Not so long ago, if you wanted to hear a particular work by Beethoven—say, his Violin Sonata No. 9, Opus 47, the “Kreutzer”you had to go to the local library, and even there you would be hard-pressed to find many recordings. Today, you can access hundreds of them on YouTube. You can read about the history of the work on Wikipedia. And, depending on your digital resources, you can access countless articles about it. Art appreciation, or whatever you want to call it, can become a detective story.

Consider Fred Wiseman’s latest movie, A Couple, his 49th overall and second drama. It is based on the diaries and letters of Sofia Tolstoy and, indirectly, on her husband Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata.

The piece of music referenced in the title has been steeped in controversy since its debut, in 1803, generating screeds of convoluted commentary and argument. (Scholars cannot even agree on what key it’s in. The adagio starts in A major, but after that?) It wasn’t simply the novelty of Beethoven’s composition that caused all the fuss. The reason it’s called the “Kreutzer” Sonata and not the “Bridgetower” Sonata is that Beethoven got into a fight with George Bridgetower after the violinist insulted the honor of a woman Beethoven highly regarded. (We are fortunate it didn’t lead to a duel.) Beethoven canceled the proposed dedication to Bridgetower and instead dedicated the work to Rodolphe Kreutzer, another virtuoso violinist, who hated the piece and never played it.

Nathalie Boutefeu as Sofia Tolstoy in A Couple.

Tolstoy’s novella proved to be even more controversial than its namesake. It was banned by the czar shortly after its initial publication. The U.S. Postal Service refused to distribute it. Teddy Roosevelt offered his view that Tolstoy was a “sexual moral pervert.” Émile Zola was quoted saying The Kreutzer Sonata was a “nightmare, born of a diseased imagination.” George Bernard Shaw quipped, “No wonder the Countess [Sofia Tolstoy] was often near the end of her patience.”

Here’s a bare-bones plot summary. On a train journey, a man named Pozdnyshev recounts to fellow travelers how a fit of jealousy, prompted by watching his wife play the “Kreutzer” Sonata with her music instructor, led him to stab his wife to death. Exonerated by a judge who deems the act an honor killing—i.e., a justified response to a wife’s unfaithfulness—Pozdnyshev presents to his fellow train passengers as a lunatic.

The story scandalized many people, none more than Sofia. Particularly after Tolstoy implied that his Kreutzer Sonata was semi-autobiographical. His wife did have a music instructor, Sergei Taneyev, of whom Tolstoy grew jealous. And Pozdnyshev’s views were shockingly similar to Tolstoy’s own. But what does that mean? That he, himself, was contemplating uxoricide?

Whatever the case, it couldn’t have made Sofia happy. Her letters, her diary, her autobiography—all show her disputing her husband’s emphases and conclusions and reflect her feelings of embarrassment that the reading public looked on the story as a reflection of her own marriage. She also wrote a number of what you might call “counter-stories”: alternate versions of The Kreutzer Sonata.

From Beethoven to Tolstoy to members of the Tolstoy family—Sofia, to be sure, but also their children—to the Czech composer Leoš Janáček to Vladimir Nabokov, the “Kreutzer” Sonata and The Kreutzer Sonata have formed the basis of a cottage industry in commentary.

Wiseman’s film is the latest entrant into this bizarre and captivating conversation. It doesn’t explicitly mention The Kreutzer Sonata, nor does it include Sofia’s counter-stories; it confines itself to her diaries and letters. But The Kreutzer Sonata is essential to my understanding of A Couple.

To provide some context for Wiseman’s film, I spoke to Michael Katz, Middlebury professor emeritus of Russian and East European studies and author of the book The Kreutzer Sonata Variations.

MORRIS: I really like the book. Very much.

KATZ: Thank you very much. It was a fun project to work on. And to find the manuscript [Sofia Tolstoy’s Whose Fault?] in the archive of the Tolstoy family at the estate at Yasnaya Polyana—for years they had sat on it and didn’t want it published.

MORRIS: The Tolstoy family didn’t even want scholars to know that it existed?

