Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bitov.

I recently made another swerve back to the late nineteenth century and read Tolstoy’s Крейцерова соната (The Kreutzer Sonata); I wasn’t expecting great things from it, but it was very famous and I thought “How bad can late Tolstoy fiction be?” It came between The Death of Ivan Ilich and Hadji-Murat, after all. Turns out the answer is “very bad indeed.” It’s basically a long rant by the wife-killer Pozdnyshev, going on and on about how so-called love is just lust and it’s evil and marriage is just prostitution by another name (a respectable feminist position, of course, which has led some feminists to praise the story) and God wants us all to be chaste and blah blah blah. He’s a nineteenth-century Russian Howard Beale. Aside from the tediousness of it all, it’s just sad to see the flexible, lively style of Tolstoy’s great novels fall so low, his carefully calculated repetitions turn into a brutal, thudding, deadening drumbeat that makes you want to skip as badly as the Second Appendix. I can see why its message was newsworthy, but I don’t understand how anyone could think it was a good story.

Fortunately, I followed it up with a work I had no expectations of (and don’t remember having heard of), Chekhov’s Моя жизнь (My Life). It’s one of his longest stories, almost a hundred pages in my edition (the 1956 Complete Works), but it’s nowhere near as famous as short stories like “The Lady with the Little Dog.” I can understand why — it’s hard to summarize, and you don’t end it with that Maupassantesque feeling of narrative satisfaction — but I think it’s one of his best, and unlike anything else I’ve read of his. It’s narrated by Misail Poloznev, a twentysomething scapegrace who refuses to do the kind of high-class work his architect father expects of him (the story opens with him getting fired from yet another job) and yearns to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, to be one with the common people of Russia. But he’s not one of those Turgenev or Dostoevsky characters, the young ideologues who make fools of themselves trying to “go to the people” — his resistance is not political, it’s a gut reaction to the hypocrisy, cruelty, and ugliness he sees all around him in the bourgeois society he grew up in (it’s set in a provincial city much like Chekhov’s hometown of Taganrog). He finally cuts his ties with polite society, goes to work as a laborer for a house-painter and contractor, marries a woman who shares his views, and for a while feels deep satisfaction.

But there’s more going on than plot and character. After a while I started to notice the word свобода ‘freedom’ and its derivatives being slipped in often enough to make me think it was important, so I went back and checked. (I’ll use the Garnett translation for the English versions.) In chapter III he’s describing how the nearest railway station to the city, Dubechnya, was built miles away from it because the town council wouldn’t bribe the engineers enough to satisfy them; the narrator walks there, enjoying the fields and the lovely weather, and says “Как хорошо было тут на воле! И как я хотел проникнуться сознанием свободы, хотя бы на одно это утро…” [How nice it was out there in the open! And how I longed to be filled with the sense of freedom, if only for that one morning…] (note that the phrase на воле, translated “in the open,” literally means ‘at liberty’). In IV, his sister Kleopatra, who is oppressed at home by their authoritarian father, visits him and feels suddenly happy: “Это первый раз в жизни я видел ее такою веселою. […] В ее теперешней веселости было что-то детское, наивное, точно та радость, которую во время нашего детства пригнетали и заглушали суровым воспитанием, вдруг проснулась теперь в душе и вырвалась на свободу.” [It was the first time in my life I had seen her so happy. … There was something naïve and childish in her gaiety now, as though the joy that had been suppressed and smothered in our childhood by harsh education had now suddenly awakened in her soul and found a free outlet.] (The last phrase, вырвалась на свободу, literally means ‘broke loose to freedom.’) In VI, Dr. Blagovo, an intelligent, kindly doctor who is also a self-centered scoundrel, comes to visit, and they have a classic intelligentsia discussion about the progress of humanity; the narrator says:

Я сказал, что вопрос — делать добро или зло — каждый решает сам за себя, не дожидаясь, когда человечество подойдет к решению этого вопроса путем постепенного развития. К тому же постепенность — палка о двух концах. Рядом с процессом постепенного развития идей гуманных наблюдается и постепенный рост идей иного рода. Крепостного права нет, зато растет капитализм. И в самый разгар освободительных идей, так же, как во времена Батыя, большинство кормит, одевает и защищает меньшинство, оставаясь само голодным, раздетым и беззащитным.

