All three novels I’ve read recently are transgressive, and all three concern the same subject matter: the possibility of romantic love between man and woman, especially between husband and wife. I hadn’t realised the commonality till now. Pure serendipity. I think.
Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata is the most transgressive. He began it in 1887 when he was 59, after the beginning of his ascetic or “moralistic” period, and finished it in 1889. In 1890 it was banned in Russia. In the same year the US Post Office banned the movement of newspapers containing serialised instalments of it. (1)
It wasn’t until Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, gained special permission from the Tsar to include it in the collected works she was editing that the novella could be openly read.
I like to speculate what exactly was contained in the citation to have it banned. There are so many grounds from which to choose, though I bet whichever it was, it was the wrong ground.
The writer of the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition cites “explicit sexual content.” But this cannot be right because even though sexual mores have changed between 1890 and today the protagonist, Pozdnyshev, doesn’t describe sexual acts; he only talks about them, and then using various ironic and bitter circumlocutions, eg, “swinish” behaviour, “pigsty existence”, “animal sensuality”, “… we had a reconciliation under the influence of the feeling to which we gave the name ‘love’”, and so on.
Elsewhere in the Introduction the scandal is attributed to “Pozdnyshev’s advocacy of total celibacy.” That this aspect caused a great fuss is borne out by the fact Tolstoy wrote a Postface before the novel was even finished in which he states he agrees with Pozdnyshev’s stance.
For female readers, the Introduction seems to imply, it was the horror of Pozdnyshev’s murder of his wife, though the implication is complicated by a statement contained in a letter received “from the provincial city of Voronezh about responses to readings of the work”:
‘The Sonata’ has had an extraordinary effect on everybody, struck them like the blow of a club. Furious discussions flame up; some are for, some against. Most adherents are women. The common reaction to ‘The Sonata’ is: ‘strong stuff, very strong stuff!’ […] Some women have said that they could not sleep the night after they heard it the first time.
But to ban the book on the grounds of advocating celibacy or depicting murder is to fiddle while the mightiest construction burns to the ground, the construction of romantic love no less. Both Tolstoy and Pozdnyshev make it clear the main premise of the story is that romantic love cannot exist between man and woman, that it is the universe’s joke and that everyone is gulled. Can’t get much more transgressive than that. Yet I would be surprised to discover it was the ground on which the book was banned for that would open up an enquiry no-one could afford to have opened.
There is another ground on which to ban the book which is not raised in the Introduction except in that tiny hint: “Most adherents are women.” The novel depicts Pozdnyshev’s wife as a full sexual being, with similar “animal” appetites to him and the sovereignty, despite his intimidations, to look around. Here’s the wonderful, funny description of her, after having discovered contraceptives:
A kind of provocative beauty radiated from her, and people found it disturbing. She was thirty years old, in the full flower of her womanhood; she was no longer bearing children; she was well fed and emotionally unstable. Her appearance made people uneasy. Whenever she walked past men she attracted their gaze. She was like an impatient, well-fed horse that has had its bridle taken off …
I got such a good laugh reading The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy is in earnest, but I can’t read the depictions of Pozdnyshev’s relations with his wife without cackling. They are so funny. They have the same effect on me as watching a Woody Allen movie or reading the novels of the Austrian and anti-Teuton, Thomas Bernhard. Like those writers, Tolstoy is turning inside out the human psyche, bringing all the craziness that streams through our minds into the light and saying “Here, look at this, and if you think I’m crazy …” It’s the extreme which is not extreme. The extreme which is the norm.
Pozdynyshev’s jealousy is my jealousy, his lightning oscillations between one view and its opposite are mine, his baiting and trap-setting, oh-so-familiar.
The Introduction makes the point well:
Tolstoy’s rhetorical strategy in his fiction in general depends upon his readers’ tacit agreement that he is writing truly about emotional states that they themselves have experienced or imagined. The strategy is tested most seriously when the reader is made to recall the bitter and shameful rather than the sweet. If readers have been in love but fallen out of it; if they have wanted to kill their loved ones; if they have lusted vigorously; or desperately sought the approval and even worship of others: Tolstoy depends upon our own memories to entangle us in his later tragic stories.
Quoting snatches from the novel doesn’t do it justice because the humour, and the recognition lies in the escalation. But you can catch the tone from classic passages like these:
We’d already given up trying to settle our arguments. We each obstinately stuck to our own point of view about even the most simple things, but particularly about the children. Thinking back on it now, I can see that the opinions I used to defend were by no means so dear to me that I couldn’t have got along without them; no, the point was that the opinions she held were the opposite of mine, and yielding to them meant yielding to … her.
Ah, the perfectly placed ellipsis.
When we were left alone together we either had to remain silent or else carry on the sort of conversations I’m convinced animals have with one another. ‘What’s the time? Bedtime. What’s for dinner today? Where are we going to? Is there anything in the newspaper? Send for the doctor. Masha’s got a sore throat.’ We had only to stray out of this impossibly narrow focus of conversation by as much as a hair’s breadth, and our mutual irritation would flare up again.
Just great. And here, surely we’ve all been here …?
I used to boil inwardly with the most dreadful hatred for her! Sometimes I’d watch the way she poured her tea, the way she swung her leg or brought her spoon to her mouth; I’d listen to the little slurping noises she made as she sucked the liquid in, and I used to hate her for that as for the most heinous act.
The Kreutzer Sonata (1901) by René François Xavier Prinet (top)