KATZ: It was covered up. The family told Sofia when she started writing her own stories that she would destroy her own reputation. And Tolstoy refused to read any literature his wife wrote.

MORRIS: And she continued to write anyway.

KATZ: She did. The first publication [of Whose Fault?] was in 1993 in a journal in the former Soviet Union, Ogoniok. I managed to find out about it, started talking to the family, who run Yasnaya Polyana, the estate, and got permission to translate it and then to publish it. I had to have written permission from them.

When I invited Ekaterina Tolstoy [the wife of Leo’s great-grandson and the current director of the Yasnaya Polyana estate and museum] to write an introduction, that was certainly a political move to put the family’s imprimatur on the project. She agreed and then took a long time to produce the writing. Andrey Tolstoy was one of my students here at Middlebury. I decided that I would see if I could cajole him into writing something to go with the end of the book, so that it would be bracketed by two Tolstoys.

MORRIS: And you succeeded?

KATZ: I succeeded.

Teddy Roosevelt offered his view that Tolstoy was a “sexual moral pervert.” Émile Zola was quoted saying The Kreutzer Sonata was a “nightmare … born of a diseased imagination.”

MORRIS: So you saw the Fred Wiseman film?

KATZ: I did.

MORRIS: What did you think?

KATZ: Well, it surprised me. I didn’t realize that it would be a one-hour monologue. I was surprised at the setting, the sea, the waves, the rocks. Yasnaya Polyana sits inland, so it’s an imaginary setting. I expected that it would have more to do with her writing. I didn’t realize it was just her diaries and her letters. It’s ambitious, and I can’t imagine a market it’s going to have.

MORRIS: I don’t think Fred Wiseman has ever concerned himself with that. I admire him for his—I can’t quite say it’s his hatred of any possible audience that he might have, but it may amount to something like that. I’ve been a fan for many years. I came up to visit him, probably 40 years ago, in Cambridge. I had dinner with his family, and one of his sons said, “What are you going to show him, this two-and-a-half-hour boring movie? The three-and-a-half-hour boring movie? Or is it going to be the four-and-a-half-hour boring movie?” But I’m a fan, so I can appreciate both sides of the argument, if you like. He made a movie called Near Death, and it’s close to six hours long.

Leo and Sofia Tolstoy on their wedding anniversary.

KATZ: Good Lord.

MORRIS: Good Lord is right. People dying. You can’t quite say it’s a feel-good movie. I used to call him a “feel-bad director.” But it is something of a masterpiece. I told him it should have been longer. Much longer.

KATZ: [laughter]

MORRIS: A high-school teacher once said to me that great art was about universal values. And I remember thinking, “Wait a second. Great art in my experience is usually batshit crazy. Universal values? I don’t think so.” Re-reading The Kreutzer Sonata in your translation—it’s nuts.

KATZ: I agree.


KATZ: Because Tolstoy was going off the deep end with his notions of sexuality and chastity and fidelity. And he put these all into a story framed by strong tea, tobacco, and the movement of the train. He goes around the bend. The crime of passion was just that: irrational and thoughtless. And Tolstoy’s explanation when he writes the afterword to The Kreutzer Sonata—

MORRIS: It was even crazier.

KATZ: Yeah! It goes even further than the story itself when Tolstoy suggests that sexuality in all forms is wrong and that mankind would fulfill its function if it died out for good. Have a nice day!

MORRIS: Well, there’s an apocalyptic parable in Borges’s story “The Theologians” that I have always admired. He talks about the Histrioni, an obscure sect. Here’s the quote:

Other Histrioni believed that the world would end when the number of its possibilities was exhausted: since there can be no repetitions the righteous are duty-bound to eliminate (commit) the most abominable acts so that those acts will not sully the future and so that the coming of the kingdom of Jesus may be hastened.

They decided that the commission of a fixed number of sins would bring about the Second Coming. And so they abandoned themselves to a wild debauch, hoping to hasten the onset of the Rapture. It seems like a reasonable strategy. Remember, there can be no repetitions. The only way to paradise is through utter depravity. It’s so deeply perverse. I like that. But that’s me.

