Hello there. I haven’t been blogging lately because I wasn’t in the mood, having an excruciating toothache for over a week (wisdom teeth). The agony is over, but this blog post will be brief.
After several months of reading plays and Shakespeare books, I returned to short stories, novellas, and novels.
Returning to Tolstoy (in the translation of Aylmer and Louise Maude), I first read a short story called “A Spark Neglected Burns the House”. It’s a moral tale, a well-written one but still a moral tale—I thought Tolstoy was capable of so much more.
And he was. The next reads were The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil, and they’re both superb. Neither are comfortable to read and The Kreutzer Sonata may provoke some strong feelings of anger and disgust because it explores the mind of a sick, jealous, and misogynistic man, but both are great works. Do I think The Kreutzer Sonata is a misogynistic work? Some people seem to think there is a clear-cut answer but there isn’t. On the one hand, Tolstoy did write an epilogue in which he agreed with a lot of the character’s extreme views on sex and the body, and I did notice that not only the second narrator (the main character) but the first narrator (in the frame story) was also misogynistic, making unnecessary comments on the woman in the discussion about love and marriage, but on the other hand, Tolstoy is not the character. The character/ the second narrator, as he admits it himself, didn’t see his wife as a human being until he saw her dying, and can you imagine him—the character—having sympathy for Anna or Sonya or Natasha or Dolly as Tolstoy clearly does?
As I read The Kreutzer Sonata, I thought I could see why Tolstoy clashed with Shakespeare: Tolstoy digs deep into his characters’ minds and explores their motivations, and in this novella tries to understand what may lead a man to kill his wife, whereas Shakespeare sometimes removes the characters’ motives from the source stories and makes them more obscure, like in the cases of Iago and Lear as Tolstoy singles out. Tolstoy clashes with Shakespeare because they have different approaches, different aesthetic visions.
After The Devil, I picked up Ethan Frome because both are about a married man having a thing for another woman. The two however are very different: The Devil is about lust whereas Ethan Frome is about love, so the question of guilt doesn’t really bother Ethan.
Ethan Frome is to me interesting for several reasons: partly because I read it after The Devil and could contrast the two books and two authors, and partly because it made me think of The Age of Innocence. I have always been aware that Ethan Frome is an unusual work, uncharacteristic of Edith Wharton, because it’s not about the upper class and it also doesn’t have the harsh tone found in The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, but it shares with The Age of Innocence the basic plot of a man having a wife or fiancée and falling in love with her cousin and seeing his wife send the other woman away. It’s fascinating to see what Edith Wharton does with the same basic idea, as the two books couldn’t be more different: Ethan isn’t Newland Archer, Zeena isn’t May, Mattie isn’t Ellen, and Ethan Frome is set in a fictional town called Starkfield in New England instead of New York.
She’s very good at writing about desire, forbidden desire.
The ending of Ethan Frome is probably going to haunt me for a while: it is bleak, and the most awful (to the characters) out of all the possible outcomes. Edith Wharton’s endings are always haunting.
I’m going to need something to cheer me up.