Along with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy is probably the best known of Russian authors.
I have to admit, I am not yet that familiar with the latter, as opposed to being greatly familiar with the former.
Dostoyevsky was a bit of a mess. He drank and gambled, spent time in prison for supposed illegal political activity, was epileptic, and maybe not quite sane. His characters and their relationships are always messy and a bit mentally abnormal. He was a strict Orthodox, and could not imagine Russia any other way. And he was very Russian. His novels immerse their readers in the heart and soul of Russia, which was often portrayed as his characters, that is, a bit of a mess. (Much the same may be said about Nikolai Gogol's writing.)
I have not yet read any of Tolstoy's three great and massive novels (but I own them and they're on my hurry-up list). However, from what I have read, (short stories and novelettes), the personalities of these two men, as expressed in their writings, differ greatly. If one did not know Tolstoy was Russian, and the characters had different names, their stories could be set in a different country. Tolstoy didn't capture the blood and guts of Russia as Dostoyevsky did.
Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis and became a Christian Anarchist. He was also a pacifist, and greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi in the philosophy of non-violence. He was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and began to question sexuality, serfdom, education, and other establishments of society. His writings became more philosophical, and his marriage suffered immensely. Wikipedia says:
However, their later life together has been described by A. N. Wilson as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Tolstoy's relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical. This saw him seeking to reject his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works.
This present collection contains only three stories, and two are actually
classified as novelettes. They certainly exemplify Tolstoy's strong interest in the
deep questions of life, death, morality, and what our priorities should be, as opposed to what society tells us we need. These are certainly profound points
to ponder here in 2017, as many people are awakening to the illusions that previously made life seem real. However, his views on women and marriage I find
The first story, How Much Land Does a Man Need? is written as a fable. The peasant Pahom listens as his wife and her sister argue about life in the city vs. life in the country. Pahom's wife defends their lifestyle, saying that, though they are not rich, they always have enough to eat, and are healthy, while city-dwellers must constantly worry about losing their wealth.
Pahom, however, is disturbed. Soon an opportunity comes along that allows him to buy land, and they begin to grow wealthy. But it is not enough. Every time he grows discontent, another opportunity for even more land and wealth arises. But it is the final one that carries a hidden and unexpected twist.
The next story, or rather, novelette, The Death of Ivan Ilych was my favorite of the three, though I can't imagine why. The story begins as the coworkers of Ivan Ilych Golovin discuss his death, and also the possibilities of promotions. They attend his morbid funeral.
After that, the story goes back in time to tell of his life. He had a happy childhood, the middle of three sons, and he also took the middle road. He wasn't overly ambitious, as his older brother, nor a failure, as his younger one. He did well enough, and graduated from Law School, qualifying for the tenth rank of civil service. He did well, prospered, moved forwards, etc.. He was a vain and cheerful man who enjoyed all the pleasures and honors of his position and social rank. In other words, this story is about living deeply entrenched in the status quo, not having a clue that this is not a very moral, worthy or awakened place for one to reside.
Keeping in line with behaving the way society expects him to behave, Ivan Ilych takes a wife. Tolstoy writes:
To say that Ivan Ilych married because he fell in love with Praskovya Fedorovno and found that she sympathized with his views of life would be as incorrect as to say that be married because his social circle approved of the match. He was swayed by both these considerations: the marriage gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates.
But shortly after the marriage, both husband and wife become disenchanted. Children
arrive, and the feeding and care of them becomes a source of distress. Ivan Ilych must seek higher ranks to make the money he (believes he) requires. He
finally does land a position of high rank in the Court of Petersburg, to receive his goal of five thousand rubles per year. He finds a nice house before
his wife, son and daughter arrive, and while working with the upholsterer, slips on the step-ladder, slamming the window frame knob into his side and
causing him great pain. But he thinks nothing of it. Things now seem so much better in his life.
But eventually, the enchantment fades, and Ivan Ilych's life truly plummets. He and his wife hate each other. Even his job holds little joy. But what is worse is that he has become ill. A gnawing pain grows in his side, which he fails to associate with his fall. Gradually, the pain becomes disabling. He now seeks the help of one "specialist" after another. He really doesn't follow their advice, and though he tries to hide his illness and keep a positive outlook, not only is he physically ill, but his past is catching up with him, though he is not aware yet. He is dying of the dullness of status quo. Tolstoy writes:
And he did it all easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically. In the intervals between the sessions he smoked, drank tea, chatted a little about politics, a little about general topics, a little about cards, but most of all about official appointments. Tired, but with the feelings of a virtuoso—one of the first violins who has played his part in an orchestra with precision—he would return home to find that his wife and daughter had been out paying calls, or had a visitor, and that his son had been to school, had done his homework with his tutor, and was duly learning what is taught at High Schools. Everything was as it should be.
But it was not as it should be, of course. Eventually, Ivan Ilych's
isolation from the support of his family torments him. He now knows he is dying, though no doctor can find a cause. He begins to see the falsity, the
deceit, the lies around him His family not only does not sympathize, they will not even face the fact that he grows more ill every day. They live in denial
that he is dying.
He now is so ill, he is crippled. The only person who loves him is his young servant, Gerasim, who does all the disgusting stuff like emptying his portable commode. When Gerasim is around is the only time when Ivan Ilych feels any peace.
