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20 November 2018

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The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

By Michael R. Katz,* transl. and ed. (Yale, $40)

After the 1877 publication of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s writing became increasingly polemical and evangelical. It is likely that, had his later works been written by anyone other than Tolstoy, they would have not received nearly the attention they did. Because, as literature, they pale in comparison to his earlier works.

The Kreutzer Sonata, a short story completed over a decade after Karenina, has long been singled out as unique among these later works for the controversy it evoked, for its searing and uncompromising diagnosis of the misogyny and hypocrisy upon which one of society’s most fundamental institutions, marriage, was based. As a result, it is one of the most written about of the great writer’s works.

Yet this new volume introduces an entirely new perspective. It places a new translation of Kreutzer alongside some fascinating literary counterpoints – stories and commentaries written by Tolstoy’s family members in response to the controversy that the Sonata evoked. There is Sonia Tolstaya attempting through fiction to show what women mean by love. There is son Lev’s story arguing that his father got the diagnosis right, but the prescription wrong. And there are letters and diaries that throw the story into stark relief, showing that the content, intent and tone of the story changed completely in the process of editing and rewrites.

Through these powerful juxtapositions, Katz shows how this controversial, important story was not a single, independent work of literature, but an artistic reflection of this entire, complex, amazing family.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2014