Friday, June 18, 2010

The Kruetzer Sonata, or, When I Woke Up He Was Gone

Reading The Kuetzer Sonata was a lousy idea. If I had known that it was going to play a part in throwing me down some emotional stairs I probably would've left it alone.
I've already mentioned that it's hard to leave. I won't go into it again, but I should add that some days actually go really well, I mean, some things really confirm, or rather, justify, my experience here. A few days ago I went to the dentist to get some cavities filled. I spent most of the day skating around and listening to my headphones. It was one of those days when I was really happy to be in Yerevan, to be in a big city, where people are busy and don't pay much attention to the odd foreign skateboarder rolling past. Although the day was hot I wasn't feeling too fatigued. The music I had been tired of a few days earlier on my headphones sounded nice to me again, as if it had undergone some kind of remastering since I'd last listened to it. I felt friendly too, as often happens when the world seem to be smiling upon one. I remember joking with everyone, buying some food for a stray puppy and blundering an attempt to compliment the receptionist at the dentist office.
[I should add that where I live it would be unheard of for a single young man to just blurt out a compliment to a single young woman that he didn't know. I thought it might be different in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, but it didn't seem to be.
I used to enjoy complimenting strangers because the few times I have received such unexpected compliments they have stayed with me a long time. It's one thing for your mom to tell you that your hair looks nice like that, and quite another thing for someone in line at the bank to turn around, notice your hair and say "hey, I like your hair!" Ok, yeah maybe nobody's complimented me on my hair in a decade, but you know what I mean.]
Anyway, you can see it was just the kind of day where things fell into place. The fillings went pretty easy, my dentist was a pleasure to talk to, being from Baghdad. On the ride home the marshutka had side windows that opened so we were able to dispel the afternoon heat pretty well and I got invited to a curry dinner and was actually able to eat it as the Novocaine wore off just in time.
That was only about five days ago and for the last three days I've been smoking constantly, feeling awkward even in previously comfortable situations and quick to anger. It's probably true that I have had many similar episodes, even over the past month, but going through this, Fortuna's latest downward spin, compounded with the memory of a very believable bleak story regarding that which supposed to bring us happiness in life is really playing at my nerves.
In the story the narrator (and Tolstoy's experience in a bad marriage definitely factors in) begins a story in a train carriage about how he ended up killing his wife. He takes a good 60 pages before reaching this climax describing all the petty misunderstandings, miscommunication and misgivings that resulted from his attempt to get married and live with a woman, who, in the eyes of society, he was supposed to cherish. He delineates all the things that make such long term adoration and even cordiality impossible. Eventually, the narrator and his wife are constantly arguing, while the narrator is, only half-unconsciously, trying to force her away from him, so that he can feel justified in his repugnance of her, and feel vindicated in, by that time what has become his hatred of her.
When he thinks about his wife from the perspective of other men he is able to understand how she could be beautiful although she has longed ceased to be for him. In the births of his children he finds no solace, saying that they, too, were only drawn into the battle between him and his wife. Both these points struck me as particularly depressing. To be able to see someone as beautiful but not have the courage or the means to appreciate them anymore, only to feel jealous that this person should still appear beautiful to others when she has long since ceased to be beautiful for you. I remember having somewhat similar feelings when I was younger in regard to my friends, who, having been friends with me, suddenly discovered some other crowd and left me alone. I remember thinking something like "yeah, I know you think this person is great right now, but you don't really know them. Not like I know them." That is to say, I can see what beauty you think is there, but I myself, have long ago discovered it to be false, as,no doubt, will you. At one time or another I think we have all had such a feeling.
In the end the narrator leaves the house, becomes insanely jealous when thinking about his wife, although he positively loathes her, with someone else and rushes back to find her with another man whereupon he stabs her. The story ends shortly after this action with a debatable note of repentance.
Personally, I have always thought Tolstoy to be the master of characterization, he writes characters' inner lives as plainly as their physical actions. In Anna Karenina there are so many thoughts of hubris, fear and apathy that seem pulled out from one's own phyche. He writes all the little things that we think make us individuals, the reoccurring day dream, the awkward way we sometimes talk with a friend we don't see very often when meeting by chance, saying the wrong thing and then not knowing how to correct it and the little things that make us happy such as a proffered drink of water, an agreement, a comfortable silence or a frost covered road.
When he turns his powers of observation on a certain event its interesting to read, sometimes you find pieces of yourself amongst the foibles of his human characters, but sometimes, like in any novel, their actions seem ridiculous. But in The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Kuetzer Sonata, he focuses on a general situation of two people who thought they'd be happy together and ended up trapped, and living lives into which they felt forced.
There's no sense of agreement necessary here. The hardest part is that Tolstoy isn't asking you to subscribe to his idea that marriage is horrible and that everyone feels alienated by one's children. He merely shows you how the scenario, as it were, is entirely possible. Even if the reader doesn't believe in the possibility of this scenario, even if, as some unreasonably positive person, you choose to ignore all the correlations between this bleak story and your own life you are still forced to file it away in the portion of your brain where you retain memories and thoughts on relationships; and there it seems to fester, tainting the picture of happily-ever-after that's much more prominent, but somehow less convincing than Tolstoy's brutal depiction.
You read this and examine all the past relationships you've been in, and see how they all ended because there was a flaw there that couldn't stop growing a flaw that, unchecked, may have grown into something monstrous like in Tolstoy's vision. It's not that it's assured, it's just that it seems possible and it's awful to comprehend that such a miserable life could grow from something that initially was a great source of happiness; that one might find, in another human being, something so repulsive, just doesn't, itself, seem human.

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