He now begins to review his life, beginning with happy memories of his childhood. But as he takes a more honest look, he sees how things went downhill, especially after his marriage. Yet, he still cannot see how he has lived his life terribly, and not faced the truth about himself.
Now he realizes he is fighting a sinister force, and that is death, with whom he must make peace.
Though this is a truly uncomfortable piece to read, it can apply to most of the world population, even now in 2017.
But even more uncomfortable, in fact downright horrid is the title piece, The Kreutzer Sonata. It is told by an unnamed narrator traveling on a train. Two people, a man and woman traveling together begin discussing relationships between the sexes. The woman insists that people must marry for love, and that marriages that are arranged by parents, as they were, historically, at least for upper class people, were miserable. There is disagreement by another traveler, but all are in shock when a very quiet man who has shunned everyone's company up to this point, states that love is only a fleeting thing, and that it is physical love that brings people together. That quickly wears off, and the marriage turns to lies and deceit and hatefulness. Then he announces that he is Pozdnischeff, and he has killed his wife.
Pozdnischeff is a very strange person who makes little noises, is a chain smoker, and tea drinker. The other passengers now talk among themselves, and eventually leave the train, but the narrator and Pozdnischeff continue to hold their own conversation. Pozdnischeff tells the story of his life, marriage, and tragic end of that marriage.
In many ways, this story resembles The Death of Ivan Ilych, but the hatred and fighting, followed by loving and reconciliation are more drastic. It is when Pozdnischeff's wife, Liza, meets a violinist, Trookhatschevsky, that Pozdnischeff develops a jealousy he cannot control. Liza is a pianist, and she begins accompanying Trookhatschevsky. Liza and her husband invite friends for dinner, and the two musicians perform Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No 9 in A Major, Op. 47 for Violin and Piano). Shortly after, Pozdnischeff must travel to the country on business, and a letter he receives from his wife leads him to believe that she is having an affair with the violinist. He packs up and heads back to Moscow, certain he will catch them. Though the violinist is there at the house with Liza, there is no evidence, except in Pozdnischeff's imagination, that anything has happened between them except music, but he kills her anyways.
I have a real problem with this story on many levels. First, it leads me to believe Tolstoy was a male chauvinist pig, to coin a 60's phrase . . . . Second, it makes me wonder if his own marriage was not similar. In the story, Pozdnischeff shows Liza his diary of his sexual exploits right before their marriage, as did Tolstoy to his wife. The poor dear woman, what she must have suffered with him. But the worst part is Tolstoy's then radical views on sex because of his austere Christian beliefs. He didn't believe people should have sex at all, after the poor woman bore him thirteen children!! I really do not think I would have liked Tolstoy as a person at all.
And I must, once again, make a comparison with Dostoyevsky. The latter, due to his own physical and psychological issues, treated his characters with much more compassion. All of them had their foibles, but he rarely condemned them, either. If one can judge the author by what he writes, I certainly would have preferred the company of Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy.
On the Wikipedia page for The Kreutzer Sonata, there are several interesting quotes. The first is from the Epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata, published in 1890 to clarify its intended message. (The Kreutzer Sonata was published in 1889.)
Let us stop believing that carnal love is high and noble and understand that any end worth our pursuit—in service of humanity, our homeland, science, art, let alone God—any end, so long as we may count it worth our pursuit, is not attained by joining ourselves to the objects of our carnal love in marriage or outside it; that, in fact, infatuation and conjunction with the object of our carnal love (whatever the authors of romances and love poems claim to the contrary) will never help our worthwhile pursuits but only hinder them.
Countering the argument that widespread abstinence would lead to a cessation of the human race, he describes chastity as an ideal that provides guidance and direction, not as a firm rule. Writing from a position of deep religiosity (that he had explained in his Confession in 1882), he points out that not Christ, but the Church (which he despises) instituted marriage. "The Christian's ideal is love of God and his neighbor, self-renunciation in order to serve God and his neighbour; carnal love, marriage, means serving oneself, and therefore is, in any case, a hindrance in the service of God and men".
Of course with modern research, especially since the discovery of the Nag
Hammadi Codices, we know for a fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene
were lovers, married or not!! Hmm. Wonder what Tolstoy would have thought of that.
And here is a quote by G,K, Chesterton, who didn't apparently think much of Tolstoy!
During the international celebration of Tolstoy's 80th birthday in 1908, G. K. Chesterton criticized this aspect of Tolstoy's thought in an article in the 19 September issue of Illustrated London News: "Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in The Kreutzer Sonata he weeps almost as much at the thought of love. He and all the humanitarians pity the joys of men." He went on to address Tolstoy directly: "What you dislike is being a man. You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human."
The Kreutzer Sonata was banned in Russia and the United States! Here is another quote from the same Wikipedia article:
After the work had been forbidden in Russia by the censors, a mimeographed version was widely circulated. In 1890, the United States Post Office Department prohibited the mailing of newspapers containing serialized installments of The Kreutzer Sonata. This was confirmed by the U.S. Attorney General in the same year. Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a "sexual moral pervert." The ban on its sale was struck down in New York and Pennsylvania courts in 1890.
Incidentally, at age 82, right before his death, Tolstoy secretly left his wife
at night in the middle of winter. His health had been failing. He died of pneumonia at the train station in Astapovo after a day's journey south.
Below is a painting inspired by Tolstoy's novelette, entitled Kreutzer Sonata, by René François Xavier Prinet, (1901).
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