The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

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“There are two czars in Russia,” pronounced one liberal spokesman, “and the other is Tolstoy.”

That’s what Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to The Kreutzer Sonata. She also says that the people expected him to “take a stand” on all subjects and so he did, writing about love, marriage, lust and betrayal. This is one strange book, full of contradictions and not at all like what I expected of Tolstoy, or what I heard of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Lessing said that Tolstoy became a fanatic and this book proves it.

The Kreutzer Sonata is about a man, called Pozdnyshev, who in a fit of jealousy murders his wife. The story starts with the narrator, Pozdnyshev and some other people in a train. Somehow they start discussing divorces and how such things didn’t exist before, when Pozdnyshev tells them he killed his wife for cheating on him and proceeds to tell his tale to the narrator. It’s quite a short story even if you add the sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata which Tolstoy wrote some time later.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I mean, in a fictional sense I liked Pozdnyshev tale and his attempt to explain his madness, but until then I was not taking his view on things as Tolstoy’s own or very seriously. Then came the sequel. Why, Tolstoy? Why did you write that sequel? Because, as you said, people did not seem to understand what exactly was your view on marriage, divorce and betrayal? Well, of course they didn’t! Pozdnyshev’s outlook on life was so bleak that we’re not sure what he means half the time.

“…If the aim of mankind is happiness, goodness, love – if you prefer; if the aim of mankind is what is said in the prophecies, that all men are to unite in universal love, that the spears are to be beaten into pruning hooks and the like, then what stands in the way of the attainment of the aim? Human passions do! Of all passions, the most powerful and vicious and obstinate is sexual, carnal love; and so, if passions are annihilated and with them the most powerful – carnal love – then the prophecy will be fulfilled.”

What? There is something terribly wrong with someone who says sex is evil. Also, this is apparently a new development with Tolstoy (thankfully), because according to Lessing none of this was present in his other books. And so my enjoyment of this book was hindered by the fact that by this point in his life Tolstoy did believe in this sex free life = happiness for all world thing and was quite aware of how impossible it was.

Don’t even get me started on the “women hate sex” and “sex is a vice of men” thing, because I’m not completely sure where he got that from (his wife can’t represent all the women in the world, please). I could quote half the book and put a question mark at the end of each, yes, but then there are some that, taken by themselves and out of context, are quite good and more like what I expected from his hype. Like this one:

It cannot be necessary to destroy some people, body and soul, for the health of others, any more than in can be necessary for some people to drink the blood of others in order to be healthy.

Edward Cullen would certainly agree with the end of the sentence, though I’m sure Count Dracula would be seriously disappointed in you Tolstoy. Still, the first part is quite true and can be taken as anti-slavery and anti some sort of greedy capitalism that only takes and never gives back. So by digging and disregarding some things we can get some truly great ideas out of this book. But that’s not enough to make me give it more than one star on Goodreads. Sorry Tolstoy, I hope your other books are better.

Last, but not least, let me leave you with this little gem (except not):

It is bad to use means to prevent the birth of children, both because so doing frees people from the cares and troubles caused by children, which should serve to redeem sexual love, and also because it comes very near to what is most revolting to our conscience – murder.

Tolstoy would be seriously disappointed in today’s society. Also: that description of what a night at Tolstoy’s house was probably like? Creepy as hell, no wonder his wife didn’t like sex.

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Magical Reading

Tolstoy and thge Purple ChairI found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch quite by accident as I walked inside my favorite book shop. I usually walk through the book shop in a straight line from the front doors to the international section where I buy most of my books (it’s the only place in the shop that sells books in other languages and the English section is really big compared to other bookshops), but not that day. For the first time in a long time I ventured into the section where people buy books translated to Portuguese, and right there, standing in a circular shelf there was this book. I even remember the first thing I thought when I looked at it “magical reading? That’s definitively for me.”

I’ve always found it endlessly fascinating to know what other people like to read and why, every time I see a person carrying a book I try to get a good look on the cover. So what could be better than a book about a woman who spends a whole year reading a book a day? Basically: nothing. Nina Sankovitch is a real person who actually had those experiences for real, which I only realized when I opened the book again to read, but at first I thought it was fictional.

After the death of her sister Nina Sankovitch decides to do a year of reading one book per day, then writing about it on a blog she created. The book is filled with quotes from the books she read and what she learned with them, but it’s also full of family memories which are one of the main, I guess I can say, “themes” of the book. The books she read helped her understand how she could keep living after such a sad loss and I think that’s one of the things that drew me to this book, because I do believe that books can help us heal and grow as human beings.

I had a lot of fun reading this book, even thought it was a little repetitive at times, but still different from every other book I’ve read.

Another funny coincidence this book had was that the first book she read in her year of reading is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and a couple of weeks before finding this book my grandmother told me a book she was reading. I thought it was a fascinating book, and with my grandma’s gift for storytelling, she told me the whole story translating from her French version. Of course it was The Elegance of the Hedgehog and I can’t wait to see her again and show her this book. I think I’ll even let her borrow it.