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Carriage Chats
Claire Marsden

Traveling on the railways is an experience not to be missed by anyone visiting Russia. I have only got as far as St. Petersburg, but both times I made the eight-hour journey, the time has flown by. This may have been a function of the snacks and bottle of wine I was encouraged by Russian friends to bring along, but I truly believe that the company with which I shared my carriage should be given more of the credit. Language barriers were forgotten as pictures of family were produced, toasts made, and snacks and stories swapped. But have I just been lucky? You always have some fear about who the stranger(s) sharing your air and living space for the foreseeable future will be.

Pozdnyshev, whose story is told in Lev Tolstoy’s classic novella The Kreutzer Sonata, would make for interesting, if disturbing, company. This isolated and sinister stranger keeps very much to himself until the comments of a lawyer and his outspoken female companion produce a rather aggressive outburst. Talk of love and intimacy and the institution of marriage spark an unusual debate among a diverse group of train passengers. People come and go, but our narrator stays and listens as Pozdnyshev’s murderous tale unfolds.

This anti-hero’s philosophy of life, love, women, and the corrupt lifestyle of young men about town, which is positively encouraged by all of society, fills the carriage and is as seemingly never-ending as his supply of tea and cigarettes:

“The vilest thing of all about it,” he began, “is that in theory love’s supposed to be something ideal and noble, whereas in practice it’s just a sordid matter that degrades us to the level of pigs, something vile and embarrassing to remember and talk about.”

His views may shock or perhaps make sense, but as we learn of his marriage, his five children, and his wife’s growing beauty, we long to know how and why he killed her.

This version has been published as part of the Penguin Books-Great Loves series. Other titles in the series include Ivan Turgenev’s First Love and Anton Chekhov’s A Russian Affair — all great short reads for long sunny afternoons.

The Kreutzer Sonata by Lev Tolstoy,
trans. David McDuff (Penguin Books, 144 pages)
is 266 rubles
at Dom Knigi on Novy Arbat

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