quinta-feira, 19 de fevereiro de 2015
In Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” an aristocrat named Pozdnyshev tells a stranger on a train the story of his unhappy family. He married a much younger woman, provoked by her youthful beauty and sexy sweater; they had five children, but Pozdnyshev was disgusted by family life. The marriage curdled, and he became jealous of his wife’s relationship with a musician who kept coming over to play duets. In a rage, he stabbed his wife to death. Though there was no evidence that his wife was unfaithful, and although he feels guilty for his crime, Pozdnyshev argues that he and his wife were equal partners in their submission to lust, and equal victims of corrupt sexual standards that turn all women into prostitutes. He concludes that “sexual passion, no matter how it’s arranged is evil, a terrible evil against which one must struggle.… The words of the Gospel that whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery relates not only to other men’s wives, but precisely—and above all—to one’s own wife.” The only righteous path is abstinence; if it leads to the end of the human race, so be it. In an afterword written in response to many letters asking him to explain the meaning of the novella, Tolstoy confirmed that he shared Pozdnyshev’s opinions. He added that he didn’t mean that no one should ever have sex—only that everyone should try never to have sex, because it is noblest to strive for an impossible ideal.
“The Kreutzer Sonata” caused an international scandal at a time when sexuality and gender roles were the subject of widespread debate. Banned both in Russia (where Tolstoy had long struggled with the censors) and in the United States, the novella led many men and women to embrace celibacy and modesty, in keeping with Tolstoy’s Christian asceticism, which also emphasized nonviolence, vegetarianism, physical labor, and poverty. One particularly enthusiastic young Romanian castrated himself. Other readers were appalled. In 1890, Zola told the New York Herald that the novella was a “nightmare, born of a diseased imagination.” Tolstoy himself had his doubts. In an 1891 letter, he wrote, “There was something nasty in The Kreutzer Sonata … something bad about the motives that guided me in writing it.”
The novella had an especially powerful effect on the author’s wife, Sofiya. Friends sent their condolences, and she knew they weren’t the only readers who understood “The Kreutzer Sonata” as a personal attack on her. She decided to shake off the shame by petitioning the tsar (who loved Tolstoy’s fiction but felt very sorry for his wife) to lift the publication ban on the novella: by defending it, she hoped to persuade the world that it wasn’t really about her. When the tsar granted her request, she wrote in her diary, “I cannot help secretly exulting in my success in overcoming all the obstacles, that I managed to obtain an interview with the Tsar, and that I, a woman, have achieved something that nobody else could have done!”
“The Kreutzer Sonata Variations,” a new volume edited and translated by Michael Katz, places “The Kreutzer Sonata” and its afterword alongside what Katz calls “counterstories” by Sofiya and by the Tolstoys’ son Lev, as well as excerpts from the diaries and memoirs of various members of the Tolstoy family. There are two novellas by Sofiya: “Whose Fault?,” the story of a jealous husband who murders his innocent wife, and “Song Without Words,” about a depressed married woman who becomes obsessed with a composer and his music, and eventually checks herself into a “nerve clinic.” “Song Without Words” is a response to “The Kreutzer Sonata;” “Whose Fault?” is a systematic rebuttal.
The most well written of the counterstories and the most forceful rejection of Tolstoy’s thesis, “Whose Fault?” is the most intriguing part of “The Kreutzer Sonata Variations.” The heroine, Anna, is an idealistic young woman who is fond of writing, philosophy, and painting. The child of a happy family, she marries, in her late teens, Prince Prozorsky, a family friend in his mid-thirties. She hopes that, as a kind, well-educated older man, he will be her guide to artistic and intellectual pursuits. But just before the wedding, she learns of his premarital sexual adventures, and on their wedding night she is disgusted by his advances. The peasants on Prozorsky’s estate mock her, and she learns that one of them had a long affair with her husband. Of Anna’s response to this news, Sofiya writes, “Despair and horror couldn’t fail to leave their mark on a very young soul for her entire life; they were the sort of wounds that a young child experiences the first time it sees a decomposing corpse.” Anna is overwhelmed by jealousy, shame, and sexual repulsion. Her husband is disappointed by her sexual incompetence (an unfortunate side effect of innocence) and lack of enthusiasm. (All of this corresponds to Sofiya’s own experience.)
As in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” each episode of tenderness and physical intimacy between husband and wife is followed by a bitter argument. But in “Whose Fault?” this is not because sex itself is degrading but because Anna is angry and disappointed at her husband’s indifference to her feelings and needs. While Tolstoy writes that Pozdnyshev and his fiancée were so consumed by desire in the days before the wedding that they could find nothing to say to each other, Sofiya writes that Prince Prozorsky was so agitated “that he couldn’t think of anything to talk about; he kissed [Anna’s] hands in silence and sometimes didn’t even hear what she was saying.” Deeply unhappy, Anna returns to painting; now that they’re married, she finds that her husband no longer shows much interest in her work.