KATZ: You’re not the only one. It’s got its audience.

MORRIS: I wanted to talk to somebody who knows this material better than I’ll ever know it. I wanted to try to understand how Wiseman made his selections from Sofia’s diaries and letters. What do you make of it?

KATZ: Well, it’s a long critique of Sofia’s relationship with Leo. She doesn’t really say much good about him during the course of the film. Her letters are filled with loving passages, as are her diaries, but Wiseman chose to make his portrait very painful, very dark. Sofia felt deeply betrayed when she read The Kreutzer Sonata and took her revenge in her letters and diaries and then in her short novels, these two stories that she writes as counter-stories, Whose Fault? and Song Without Words. In particular, the first one, Whose Fault?, which she wrote in school notebooks and actually wrote in the margins the sentences in quotes that she disagreed with.

He Wrote/She Wrote

Want to see what Katz is talking about? The passage below is from Sofia’s novella Whose Fault? The bracketed passages in italics are quotes from Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, which Sofia recorded in the margins.

The prince noted Anna’s condition with a lack of comprehension and a certain amount of irritation; he realized that of everything his depraved imagination had invented when he had dreamt about a honeymoon with his pretty eighteen-year-old bride, nothing had materialized but boredom—boredom, disenchantment, and the tormented state of his young wife.

[“… and then the much praised honeymoon begins. Why, even its name is so vile!” and “… it’s awkward, shameful, vile, pitiful, and, the main thing, it’s boring, unbelievably boring!”]

Not once did it ever occur to him that he had to cultivate that aspect of amorous life that he was so accustomed to finding in those hundreds of women of every sort whom he had encountered previously.

[“… the spouses must school themselves in vice in order to receive any pleasure from it.”]

KATZ: So you can follow it line by line, and she counters and presents the story of a much healthier relationship. In her novella, Prince Prozorsky [the stand-in for Leo Tolstoy] is a loving husband and a loving father, quite different from Pozdnyshev, the man in Tolstoy’s story, and quite different from Tolstoy himself, who had become something of a monster. Wiseman seems to take the negative side of her relationship with her husband.

Leo and Sofia (far right) Tolstoy, flanked by their children at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate.

MORRIS: Reading Sofia’s diaries, from the very beginning of her marriage, they seem schizophrenic. She has dark thoughts about her husband and about their relationship.

KATZ: There is the famous story of their exchanging diaries on the eve of their wedding where he reveals to her all of his previous sins, his sexual adventures with women and with men. She’s horrified by what she reads and decides to marry him anyway. She’s 18 and he’s 36 or 37. She’s a virgin and he’s certainly not. He gave up on the men some time before, but he hankered after peasant women and fathered more than one illegitimate child. So she had reason to be concerned.

MORRIS: Tolstoy emerges as a monster. Not just in her diaries. In his own diaries, which he gave Sofia to read, he describes her as “plain and vulgar” and writes about preferring her younger sister.

KATZ: Well, he’s so talented, he’s such a good writer, he’s such a deep thinker—and he’s a monster. People are complicated.

“It was covered up. The family told Sofia when she started writing her own stories that she would destroy her own reputation. And Tolstoy refused to read any literature his wife wrote.”

MORRIS: Indeed. The Kreutzer Sonata is really rich. The writing at times is absolutely exquisite—the depth of observation, the characterizations. But particularly the paranoia. The sophisticated paranoia.

Here’s a selection from Tolstoy’s description of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata:

“They played Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata.’ Do you know the first presto? Do you?” he cried. “Ugh! It’s a dreadful thing, that sonata. Precisely that part. In general, music’s a dreadful thing. What is it really? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? They say that music has a sublime impact on the soul—that’s nonsense and not true! It does have an impact, a dreadful impact. I’m talking about myself: but it’s not in any way a sublime impact on the soul. It affects the soul neither in an elevating nor a debasing way, but in an irritating way.… Take this ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’ for example, the first presto. Is it really possible to play this movement in a drawing room in the presence of women wearing low-cut gowns? To play it and then applaud, to eat ice cream afterward, and gossip about the latest rumors?”