I said that “the question of doing good or evil every one settles for himself, without waiting till humanity settles it by the way of gradual development. Moreover, this gradual process has more than one aspect. Side by side with the gradual development of human ideas the gradual growth of ideas of another order is observed. Serfdom is no more, but the capitalist system is growing. And in the very heyday of emancipating ideas, just as in the days of Baty, the majority feeds, clothes, and defends the minority while remaining hungry, inadequately clad, and defenceless.”

The word translated as “emancipating,” освободительных, has the same свобод- base as the word for ‘freedom.’ I think this is a crucial moment in the story: the doctor has typical “progressive” views about how mankind is moving onward and upward, but the narrator sees it as more complicated and tragic, and this tragic sense is exactly what drives his refusal to join the comfortably off circles he was born into (and that the doctor is part of). In VII, the Dr. Blagovo persuades the narrator to visit Maria Dolzhikova, who is very glad to see them:

Мы втроем ужинали. Доктор и Мария Викторовна пили красное вино, шампанское и кофе с коньяком; они чокались и пили за дружбу, за ум, за прогресс, за свободу и не пьянели, а только раскраснелись и часто хохотали без причины, до слез.

We had supper together, the three of us. The doctor and Mariya Viktorovna drank red wine, champagne, and coffee with brandy in it; they clinked glasses and drank to friendship, to enlightenment, to progress, to liberty, and they did not get drunk but only flushed, and were continually, for no reason, laughing till they cried.

Ah, “за свободу!” “To freedom!” A classic liberal toast; they drink to all the good things, and as it turns out the two of them are equally self-centered, equally willing to cast aside people they no longer need. Another crucial moment.

In IX Maria comes to visit him and pretty much throws herself at him, telling him how terribly lonely she is, and there’s a wonderful moment — one of those things you only get in great fiction — when (with her “умные, ясные глаза,” her “clear, clever eyes”) she says they should be together: “а я сильно смутился от радости и стоял перед ней навытяжку, как перед отцом, когда тот собирался бить меня” [and I was utterly confused with delight and stood stiffly upright before her, as I used to stand facing my father when he was going to beat me]. That’s worthy of Kafka. In X the narrator and Maria (henceforth “Masha”) go off to live together: “мы ехали вместе в Дубечню, веселые, свободные” [we drove to Dubetchnya, feeling light-hearted and free]. In XIII Dr. Blagovo comes to visit:

Опять разговоры о физическом труде, о прогрессе, о таинственном иксе, ожидающем человечество в отдаленном будущем. Доктор не любил нашего хозяйства, потому что оно мешало нам спорить, и говорил, что пахать, косить, пасти телят недостойно свободного человека и что все эти грубые виды борьбы за существование люди со временем возложат на животных и на машины, а сами будут заниматься исключительно научными исследованиями.

Again there were conversations about manual labour, about progress, about a mysterious millennium awaiting mankind in the remote future. The doctor did not like our farmwork, because it interfered with arguments, and said that ploughing, reaping, grazing calves were unworthy of a free man, and all these coarse forms of the struggle for existence men would in time relegate to animals and machines, while they would devote themselves exclusively to scientific investigation.

(Note the classic Chekhovian appeal to the distant future, familiar from the plays.) In XIV his sister visits and confesses she’s in love with the doctor; when he shows up, she runs to him and embraces him: “Моя сестра, это нервное, запуганное, забитое, не свободное существо, любит человека, который уже женат и имеет детей!” [My sister, this nervous, frightened, crushed, fettered creature, loved a man who was married and had children!] (The phrase she translates as “fettered,” не свободное, actually means ‘not free.’) In XVI Masha goes into the city, and when she doesn’t return in a few days he follows her and finds her singing in one of the rich folks’ houses:

Вот она кончила, ей аплодировали, и она улыбалась очень довольная, играя глазами, перелистывая ноты, поправляя на себе платье, точно птица, которая вырвалась, наконец, из клетки и на свободе оправляет свои крылья.

She ended, the audience applauded, and she smiled, very much pleased, making play with her eyes, turning over the music, smoothing her skirts, like a bird that has at last broken out of its cage and preens its wings in freedom.