After being married for a decade and giving birth to several children, Anna, aware that she’s losing her husband’s interest, decides that sex is her only source of power. She resolves to be beautiful, charming, and seductive, to rejoin society, and she succeeds. But she’s unhappy, feeling that she’s betrayed her ideals by living a frivolous life in the city. During this period, she meets her husband’s old friend Bekhmetev, a physically unattractive, sickly man with whom she quickly becomes close. (He seems to have been modelled on a friend of Tolstoy’s who often discussed philosophy with Sofiya.) Bekhmetev is also an amateur artist, and he praises and respects Anna’s work. Together, they paint, discuss literature, and spend time with her children. This, for Anna, is the ideal relationship. Prince Prozorsky, who’s been busy flirting with neighbors and ogling peasant women, soon becomes jealous; Anna is disgusted by his hypocrisy and violent behavior towards her. After she becomes ill, her doctor tells her that she shouldn’t have any more children; she learns how to avoid pregnancy. This angers her husband, as does her renewed interest in philosophy and religion, which has given her an inwardness that he finds offensive. In “The Kreutzer Sonata,” the husband stabs the wife in the stomach; in “Whose Fault?,” he throws a paperweight at her head. Sofiya takes the sex out of the murder and moves the action from the wife’s body to her head.
“Whose Fault?” is the work of a thoughtful amateur. The prose is often clumsy, and Anna is too obviously the bearer of the author’s grievances, as in the passage in which the prince wonders “whether this magnificent creature whom he had grown to know so well of late, with her poetic, pure demands of life, her religious inclination, and her noble ideals, would collide against his egotistical, carnal love and his spent existence.” As its title suggests, the novella is too open in its desire to settle scores, too much like a catalogue of complaints. Sofiya heaps affection upon Anna, congratulating her on her virtue, straining to prove her innocence, as if she is trying to give her heroine all the encouragement and understanding that she herself never received. Still, Anna’s character and predicament are compelling enough that the reader feels tremendous sympathy for her and for her creator. There are agonizing details, as when the prince thinks, after Anna rejects his sexual advances, “What a strange and incomprehensible woman…. And how plain she’s becoming: one of her side teeth has already begun to turn yellow.” This scene is especially painful when read alongside the moment in “The Kreutzer Sonata” when Pozdnyshev thinks, of his wife, “True, she’s no longer so young, she’s missing a tooth on one side, and she’s a little plump … but what’s to be done?”
Like Tolstoy, Sofiya criticizes the sexual double standard, but she’s far more sympathetic to women, who are kept in ignorance until marriage, then expected to satisfy their husbands and remain beautiful and docile through a long series of pregnancies and betrayals. At one point, Anna wonders, “Wouldn’t it be better to have memories of some passionate love, even if illicit, but real and full? Wouldn’t it be better than this present emptiness and immaculateness of my conscience?” But she chases away the thought as soon as it arrives.
For decades, Sofiya was cast as the Tolstoy-family villain, a jealous, greedy woman who denied her husband his destiny as an ascetic and a prophet. Her novellas remained unpublished for more than a century; her memoirs languished for nearly as long. In 2010, a sympathetic biography by Alexandra Popoff provided the English-speaking world with much new information about Sofiya’s life and marriage. Though this suppression of Sofiya’s work had much to do with Tolstoy’s literary executor, Vladimir Chertkov, who loathed Sofiya, and with Soviet distortions, it started with her family. Sofiya’s son Lev told her not to publish her “badly written novella,” because it would damage her reputation as a “faithful wife and mother.” Lev’s sister Tatyana proclaimed, “So long as we are alive, nothing that Mother writes will be published.” In his later years, Tolstoy refused on principle to read anything Sofiya wrote. Though he cited George Eliot’s novels among the works that most influenced him during his great middle period, in 1889, when his first granddaughter was born, he remarked, “I now look on all girls and women with pity and contempt.” Still, Sofiya wrote, she painted, she played the piano and attended concerts, and she became a skilled photographer.
Tolstoy’s self-castrated Romanian fan nearly wept with disappointment when he visited his idol and found that he lived on a huge estate, surrounded by servants and children. More than anyone, Sofiya was the one who paid the price for her husband’s inconsistency, for his broken resolutions and self-disgust. He condemned her for her failure to follow him into Christian asceticism, but he left her to manage their estate and make purchases on his behalf. He preached celibacy, but he impregnated her sixteen times, even when she couldn’t stand the thought of having more children and a doctor had advised her not to become pregnant again.
In “The Kreutzer Sonata,” Pozdnyshev speaks bitterly about the doctors who “cynically undressed” his wife and “palpated her everywhere,” only to conclude that she should no longer breast-feed. Once she stopped breast-feeding, she became “a monster,” Pozdnyshev says, deprived of “the only means that could’ve spared her from coquetry.” His sick wife is advised by doctors, as Sofiya was, to use contraception. She insists on doing so, “with frivolous obstinacy,” and as she regains her health she comes to resemble “a fresh, well-fed, harnessed filly whose bridle’s been removed.” Her husband is disturbed by her renewed beauty, enraged at the thought that other men will desire her. His jealousy turns murderous when he sees that she and her violinist friend share “the bond of music, that most refined lust of the senses.” Tolstoy was frightened by music, which moved him to tears: perhaps, like sex, it reminded him of his own weakness.
Some years after the publication of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in despair over the death of her beloved youngest son, Sofiya found solace in the music and friendship of Sergei Taneev, a composer and pianist who became a frequent guest at the Tolstoy estate. (This episode was the inspiration for “Song Without Words.”) She later wrote that Taneev brought her back to life by opening her to an understanding of music, just as her husband had once led her to understand literature. Furiously jealous, Tolstoy put an end to Taneev’s visits. But music stayed with Sofiya for the rest of her life.
Sophie Pinkham, a doctoral student in Columbia University’s Slavic Department, is writing a book about living in Ukraine.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:00