MORRIS: He finds the music vile. Sexually suggestive. Pornographic, if music can be pornographic.

KATZ: Unleashing the worst kind of sexual passion.

MORRIS: I don’t know what performances you’re listening to of the “Kreutzer.” But there’s one that is certainly my overwhelming favorite.

KATZ: And what is that?

MORRIS: The barefooted Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Fazil Say. It’s the one version of “Kreutzer” which captures its insane energy. Beethoven goes from the adagio to the presto, and the presto is never played fast enough. Except in this version. I have a modification of a line in Andy Warhol’s Bad: We don’t want pre-meditated; we want crazy.

KATZ: I look forward to hearing it.

Aesthetic Terrorism

Critics were immediately divided about Beethoven’s composition. The Frankfurt correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote, “It is undoubtedly one of the most important works of this brilliant composer, and I wish to draw the public’s attention to it without delay.”

As soon as the work’s extreme technical difficulties were fully appreciated, however, opinions of disapproval were voiced in the same paper: “One would have to be in the grip of some kind of aesthetic and artistic terrorism, or so won over by Beethoven as to be blind, to fail to find in this work a new, obvious proof of the fact that for some time now this artist has been indulging in caprices, not only turning the greatest gifts of nature and of his industriousness into channels of mere willfulness, but above all striving merely to be absolutely different from other people.”

MORRIS: Tolstoy had every reason to suspect his wife and her feelings towards Taneyev, her music instructor. That element of The Kreutzer Sonata wasn’t just conjured out of whole cloth.

KATZ: That’s correct. And finally, Tolstoy chases him away, says he won’t entertain him anymore. Wouldn’t play chess with him. Didn’t want to make music with him. He was a jealous man. [Leo and Sofia Tolstoy] were both jealous of each other.

A high-school teacher once said to me that great art was about universal values. And I remember thinking, “Wait a second. Great art in my experience is usually batshit crazy.”

MORRIS: One aspect of the story I also find incredibly interesting—maybe you have your own explanation for it—her intercession with the czar.

KATZ: Oh, yes.

MORRIS: How do you interpret that?

KATZ: The only way Tolstoy could get The Kreutzer Sonata back in print would be if she went and begged a favor from the czar. And she was successful. It’s ironic that this story, which so belittled Sofia in her own eyes, she’s the one responsible for its publication. Do you know the story behind the publication of Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?

MORRIS: No, tell me.

KATZ: He lost the manuscript and he advertised for the manuscript in the police gazette. The police helped locate the manuscript, and thus helped to publish the most revolutionary novel of the 19th century. It’s the same sort of story.

MORRIS: She writes so extensively about the meeting. And the meeting itself is so strange. She’s colluding with the czar so that her husband will return to novel writing?

KATZ: Yes. And the czar suggests that the only place The Kreutzer Sonata can be published is in Volume 13 of Tolstoy’s collected works, because that way it’ll be so expensive that nobody can afford to buy it. Rather than a popular edition.

MORRIS: How do you feel about her writing in those two novellas, Whose Fault? and Song Without Words?

KATZ: Well, I think she’s a good writer. She’s not a great writer. She’s not producing first-rate literature. My wife and I had this discussion just last night. How good are those stories? Would they deserve any attention if they weren’t written by Mrs. Tolstoy in answer to The Kreutzer Sonata?

MORRIS: Those kind of counter-factual questions are a little unfair.

KATZ: They haven’t attracted any attention from literary critics saying these are worthy stories. They’re good, but I read them as part of a dialogue. I have trouble dealing with them on their own as literature.

MORRIS: But they’re not on their own, as you yourself have shown. Andrey Tolstoy makes that remark in his afterword to your book. He says, “The Kreutzer Sonata is not a monologue, but a dialogue lying in wait … ” Even Nabokov weighed in on this, which surprised me.

Tolstoy emerges as a monster. Not just in her diaries. In his own diaries, which he gave Sofia to read, he describes her as “plain and vulgar” and writes about preferring her younger sister.

