Russian writer, philosopher, and cultural icon Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote a lot of very very long novels (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) which many book group members pretend to have finished.
If you are one of the pretenders or know someone posing as a "Tolstoy finisher", here's an alternative that may give you a stronger sense of accomplishment--try a Tolstoy novella.
There are a whole bunch of them in the new 2009 Knopf compilationtome, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, translated by the extraordinary husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky.
At 528 pages, its a bit heavy for our National Public Radio tote bags--I know, because I have been shlepping it around on Caltrain.
But yes, there is a Kindle edition.
This compilation of eleven stories, says the blurb on Amazon, includes: the terrifying murderer's confession of "The Kreuzer Sonata," the breathlessly dramatic path of a single crime through dozens of lives in "The Forged Coupon," and the haunting account of the isolation of mortality in the legendary title story. Most revelatory of all for a modern reader, says Tom Nissley of Amazon, is the final novella, and Tolstoy's final work, "Hadji Murat," the disturbingly contemporary story of a fiercely honorable Chechen warrior caught between local rivalries and the ambivalent reach of a decadent empire.
In case you have not guessed from the titles and descriptions, the novellas are not "Tolstoy lite." No diluted vodka here.
(Hmmm...a thought...serve vodka at book group.)
Each work has Tolstoy's trademark character studies, observations and dissections of 19th century Russian upper class and peasant society, steaming samovars, and crowded railway cars.
This past Monday I have the privilege of leading a very bright group of women in a discussion of The Kreutzer Sonata, which weighs in at about 160 pages. Some of us had the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Others had the Modern Library paperback translation (2003) with an intriguing introduction by feminist Doris Lessing--who is sure that the madman/jealous husband at the center of the tale, is a latent homosexual.
The story was written in 1889, a time when Tolstoy was evolving into a more religious, some might say fanatical, philosopher, who was starting to renounce material wealth and emulate the celibate yet industrious ways of America's Shaker communities.
Because of its frank discussions of contraception, venereal disease, the hyposcisy of the upper classes, as well as its exploration of lust, jealousy and murder, the book was promptly banned in Russia and Theodore Roosevelt declared the previously exalted Tolstoy to be, "a moral pervert."
Of course this meant that the book soon became more widely read than Anna Karenina and War and Peace--with bootleg copies translated into many languages.
Especially fun to read is the review that appeared in 1890 in the magazine The Nation The reviewer was Isabel Hapgood, a noted Russian translator from Boston Brahmin society, who was a leader in the Episcopal church. Despite a personal friendship with Tolstoy that included visits to his country estate, and an actual admiration for the plotting and character description of Kreutzer Sonata, most of her Nation review is an explanation of why she refuses to review the book.
Here's the opening paragraph:
What are the legitimate bounds of realism? To what point is it permissible to describe in repulsive detail the hideous and unseemly things of this world, simply because they exist, when it is quite impossible to say what the effect will be upon thousands of people to whom such description conveys the first knowledge of the existence of evil?
SOURCE: "Tolstoi's 'Kreutzer Sonata'," in The Nation, Vol. L, No. 1294, January-June, 1890, pp. 313-15.
Most agree that the main character, Pozdnyshev, is a madman , though our book group did not think he was a latent homosexual. We know he killed his wife, the mother of his five children, because early on in the story he confesses as much to a group of strangers on a train. And we know that he thinks that his wife was just as responsible for her death as he was, because of her wanton ways--because he tells us that, too. And, in fact, the jury acquits him for his "crime of passion."
But dear readers, will YOU exonerate him?
Here's what protagnoist Pozdnyshev, says about love at first sight:
"It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness."
Here are his thoughts about doctors suggestion that after five children in successions, contraceptives should be used to preserve his wife's health:
"The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever."
But this is also a man who exclaims to his fellow train travelers:
“Well, and now they emancipate woman, they give her all the same rights as man, but they still regard her as an instrument of enjoyment, so they educated her, both in childhood and later by public opinion, with this end in view. But she remains the same depraved slave as ever before. . . .”
Is this reactionary or Utopian?
Some readers this week noted that the novella seems to be written in two parts.
There is a lot of philosophy in the first part , in which travelers weigh in on the battle of the sexes, and the murderer defends his act.
And then there's the suspenseful tale of the act itself--in my mind, the best part of the story. There's the jealous husband whose mind is unraveling, the foppish (in the huband's estimation) suitor, and the passive agressive wife.
Pozdnyshev's rival, the alleged dandy, is a talented visiting violinist who plays Beethoven at a dinner party with Mrs. Pozdnyshev, an amateur pianist. I won't tell you what happens to the violinist--you will have to read the story for that.
But here's Tolstoy's/Pozdnyshev's contempuous description:
Yes, he was a musician, a violinist....He had moist eyes, like almonds, smiling red lips and a little moustache...he was slight of physique and had a particularly well developed posterior, as women have."
Want to know what happens next. Well.... the violinist and pianist continue to collaborate, even when Poznyshev is out of town on business.
And as the suitor drops off sheet music, our jealous husband grows more and more jealous--O.J. Simpson jealous.
In fact, believe it or not, there is actually a scholarly article that has been written comparing the O.J. Simpson case to the one in the Kreutzer Sonata. (Interesting how both husbands were acquitted)
It's called The Juridicial Unconscious: trials and traumas in the 20th century by Shoshana Felman (Harvard University Press 2002)
I wanted to track down the whole article, but didn't have time before book group. But you might want to.
In the meantime, here are some more discussion catalysts for your book group.
First, for those who enjoy more visual cues, here is a copy of the painting called The Kreutzer Sonata.
If it looks really familiar to readers of a certain age, keep in mind that it was once used to illustrate Tabu perfume ads:
It was by Rene Francois Xavier Prinet in 1901--who actually attended an evening musicale at Tolstoy's Moscow home--at which the piece was performed. It is said that the performance inspired the novella--and it definitely inspired the painting--which Prinet did after Tolstoy's death.
Those who want to hear the music that incited all of the passion in the story can download Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata No 9 Opus 47 for Piano and Violin on Itunes or watch a youtube:
I could not find one with a woman pianist , but there are plenty with male violinists.
And those who want to see how people dressed and what they ate in Tolstoy and Podznyshev's day can watch the recent film drama The Last Station (2009), starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife--gives viewers an idea of the effect that those philosophies had on his family and followers--known as Tolstoyans. And an added benefit, for those who sit through the closing credits-- is that you actually get to see early black and white film clips of the great man himself.
Still need discussion questions?
Random House has a good list: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812968231&view=rg
Still need more of Kreutzer?
After being challenged on all sorts of moral grounds, Tolstoy wrote a three page epilogue in 1890 in which he basically said, "Yes folks, this was not just fiction--I really meant what I said about the perils of love and marriage, love and lust, and just say no."
And now we go back to the beginning of this blog.
The good thing about a Tolstoy anthology is that if you like Kreutzer, there are ten more short stories (because they are long short stories--we call them novellas) to analyze, compare and contrast. And for book group leaders who allot a certain amount of time for preparation, that means you can spend the extra time on research rather than reading.
Or just read this blog, use my research, and go work out!
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...