In the next chapter we learn his sister is pregnant, and in XVIII the hammer comes down in a triple whammy. The narrator is imagining the kind of life she’d lead in this appalling city:

Что было бы теперь с сестрой, если бы она осталась жить дома? Какие нравственные мучения испытывала бы она, разговаривая с отцом, встречаясь каждый день со знакомыми? Я воображал себе это, и тут же мне приходили на память люди, всё знакомые люди, которых медленно сживали со света их близкие и родные […] и длинный, длинный ряд глухих медлительных страданий, которые я наблюдал в этом городе непрерывно с самого детства; и мне было непонятно, чем живут эти шестьдесят тысяч жителей, для чего они читают евангелие, для чего молятся, для чего читают книги и журналы. Какую пользу принесло им всё то, что до сих пор писалось и говорилось, если у них всё та же душевная темнота и то же отвращение к свободе, что было и сто, и триста лет назад? Подрядчик-плотник всю свою жизнь строит в городе дома и всё же до самой смерти вместо “галерея” говорит “галдарея”, так и эти шестьдесят тысяч жителей поколениями читают и слышат о правде, о милосердии и свободе, и всё же до самой смерти лгут от утра до вечера, мучают друг друга, а свободы боятся и ненавидят ее, как врага.

What moral agonies would she have experienced, talking with my father, meeting every day with acquaintances? I imagined this to myself, and at once there came into my mind people, all people I knew, who had been slowly done to death by their nearest relations […] and a long, long series of obscure lingering miseries which I had looked on continually from early childhood in that town; and I could not understand what these sixty thousand people lived for, what they read the gospel for, why they prayed, why they read books and magazines. What good had they gained from all that had been said and written hitherto if they were still possessed by the same spiritual darkness and hatred of liberty, as they were a hundred and three hundred years ago? A master carpenter spends his whole life building houses in the town, and always, to the day of his death, calls a “gallery” a “galdery.” So these sixty thousand people have been reading and hearing of truth, of justice, of mercy, of freedom for generations, and yet from morning till night, till the day of their death, they are lying, and tormenting each other, and they fear liberty and hate it as a deadly foe.

And in chapter XIX we get the final two nails in the coffin. The narrator gets a letter from Masha saying she’s going to America with her father and asks, of course, for her freedom: “Милый, добрый, дайте мне свободу […] Всё проходит, пройдет и жизнь, значит, ничего не нужно. Или нужно одно лишь сознание свободы, потому что когда человек свободен, то ему ничего, ничего, ничего не нужно.” [Dear, good one, give me my freedom … All things pass, life will pass, one wants nothing. Or at least one wants nothing but the sense of freedom, for when anyone is free, he wants nothing, nothing, nothing.] Another triple whammy. And after Dr. Blagovo visits the dying woman he has made pregnant, he tells the narrator:

Она весела, постоянно смеется, надеется, а положение ее безнадежно, голубчик. Ваш Редька ненавидит меня и всё хочет дать понять, что я поступил с нею дурно. Он по-своему прав, но у меня тоже своя точка зрения, и я нисколько не раскаиваюсь в том, что произошло. Надо любить, мы все должны любить — не правда ли? — без любви не было бы жизни; кто боится и избегает любви, тот не свободен.

“She is in good spirits, she’s always laughing and hopeful, but her position’s hopeless, dear boy. Your Radish [the contractor who hires the narrator] hates me, and is always trying to make me feel that I have treated her badly. He is right from his standpoint, but I have my point of view too; and I shall never regret all that has happened. One must love; we ought all to love–oughtn’t we? There would be no life without love; anyone who fears and avoids love is not free.”

Don’t tie me down, don’t fence me in, I gotta be free — the eternal song of the selfish prick. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better parsing of the complicated idea of freedom, so eternally attractive and so endlessly abused.

Also, the setup of the dissatisfied young man who rejects the easy life he was born to for hard manual labor reminded me of something, and eventually it came to me: Andrei Bitov’s Такое долгое детство [Such a long childhood] (available here in pdf), in which the protagonist Kirill Kapustin leaves college and goes to work at a mine in the north; it’s not at all like the typical Soviet stories in which a feckless intellectual discovers the joys of labor and unity with the people, and it’s well worth reading (if you read Russian — nobody seems to have translated it, and in general Bitov hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves in the English-speaking world). For other Bitov recommendations, see this post; I’m very much looking forward to his best-known work, the novel Пушкинский дом (Pushkin House), when I get up to 1978.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Too right about about the Kreutzer Sonata. It’s one of those works which is not just bad, but also immediately recognisable as being by the author in question and nobody else, leading you to wonder, at least for a moment, whether you were actually horribly mistaken in admiring the author to begin with. (“Tulip”, by Dashiell Hammett, is another example.)

