Quarantine literature: Marital happiness

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Rubens Figueiredo*

Commentary on Leo Tolstoy's novel

The image of a writer consolidated in essays and encyclopedias reveals as much about the time of these texts as about the work they refer to. Even more so when it comes to a work with polemical roots, like the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy – a polemic to which the historical developments of the XNUMXth century have given an even more complex meaning and scope.

This is linked to the fact that it is almost impossible to find a text about Tolstoy in which the expressions “moralist” and “religious preacher” do not stand out. Likewise, it is rare not to come across a description of his work that does not imply a well-defined division into two phases: the first, as a writer, a painstaking novelist, and the second, as a religious indoctrinator.

Of course, there is data capable of supporting such schemes. However, the decisive weight given to these data implies the subtraction of other elements, both from Tolstoy's biography and work. In light of this, that image would come to be seen, at the very least, as a simplification and, at worst, as an ideological manipulation.

It is the case of the book Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, by George Steiner. At the end of his study, the critic goes so far as to state that the Grand Inquisitor, in the novel The Karamazov Brothers by Dostoyevsky, actually draws a portrait of Tolstoy – converted by Steiner into a kind of patriarch of the so-called totalitarian utopias.

Despite everything, these interpretations point to something important: the non-conformity, evident in Tolstoy's works, with the pattern of social inequality prevailing in Russian society; and also the dissatisfaction with the capitalist forms that were being introduced in Russia in an accelerated and traumatic way. On the other hand, they sin by assuming, in the writer's points of view, a stability, coherence and systematic character that they never had. Reading his books, with characters marked by hesitations and sudden mood swings, by intellectual concerns and such diverse affective experiences, could make us cautious against those schematizations, if it weren't perhaps for the filter of the introductions and prefaces, which repeat the image of an indoctrinating Tolstoy.

But there is a factor of another nature that also weighs in this “translation” of Tolstoy for our times and for our geography. It concerns the prestige of the notion that literary art enjoys a peculiar autonomy in relation to historical experience and that, ultimately, reality is exhausted in language and fiction.

This notion was not foreign to Tolstoy's time and country. However, in the conditions of Russian society – censorship, brutal inequality, illiterate masses, persistent feeling of backwardness in the face of Western Europe –, the thesis proved to be simply unfeasible. Worse still, seen from Russia's angle, it cast a hypocritical profile. Even the “indifference” advocated by the short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov immediately acquired a political meaning. This is the root of the polemic that nourishes all of Russian literature, and also the source of its vigor, scope, and enduring reach.

The truest way to describe Tolstoy's case would be to say that he placed himself in the position where tension and antagonism were most intense and where conflict had to be experienced. But not as an intellectual game. Not for the taste of the conflict itself. Not by the assumption that pain purifies and conflict improves. Oppression and exploitation raged around Tolstoy, and ever since Childhood and os Tales of Sevastopol until the novel Resurrection, from 1899, he was concerned about not losing sight of this. Underlying it is the aspiration – which was not a particularity of him, but of the society around him – for an effective solution. The works of literature were worth as thought experiments, in close alliance with other modes of discourse. Among them, religion.

With that in mind, reading the novel marital happiness can acquire another content. Written in 1859 when Tolstoy was 31 years old, it already expresses his insistence on putting himself in someone else's shoes, experiencing an alien perspective. This insistence will lead you to seek the perspective not only of characters from other social classes and cultures, but also of animals and even plants (for example, the short story “Três Mortes”).

marital happiness is narrated from the point of view of a teenager, heiress to a rich rural property. She recounts her engagement and marriage to a man about twice her age, a friend of her late father. The novel follows an experience of a few years, in which the romantic concept of love goes through severe tests, until it is exhausted. The intricacies of the young woman's anguish compose pages in which Tolstoy asserts his reputation as a shrewd observer, but also – it is important to emphasize – open to contradiction.

At the root of the narrator's hardships is the relationship of domination that presides over the marriage. “My thoughts are not mine, but his”; “he needs to humiliate me with his haughty tranquility and always be right against me”; “this is the power of the husband – to offend and humiliate a woman without any fault”; "He needed to present himself before me as a demigod on a pedestal."

Another focus of conflict in the telenovela lies in the contrast between the countryside and the city. In Saint Petersburg, the young woman finds herself besieged by appeals and attractions, embodied in parties and balls, in the social life of the elite. The exciting character of this experience manifests itself in the form of a continuous renewal of desires and desires – shopping, visits and social and affective contacts.

The city is the gateway to modernization, the introduction of incipient capitalism, while the countryside preserves pre-capitalist traits, but also, and by contrast, suggestions of a possible alternative life.

Lermontov's verses quoted by her husband (“And the fool wants a storm, as if there were peace in it”) are a critique of what the city represents. However, it is in the city that the young woman manages to free herself from the moral influence of her husband, “which crushed me”, she says, and manages to match or even “put me above him”. “And thus love him even more”, concludes the young woman – a good example of Tolstoy's dynamic narrative, which strives to transform a possible solution into a new problem.

Rubens Figueiredo, writer and translator, is the author of the book of wolves (Company of Letters).


Lev Tolstoy. marital happiness. Translation: Boris Schnaiderman. Publisher 34, 124 pages (https://amzn.to/45BRBb5).

Article originally published in Journal of Reviews

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