The Other Tolstoy and the Book of Night

It seemed like sensational news to me. I’m not sure why it hasn’t become more of a high-profile issue in literary circles. I found it to be—in the words of Mary McCarthy’s awestruck review of Nabokov’s Pale Fire—“A bolt from the blue.”

After all, this is a revelation about the mind of Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy. That Tolstoy, you know, the Russian novelist? Conventionally credited with being the greatest illuminator of the human experience in literature? The same one who—and fewer readers are aware of this—late in his life turned into a sex-hating crank who (seriously) argued that the extinction of the human species would be a small price to pay for the immediate cessation of all sexual intercourse. Everyone, everywhere. You there, hiding in the shadows: Stop fucking now!

And fewer still are aware of Tolstoy’s devastating “consolatory” response when it was pointed out to him that cessation of all sex would mean the rapid extinction of the human species.

He replied with what might be the single worst attempt at “consolation” in all of literature, perhaps all of life. What’s the problem with human extinction? Tolstoy asked. After all, science tells us the sun will eventually cool and all life on Earth will die off anyway. Sure, billions of years in the future, probably. But there’s actually a bright side to near-term extinction, he said: It will mean the human race will be spared billions of years of shame, billions of years of further degradation in what he charmingly called the “pigsty” of sex.

Glass half-full!

Seriously. Yes, it’s shocking, especially from a novelist whose works are known for their superb vitality, bursting with the love of life. And yet, far less well-known are his late anti-sexual novellas: The Devil, Father Sergius, and, most vicious, venomous, and sex-hating of all, the 100-page The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s a deceptively innocent title for the heartwarming story of a madman wife-murderer who delivers an interminable monologue on an interminable night-train journey across the Russian steppes. Who horrifies his captive audience—the passengers in his compartment—with a denunciation of men, women, and sex. Who thereby—in his mind—justifies the bloody murder.

Oh it must be ironic, said the Moscow-to-Petersburg Acela corridor chattering class of the time. He was portraying a character. True, his protagonist was a wife-murderer who’d been freed on judgment that he'd been driven to kill by justified defense of his "honor." But Tolstoy himself was not justifying the murderer’s rationale for his act. Impossible!

No, NO! thundered Lev Nikolaevitch in a “Postface” he insisted be added to Kreutzer to clear things up: He stood behind every word of the madman’s rationale, if not his final bloody act. Lev converted to a radical form of “primitive Christianity” in the 1880s and found an affinity with an anti-sexual sect that advocated voluntary castration. (He did not volunteer.) He hadn’t gotten around to killing his own wife, but clearly he could understand, he could empathize with the logic of the deed. Human love and sexuality were irredeemably evil; women were sinister provocateurs of male murderousness. (I am generally opposed to biographical criticism, but it’s worth reading The Last Station, Jay Parini’s historically based novel about the last days of Tolstoy’s bitter marriage—just to see how emotionally murderous that marriage was in the decade before he died in 1910.)

None too surprisingly, Tolstoy’s wife, Sofiya, took his tale of a wife-murderer personally, especially since it seemed to her it was inspired by the “issues” in her own marriage. The Kreutzer narrator—a Tolstoy-like landowner—fantasized an adulterous tryst between his wife and the violinist she played duets with. Mad sexual jealousy. And then when he comes home one night and unexpectedly finds the two dining together, he imagines the worst and stabs her to death.

t was fair to say Sofiya was humiliated and incensed when the novella was published and her marriage to The Great Man became suspect, subject to nationwide speculation. (And yet such was her devotion she made a special plea to the Czar to allow its publication after Orthodox Church objections banned it. In an unusual moment in the annals of censorship, the church objected not so much to a surplus of sex in Kreutzer, but rather to its denunciation of even church-sanctified marital sex as legitimized depravity.)

For a long time, it had been thought Sofiya kept her dismay to her private diary. But now—and this is the revelation I first saw reported in the New York Times last summer—it turns out she wrote an entire novella of her own that has languished unpublished and untranslated in the depths of the archives of the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow for more than a century.

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