  2. Interesting about Tulip. I only read it once. It’s not only unfinished, it’s also a first draft, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Who knows what the first drafts of his great novels were like? Hammett was capable of writing clunkers, to be sure, but they seemed to have been mostly his early works. (Raymond Chandler, never less than perfect, wrote, “Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything.”)

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    We bought as part of a set of three with Le Bonheur Conjugal and Le Diable (as French translations, as you’ll guess). I found it unreadable.

  4. Le Bonheur Conjugal

    Also terrible, but at least he repented of that one (“it’s such disgraceful filth that I can’t come to my senses from the shame, and I don’t think I’ll write anything else”).

  5. Couldn’t help remembering the memoirs of a great grand uncle Charles Bogin who embarked, in the same era, on the same quest of earning living by hard labor, and described it with an endearing matter-of-factness. A polyglot child who, his father hoped, was destined to become a great rabbi, Charles ended up jailed in his hometown of Minsk for Labor Zionist pamphlets, and released after his inconsolable dad bribed the kid’s way to freedom. The father has then finally accepted that the son had no future at home, and paid for the kid’s passage in steerage. But Charles had a secret plan, to avoid the fate of a shopkeeper or a peddler, and the become a real proletarian, the kind he only read about in his non-industrialized hometown. Several years of factory work followed. Layoffs, re-hiring, struggle to pay for a second meal a day or to stay warm in winter. There is much human goodness in the story, all the people who didn’t let him perish in the hardest times. But eventually, Charles concluded that the socialist extolment of the proletarian life got something wrong. What was missing was freedom, solidarity and even the slightest tint of dignity. It was just a non-stop humiliating grind till you die. He enrolled into a free college, graduated with an engineering degree, and the rest was history.

    (I don’t know why I am always driven to the non-fiction from the good prose LOL)

    (BTW the surname may make a good allusion to the recent Nabokov translator purism story, because it originally meant “bow” just like Pushkin’s misunderstood “Luka”, but got completely re-etymologized in the family’s imagination)

  6. But Charles had a secret plan, to avoid the fate of a shopkeeper or a peddler, and the become a real proletarian

    That’s a great parallel!

  7. The Kreuzer Sonata is a curiosity for musicologists, because

    * Beethoven wrote a sonata dedicated to a fellow composer of that name;
    * Tolstoy wrote a novella taking the title;
    * Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, is subtitled such, because it was ‘inspired by the novella’.

    So now you’re telling me the novella is “very bad indeed”. I’m wondering what about it inspired Janacek.

  8. What we need now is for a composer named Kreuzer to write a Tolstoy Sonata based on the Janáček piece.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Janáček made a great opera out of a comic strip. Man could do anything.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Are “skirt” and “dress” not distinguished?

  11. a great parallel!

    the parallels, luckily, begin to fade later in the story, because the father and the son reconcile and grow closer. At 21, Charles needed to report to the draft board back home, or his dad had to pay a whopping fine. Charles had very poor vision in the “shooting” eye and qualified for a medical exemption, but he still needed to show up. His father paid his passage again, 2nd class now, round trip, and the son did come (after having been marooned in Berlin when he busted all the money for the opera, and didn’t have enough to continue the trip). And the secret proletarian life came to light and was forgiven, in part because the never-to-be-seen-again boy returned for a visit, and in part because the father gradually came to hate the Czarist regime so much that he accepted the idea that some people step on the path of resistance instead of continuing in their ancestors’ path. Several years later, when the revolutionary authorities confiscated the father’s shop for offices, it was the American son’s turn to support the family…

  12. @David Marjanović: A dress and a skirt are different garments, but the bottom part of a dress can be called the “skirt” or “skirts.”

    Between this and mentioning Beethoven on another thread, I figured I should listen to the whole Kreuzer Sonata again. So I did, and it confirmed my recollection that Kreutzer Sonata was a pretty unremarkable Beethoven work.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    @brett, dm
    She is probably standing up whilst singing. So any adjusting she does is above the knee (more likely dress). But if she is sitting, her adjusting could also be at or below the knee (skirts).

  14. after having been marooned in Berlin when he busted all the money for the opera, and didn’t have enough to continue the trip

    That’s the kind of thing that if I read it in a novel I’d think “Oh, come on, don’t exaggerate!”