KATZ: What does he say?

MORRIS: He was asked by the Union of Russian Journalists in Berlin to participate in a kind of literary mock trial defending Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev, the uxoricide. Nabokov, who usually defends the madman, goes against Tolstoy.

KATZ: Generally it’s Dostoyevsky for whom he has little regard as a writer. But he likes his Tolstoy.

MORRIS: I became aware of The Kreutzer Sonata Variations from my friend Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote about Sofia Tolstoy after your book was published. I rather like what he wrote. I’m sure I mentioned it to Wiseman. I don’t want to say that I’m responsible for A Couple existing because I have no idea. But I do remember talking about it with him years ago. He was reading Tolstoy, and I suggested your book.

KATZ: What do you think of the film, by the way?

MORRIS: I don’t know, actually. It makes me wonder about Wiseman’s work in general. There’s a kind of thinly disguised sadism, inflicting pain on his audience in one form or another. This may be the shortest film that he’s ever made.

Yasnaya Polyana sits inland, but for dramatic purposes, Wiseman relocated it to a rocky coast.

KATZ: The one-hour film.

MORRIS: Yes. The one-hour film. I wrote something years ago about his art. I don’t think people realize how preternaturally strange it is. It’s almost like he’s observing the universe through a keyhole. It has been called objective cinema or cinéma vérité. But of course those things don’t really mean anything. There’s certainly a style to what he does. But you’re watching in endless detail the development of a nightmare filled with endless crazy ironies.

He did a movie called Sinai Field Mission, which is about the peacekeeping in the Sinai. They had partitioned the Sinai Peninsula and had U.N. observation posts in the middle of the desert. The movie starts out with visuals of sprawling dunes and sand blowing everywhere. The next shot is of a man shoveling and sweeping sand in the middle of all this. Maybe there’s two or three minutes of that. There’s something exquisitely hopeless about a lot of Wiseman’s work. It is about hopelessness. I’ve often said to him that his model isn’t any kind of documentary filmmaking at all. The model really is the theater of the absurd. It’s Beckett.

KATZ: Beckett comes to mind.

MORRIS: Wiseman directed Nathalie Boutefeu, the actress in A Couple, in a staging of Beckett’s Happy Days.

In the second novel of his trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, Beckett defines love as a form of lethal glue. It’s one of my favorite lines. And the lethal-glue idea is so apparent in the Tolstoy narrative.

KATZ: Yes, that’s a good formulation for that marriage.

MORRIS: Actually in love, whatever that means. In this case, it means a kind of compacted, inflicted torture.

KATZ: In love and in hate.

MORRIS: There’s something magisterial about it. The other thing I liked about the film, and I kind of love about the diaries themselves, is that even though it’s monologue, you feel so much Tolstoy in it. It’s a kind of universe conjured through one person. Again, it’s that strange keyhole idea. Wiseman somehow finds these moments that kind of say it all.

He made a movie that I very much like called Zoo. There’s a scene where they’re castrating a wolf. And all of the castraters in the operating room are female. The only male in the room is the janitor, standing next to, as I remember it, an exit sign. And he has his hands neatly folded over his crotch.That, to me, is the essence of Wiseman. His attraction to the absurdity of it all.

I don’t know how you watch a movie like A Couple. If you were just to look at the movie itself and take it on its own merits, I’m not sure what you could say. I know a lot of people who have seen it, people who are really smart and that I respect, have said they don’t know what to make of it.

KATZ: I’m relieved to hear that. [laughter]

MORRIS: My wife, Julia, was annoyed by it because she found Sofia Tolstoy, as represented in the film, to be whiny.

KATZ: It’s one long lament.

MORRIS: Yes. But if you don’t know anything about the nature of the lament, and the history of it, and the relationship to The Kreutzer Sonata, if you don’t know anything about anything that is contained in your book, then I’m not even sure that you have an appropriate lens to look at it. I just don’t know. But maybe that’s the purpose of art: to make you want to know about something. Can’t argue with that, I don’t think.

KATZ: I don’t think, either.

A Couple is in theaters now

Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL