiness and weakness. How stupid vegetarianism is....Kill life in yourself, kill all impulses of the flesh, all its needs -- why not kill yourself altogether? After all you are committing yourself to *slow* death, what's the difference?"

The writing of *The Kreutzer Sonata* took almost two years. Tolstoy wrote in spurts; at times he lost interest in it and then he would take it up again with enthusiasm. In a letter to his friend G. A. Rusanov, he wrote (March 14, 1889): "The rumor about a novel has some foundation. As early as two years ago I wrote the rough draft of a novel dealing with the theme of sexual love, but I did it so carelessly and unsatisfactorily that I did not even revise it, but should I become interested in the idea I would make a fresh start." Earlier Tolstoy had written in his diary: "Have been revising *The Kreutzer Sonata*...Have gotten bored by *The K.S.*."

When Tolstoy wrote that he was "bored" by one of his works it means that he was nearing the finish of it. Before he had quite concluded the novel he began to write the Epilogue, and meantime the novel was being passed around. Tolstoy received varied reactions: bewilderment, condemnation, friendly criticism, enthusiasm.

In his Epilogue he attempted to reply to the many questions he had been asked.

"Given the ideal of chastity," he wrote, "one must consider that the only departure from it on the part of any two people must be to form a unique, indissoluble union for life, and then it will be clear that the guidance given by Christ is not only sufficient but also the only one possible."

In a letter to V. I. Alexeyev Tolstoy wrote: "The contents of what I have written are as new to me as to those who have read them. In this respect the ideal revealed to me is so far from my own actions that at first I was terrified and said nothing, but then I became convinced, repented, and rejoiced at the joyful advance in store for others and for me."

N. N. Strakhov, although he criticized *The Kreutzer Sonata* from the point of view of the external handling of the novel, wrote Tolstoy an enthusiastic letter about its substance.

Tolstoy replied: "From the artistic point of view I am well aware that the writing is beneath all criticism: it was based on two mentally inharmonious methods, hence the formlessness you sensed. Nevertheless I am leaving it as it stands and have no regrets, not because I am lazy, but I cannot correct it. I also have no regrets because I know somehow that what is written is true, and not only not useless bur surely beneficial to people, and in part it is new. If it were to be written in artistic form, which I do not repudiate, I would have to start all over again and at once."

Chekhov criticized it: "The novel in its present state can do no more than arouse in the reader questions, doubts; it does not clarify them to the degree which you are capable of clarifying them, by injecting into the novel the core of Christian convictions which so far is lacking...."

This reaction on the part of his friend evidently distressed Tolstoy, who noted in his diary: "He makes a valid criticism of *The Kreutzer Sonata*, and I'd be glad to follow his advice, but I have no urge to do so. I feel only apathy, sadness, despondency."

Was Tolstoy really in need of such criticism? He was more severe on himself than anyone else. "I am writing on *The Kreutzer Sonata* and 'What Is Art?' and they are both negative, wicked, and I want to write what is good," he said in his diary for June 24, 1889.

During this period of artistic creativeness any polishing of his writing, his style, seemed a superfluous luxury to Tolstoy. To him the important thing was to have time to express thoughts from which readers might benefit.

His main concern was his own conscience. "All I want is to be in a state of cleanliness, that is to say, clean of all lustful appetite," he wrote to the elder Gay, "of all delights, wine, smoking, sexual lust and human fame, to be humble, that is to say, be prepared to have my work scored and myself slandered."

And Tolstoy was both scored and slandered. Now, people said, after having enjoyed a stormy life, in his old age he preaches chastity and abstinence.

"To struggle, that is one's very life," Tolstoy wrote in his "thoughts on the Relations between the sexes," and later on he said: "Man must not make chastity his goal, but an approach to chastity."

*The Kreutzer Sonata* was banned, despite the fact that everyone everywhere was talking about it and it was being passed from hand to hand.

"It is difficult to imagine," wrote Alexandrine in her memoirs, "what happened when *The Kreutzer Sonata* and *The Power of Darkness* appeared. Although they were not yet licensed to be printed, these works were copied by the hundreds and thousands, they were passed from hand to hand, they were translated into all languages and were always read with incredible emotion; it seemed as if for the time being the public abandoned its private cares and lived only the writings of Count Tolstoy."

When on February 25, 1890, the whole of volume XIII of the complete works of Tolstoy, the one in which this novel appeared, was held up, Sophia Andreyevna appealed to Durnovo, the Minister of Internal Affairs. Her request that the ban be lifted was refused; but Sophia Andreyevna was not one to give up easily. The greater the obstacles, the greater her energy. After consulting with Granny and with A. M. Kuzminski, she decided to go to St. Petersburg and in person request the Emperor to allow the publication of the novel. The Emperor proved to be more liberal- minded than any of his subordinates, and he granted Sophia Andreyevna permission to issue Volume XIII. By now it was april 1891. Sophia Andreyevna came back from St. Petersburg gay and satisfied. The ban on Volume XIII had been the cause of serious financial loss. Moreover, she appears to have been flattered by the reception and attention accorded her by the Emperor, for she enjoyed talking about it to all her relatives and acquaintances.

Many people missed the deep significance of *The Kreutzer Sonata*. They made it trivial, they distorted it. One of the states in the United States proved to be less liberal than the russian Tsar; it banned the novel as being pornographic, and in Germany a publisher, hoping to make money, launched a vile advertising campaign and printed a naked woman on the cover of the book.

All during this period Tolstoy was absorbed by the question of sex. Having wrestled with the temptations of lust all his life, he was well aware of its great power which leads men to crime and sometimes to complete moral collapse. Before he had finished *The Kreutzer Sonata* he sketched out within two weeks' time a novel called *The Devil*, in which he described with all the creative power at his disposal the frightful animal passion of a man for a peasant woman and his battle with it.

*The Devil*, or as Tolstoy called it at first, *The Story of Fredericks*, was told to him by the sister of the main character in it. this was a piece of writing which so enthralled him that he wrote it in one sweep. There is this note in his diary for November 10, 1889: "After dinner I quite unexpectedly began to write *The story of fredericks." On November 19 he again made a note: "I wrote all morning on *The Story of Fredericks*." But once it was blocked in in rough draft he put it aside and scarcely ever went back to it. It was twenty years later that he wrote another version of it, first called *Irtenev*, and in its final edited form, *The Devil*.

At the time Sofia Andreyevna knew nothing about this novel. Tolstoy purposely concealed it from her, knowing that it would evoke a storm of jealousy over his past love affair with Axinia. It is true that this affair, about which Sophia Andreyevna had learned only after her marriage and which had made such a painful impression on her, served in part as the theme of *The Devil*.

Another story of this period - *Father Sergius* - which was first outlined in a letter from Tolstoy to Chertkov on February 3, 1890, describes the fall of a monk from his holy state, seduced by a woman.

In February Tolstoy, with his daughter Masha and Vera Kuzminskaya, went to the Shamordin convent where his sister, Maria Nikolayevna, had taken the veil. The monastery of Optina Pustyn, where he had been many times, was only a few miles away. He again went to see Elder Ambrosius and had lengthy talks with two monks, Shidlovski and Leontiev. It is likely that this visit gave him a great deal of material for *Father Sergius*.

In a letter to one of his followers, E. I. Popov, later that year Tolstoy wrote: "...In our struggle with temptation we are weakened by setting victory as our goal; we set ourselves a task beyond our powers, a task which it does not lie within our power to fulfill or not fulfill. We, as a monk does, say to ourselves in advance: I promise myself to be chaste, with the understanding that I mean by that, external chastity. and this, in the first place, is impossible because we cannot imagine in what circumstances we may be place and in which we would not resist temptation. And, moreover, this is bad; bad because it does not help to achieve the goal -- the approach to greater continence -- but on the contrary....

"There can be only one aim: to achieve the greatest degree of continence given my character, temperament, the circumstances of my past and present -- continence, not in the eyes of people who do not know what I have to contend with, but in my own eyes and those of God...."

With these words Tolstoy expressed with particular clarity the thought which he often repeated to his fervent and often unreasonable followers, who boldly, ardently, and with the self- assurance of youth, were convinced that they could achieve perfection, and who set themselves aims beyond the reach of their powers.

A series of plots were revolving in Tolstoy's mind. He began to write a novel on a theme given him by Koni. Tolstoy called this one the "Koni novel" -- it was to become *Resurrection* - but the plot was too broad, so he put it aside. *Father Sergius* exercised an obviously stronger pull on him. He also had to finish an article on nonresistance -- "The Kingdom of God Is Within You." Concurrently he was revising a novel in the Tolstoyan mood that he had sketched out in the eighties, called *Walk in the Light While Light Remains*.

At the same time he experimented with a new story form which employed a succession of people into whose hands a *counterfeit coupon* falls. But neither did that work out. He grew tired, for *The Kreutzer Sonata* and "The Kingdom of God" absorbed the major part of his energy. Then quite unexpectedly, perhaps even to him, in March of 1889, he began to write a comedy which originally was called *Themselves Outwitted* and later *The Fruits of Enlightenment*, which he had sketched out and then abandoned three years earlier.

No matter how hard Tolstoy tried to ignore artistic forms and finish he could not cease to be an artist, and as an artist he was carried away by this new medium. The writing of a comedy about spiritism -- at which he scoffed all his life -- was a relaxation.

But perhaps even the play would never have been finished had it not been for his daughter Tanya, who, with Seryozha, had just returned from a journey abroad. "The children wanted to stage a comedy," Tolstoy wrote to Chertkov on December 22, 1889. "They asked if they could take mine (*The Fruits of Enlightenment*). I agreed and began to revise it. Now I have finished. It is a very weak piece, but it can, I believe, do some good. Incidentally, I feel rather conscience-stricken over occupying myself with such trifles when there is so much that is needed. The only thing I am happy about is that I am rid of it."

But the gaiety and liveliness of the young people involuntarily affected Tolstoy too. The preparations were legion, a stage was built in the big room, many people came from tula. The arch instigator, Tanya, stirred up everyone in the household; she undertook the production of the performance with ardor. The President of the Tula District Court, N. V. Davydov, directed the play. Samarin, Tsinger, Lopatin, and others divided up the parts. During the rehearsals Tolstoy often took the text away from the actors and carried it into his study in order to enter some corrections. In places where the audience rocked with laughter, the one who laughed loudest and most infectiously was the author himself. The two Tolstoy sisters played magnificently; there was no doubt that tanya in particular had acting ability.

In April 1890 N. V. Davydov produced the play in the city of Tula for the benefit of a reformatory. On the basis of Emperor Alexander III's decree, according to which the play was judged unsuitable for the public stage, the censor allowed it to be performed only in amateur productions. Later on permission to produce the play was granted after special applications had been made in individual cases, but it was only in 1894 that a separate circular was issued which sanctioned the performance of *The Fruits of Enlightenment* in all theaters of the Russian Empire.

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