If you’re on a train and conversation turns to a sensational recent murder, and one of your fellow passengers tells you he was the murderer in question, what do you do? Shuffle as far away as possible and pretend to be absorbed in your Sudoku book, or drink the dude’s tea and listen to his bonkers take on the problem of sex?
This is a Russian novella, so of course you sit down and listen to him. He’s got a great plan for solving society’s rot: remove sex. That’s right, no more beast with two backs, no more how’s yer father, no more hubba-hubba-way-hey. Let’s just stop it with the shagging.
Weirdly enough, having recently become acquainted with James M. Cain’s tortured heroes grappling with self-justification of hideous acts, there was something similar that resonated in this story. The way the murderer transformed his struggle against inner desires and outward pressures into a moral and philosophical stance has the impeccable logic of the sociopath, and it leaves a deep impression of a pathetic, weakened mind. It’s also hilarious, which is probably not what Leo was going for.
Doris Lessing’s great introduction to this, the oddest of Tolstoy’s creations, provides amazing context to the writing of it. I don’t have it on hand or I could quote her imagining of Leo and the Countess’s grim sex life, and the resulting inferno of guilt that the bearded one lived with. I read it as a way to extend a great drunken chat I’d had with a friend over Russian lit and it worked for that, though afterwards I really just wanted to get back into some nice old Turgenev.