As I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22, I stumbled upon the phrase that The Kreutzer Sonata, “was the title of Tolstoy’s own personal favorite among his own works.” Hitchens, who expertly discusses Vladimir Nabokov or Wystan Hugh Auden, among other writers, makes a blunder with Tolstoy whose personal dislike of The Kreutzer Sonata is well-known. True, Tolstoy had made confusing and contradictory pronouncements about his own works, dismissing War and Peace and Anna Karenina and expecting the public to like his ABCs, written for peasant children during his literacy campaign. I don’t know if Tolstoy ever named any of his fictional works as his “personal favorite.” It took him a long time to write and perfect his fiction and non-fiction, but he was rarely satisfied with the result and was also impatient to move on to other projects, not necessarily literature. Having completed The Kreutzer Sonata, he told several people that the novella was “terribly repulsive” to him. This attitude is reflected in several sources and in Sophia’s Diaries: in March 1891, she wrote that Tolstoy “has grown to hate this story and cannot bear its name to be mentioned.”
Of course, nobody is immune from making mistakes, but I wonder why Hitchens, despite his journalistic accuracy, did not check this simple fact about Tolstoy. Or perhaps, he did, but much that has been written about Tolstoy (especially on the Internet) is inaccurate or even untrue.
Take, for example, discussions of the new film Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright. The film itself was recently described in The New Yorker as “forget Tolstoy.”
While reading discussions of the film, I stumbled on this posting of November 15, in which Joe McGasko also gives his take on Tolstoy: http://www.biography.com/bio-now/anna….
Describing the later period of Tolstoy’s life, following his religious transformation, McGasko mentions that the writer’s ascetic beliefs generated a lasting conflict in the family. Then he goes on to say something utterly ridiculous:
“This conflict reached its tipping point when Tolstoy announced that he would divest himself of all worldly goods and leave his family to wander the world as a monk. His advanced age almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t get very far; shortly after leaving home, he caught pneumonia and returned home to die at age 82.”
There are many blunders here, but most appallingly, the author of this biographical piece is unaware that Tolstoy could not and did not return home to die; he died in a stationmaster’s hut in Astapovo.
So, why write about Tolstoy without checking basic facts? McGasko quotes Tolstoy as supposedly saying, “I wrote everything into Anna Karenina, and nothing was left over.” I don’t know where he got this quote, but I wonder if he would discuss Dickens’ life and work with the same assurance.
Misconceptions about Tolstoy abound, not only on the Internet, but, say, in the popular film The Last Station. Unlike the latest version of Anna Karenina, this film was praised far and wide, even though it misinterpreted Tolstoy’s life, showing the writer to enjoy luxury in the Yasnaya Polyana mansion. In fact, the house, with its bare wood floors, became known to visitors for its simplicity. There are numerous inaccuracies in this film, but I just want to mention one particular blunder at the very end. You might remember the text in the epilogue to The Last Station, which reads that the Senate awarded Sophia the copyright to her late husband’s works. This never happened, since Sophia did not challenge Tolstoy’s secret will.
I will be updating you on other inaccuracies concerning Tolstoy as they pour in.