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War, peace and sexual purity

Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophia is finally getting her say with the release of two previously untranslated novellas written by her in response to her husband’s controversial The Kreutzer Sonata.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 31, 2014 12:07:52 am
Tolstoy with his wife Sophia in Crimea in 1902. Tolstoy with his wife Sophia in Crimea in 1902.

In her long and often turbulent marriage to Leo Tolstoy, Sophia Andreevna Tolstoy put up with a lot, but The Kreutzer Sonata qualified as special punishment. Published in 1889, the story presented Tolstoy’s radical views on sexual relations and marriage through a frenzied monologue delivered by a narrator who, in a fit of jealousy and disgust, murdered his wife.

In her diary, Sophia wrote: “I do not know how or why everyone connected The Kreutzer Sonata with our own married life.” Members of the Tolstoy family circle and the czar himself had expressed pity for her, she complained. “I, too, know in my heart that this story is directed against me, and that it has humiliated me in the eyes of the world and destroyed the last vestiges of love between us.”

Convinced that the story was “untrue in everything relating to a young woman’s experiences”, Sophia wrote two novellas setting forth her own views, Whose Fault? and Song Without Words, which both languished in the archives of the Tolstoy Museum until their recent publication in Russia. Michael R Katz, a retired professor of Russian and Eastern European studies at Middlebury College, has translated both stories into English and included them in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, adding to a flurry of recent work appraising Tolstoy’s wife as a figure in her own right.

“My first reaction on reading the stories was astonishment that nobody knew about them,” Katz said. “My second reaction was: These aren’t bad stories. They may not be first-rate literature, but they come from an educated, reflective woman of strong character.”

Whose Fault?, written sometime between 1891 and 1894, tells the story of 18-year-old Anna who envisions marriage as a union of two minds. Anna catches the eye of an urbane family friend, Prince Prozorsky, almost twice her age, as was Tolstoy when he married Sophia. His social graces disguise a mediocre intellect and a roué’s view of the opposite sex.

Song Without Words ventures beyond the chaste romanticism of Whose Fault? to explore the fluid boundary between intellectual and sexual attraction. In the margins of her notebooks, Sophia transcribed excerpts from The Kreutzer Sonata that served as debating points, guiding her as she described a marriage heading toward disaster and, in the end, murder, but told from a woman’s point of view. The complaints itemised, in an incandescent rage, by Tolstoy’s narrator find a counterargument in his wife’s rueful narrative of disappointed love, of the mismatch between male sexual desire and female hunger for emotional satisfaction, of the differing expectations and demands imposed by childbirth and child care.

The book adds momentum to a revisionist view of Sophia that has gathered speed recently. In Tolstoy’s later years, his disciples cast her in the role of villain, the shrew who did her best to keep Tolstoy away from his important work.

Oddly, it was Sophia who came to the rescue when The Kreutzer Sonata fell afoul of government censors. She made a special trip to St Petersburg in 1891 to plead the story’s cause before Czar Alexander III.

Using charm and sophistry, she argued that The Kreutzer Sonata made the case for sexual purity, surely a good thing. And besides, she added, a favour from the czar might encourage her husband to resume writing works like Anna Karenina.

“Ah, how good that would be!” he replied. “What a very great writer he is!” The ban was lifted.

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