The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories: Family Happiness

(Since this Penguin edition contains four stories, and not just the titular Kruetzer Sonata, I’ll be doing this in four parts – one post for each story)

Family Happiness has to be one of the most beautiful things by Tolstoy that I have ever read. With Penguin Classics, I always read the Introductions beforehand (despite the plot-spoiler warnings) because I feel it enriches my first reading, as well as reducing the frequency at which I flick back and forth going ‘oooh’. Often enough as it is.

I was sort of indifferent at this point, faintly curious about the style of Tolstoy’s earlier works, and also a little impressed by the depth of the thematic concerns that plagued his mind as he strove to make his way in the literary world (I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find it hard to imagine Tolstoy, young and unintimidating and not, well, famous). Then I plunged into the first novella/long short story, Family Happiness and I was really, pleasantly surprised.

War and Peace and Anna Karenina are works of immense grace and dignity, but Family Happiness is a little different. The prose is fresh, delicate, more flowery, more liquid – language and fluidity and beauty of a form I hadn’t experienced from Tolstoy before. I’m not sure whether it’s because it was written in his early days, or if it’s because he wrote in the first person and from a female perspective or whether it was a result of all these things converging into a perfect whole, but it just struck a chord with me.

I’m really bad at plot summaries, and but basically the story centres around the love and marriage of a young girl, Mashechka (Masha) and her much older family friend Sergey Mikhaylych. Sergey loves Masha, but is afraid to marry her because she’s so young and naive about marriage and life in general. Eventually though, the two marry and move into Mikhaylych’s home in the countryside. Masha is a naive little fox, and she ends up spoiling her marriage by flaunting herself in Petersburg society and carrying on flirtations with foreign princes, etc etc. Masha realises that her previous feelings for Mikhaylych have little to do with her previous idealised notions of marriage and love. I thought (wrongly) that there would be separation or divorce, or something along those lines, but to my surprise the novella ends with the two settling into a loveless, but comfortable (I suppose, for lack of a better word), life. The title ‘Family Happiness’ is essentially a paradox, or if not that, an irony at least.

Their “romance” in all its stages was immensely poignant and moving, especially because of the volatile nature of Masha’s feelings. I felt that at times that Tolstoy’s didactic nature stepped in and hindered the storyline from being as natural/realistic as it could have been. The way he described the romance in its early stages was a little clinical. It felt too structured and built up for the inevitable breakdown. As soon as I read the scene of the proposal, and the early days of their marriage, I knew something baaad was about to happen. But there were some great one-liners in there, such as Sergey’s ‘every stage of life has a different love’.

I give the plot details away so explicitly because Tolstoy’s genius lies not in his ability to tell fantastical and extraordinary stories, because they’re not really. His gift is rather the ability to so masterfully capture the more elusive emotions and dynamics of human nature. His characters are so immensely human that your heart aches for them all, despite their flaws and often detestable personalities.

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