  15. Then I remember how feckless I was as a young man…

  16. Then I remember how feckless I was as a young man…

    He was a very stolid Midwestern family man in later life, probably feeling a need to compensate for his far less ordinary wife by being very regular. The story is very low key and even his arrest and imprisonment story is conveyed in deliberately understated tones (I read the actual Czarist Secret Police case and it was quite a bit more dramatic). So I don’t expect to see any exaggerations. But the old man did like to chuckle about various absurdities of his age.

    Rereading now – Charles went back with cousin Morris who was the same age and also ineligible to serve for low stature. Together, they saved 600 rubles in fines for the family, a real fortune. Ironically, Morris later served in the US Army in France; the American stature standards were more lax!

    It cost $25 to travel 2nd class to Rotterdam. With some money in his hands, Charles decided, chuckle, to get new clothes and some gifts and to leave just enough for travel across Europe.He arrived to Berlin by train in the morning. The next trail East wasn’t until many hours later. He admired ths land of Heine,Schiller, Beethoven, Schubert, Marx, and Engels, and decided to spend this time on a tour, most of it museums. But on the way back, he passed the Opera house and saw that they have a performance of Lohengrin in two days. That was it…

  17. @Dmitry Pruss, that’s a heck of a story. (I mean, in your “The Good Parts” redaction anyway, maybe it has its longueurs.) I wish my father’s grandparents had written memoirs.

  18. I’m ashamed to say it, but you’ve all put this in my mind, now, so I had to go look at it.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean

    I rather like Marius the Epicurean, though admittedly you have to be in the right mood for it.
    Mention of it always puts me in mind of C S Lewis’ remark about Malory, to the effect that if you were to scour all of English literature, he would be the leading candidate for “the opposite of Pater.” Seems fair (to both writers.)

  20. I’m ashamed to say it, but you’ve all put this in my mind, now, so I had to go look at it.

    Thanks, I hadn’t seen that in years, and it’s very apposite indeed! “Taganrog wasn’t good enough for yer, yer had to go poncin’ off to Dubechnya…”

  21. I’m so glad you’ve read My Life. Have you managed Three Years yet?

  22. No, I haven’t; is it as good?

  23. It’d definitely not as bad as The Kreutzer Sonata, although it’s a story of family life, too.

  24. Hi,
    I’m going to jump in & say you should read “Three Years”, if you haven’t.
    It is excellent & nothing like “The Kreutzer Sonata”.
    I wrote a bit about it here:

  25. Thanks very much! You’ve caught me at a good time — I’m getting impatient with the Trifonov novel I’m almost finished with, Время и место [Time and place], and Chekhov sounds like the ideal palate-cleanser, so I’ve taken down Vol. 7 of the Complete Works and put it out to read next.

  26. By the way, do you say “Dee” or “Dye” for Di? I hate not knowing how to pronounce things!

  27. John Emerson says

    “Oh, come on, don’t exaggerate”.

    Around 1915 Burton K Wheeler set out from the Midwest to make his fortune in California. At a layover in godforsaken Billings, Montana he joined a poker game with some local yokels who turned out to be card sharks and cleaned him out. So he stayed in Montana, risked his own life by defending IWW leaders charged with a capital crime, and became Montana’s greatest political figure and a major figure in national politics.

  28. Oh great, read “Three Years” then, I’d love to hear what you think.
    My name is a Vietnamese name, so it’s neither Dye nor Dee, haha. It’s more like Yee /jiː/.
    (Does your site/ blog not have the option to send reply notifications? I can’t see it).

  29. My name is a Vietnamese name, so it’s neither Dye nor Dee, haha. It’s more like Yee /jiː/.

    Thanks very much!

    (Does your site/ blog not have the option to send reply notifications? I can’t see it).

    I’m afraid not; it hasn’t changed much in over a decade. I’m a very primitive blogger. At least I was finally persuaded to have my posts appear on Twitter…

  30. Taganrog

    In addition to being hometown of Chekhov, Taganrog is famous for being founded by Peter the Great who almost made it the capital of the Russian empire.

    But then came the Prut debacle and defeated Russia was forced to abandon fortifications of Taganrog.

    It’s one of the great historical what-ifs of Russian history – how much more pleasant would be the great Russian literature if it was written under warm southern sun of Taganrog instead of cold depressive St.Petersburg winters…

  31. It’s also the town were Alexander I either died or turned into Feodor Kuzmich

    As for Russian literature, at least one line would have definitely chaged “Whence shall we threaten Swede” would be “Whence shall we threaten Turk”.

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