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Posts Tagged ‘Red October Russian Reads’

I discovered Viv Groskop’sThe Anna Karenina Fix : Life Lessons from Russian Literature‘ while browsing in the bookshop and couldn’t resist getting it. I thought it was time to read it now.

Viv Groskop’s book has eleven essays on Russian classics. In each of the essays, Groskop picks one Russian classic, discusses the plot and the characters, and talks about the insights and life lessons that the classic has to offer. She covers many of the great 19th century writers (and some 20th century writers) but Leo Tolstoy gets the pride of place by having two of his books featured in the list. My favourite essays in the book were those on Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’.

Throughout the essays, Groskop weaves in her own story and experiences and describes how the classics impacted her and helped her. Groskop’s style is breezy, charming, conversational, filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. The book suspiciously resembles Elif Batuman’s acclaimed book ‘The Possessed : Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them‘. But I haven’t read Batuman’s book yet, and so I can’t really complain.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Anna Karenina Fix‘. It is a beautiful, charming love letter to Russian literature. It is also a great introduction to Russian literature. If you love Russian literature, you will enjoy reading this.

I am giving below two of my favourite passages from the book to give you a feel for Groskop’s style.

“The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place : life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully.”

“A few weeks after…we moved on to Pushkin. If I thought the parrot was a bad idea, this was an even worse one. It’s like giving someone a two-week course in English and then saying, ‘And now we’re going to read Othello.’ It’s fairly typical of the teaching of Russian though. They like to throw you in at the deep end. And they like to make sure you remain completely intimidated by the language for as long as possible. That way, if you pass on to the other side and actually do learn to speak it, you’ll maintain the age-old myth that it’s difficult to learn and pass that on to other people so that the Russian speakers can remain in their own special and secret club. Having to read Pushkin several weeks into a ‘Russian from scratch’ course is a sort of hazing you never recover from. It is specially designed to make you want to haze others so that they will suffer as you have suffered. To quote Pushkin : ‘I want to understand you. I study your obscure language.'”

Have you read Viv Groskop’s book? What do you think about it?

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Anton Chekhov mostly wrote only short stories and plays. His longest story and probably his only novel was this one, ‘The Shooting Party‘. I have wanted to read this for a long time. I finally read it today.

The story told in ‘The Shooting Party‘ goes like this. A man walks into a magazine editor’s office. He looks handsome and distinguished. He tells the editor that he has written a novel based on a real event. And he hands over a manuscript to the editor. The editor says that he can’t promise anything but he will read the manuscript and see what he can do. The story told in the manuscript goes like this. The narrator is an investigating magistrate who lives and works in the countryside. He is friends with the count who owns the nearby estate. The count is travelling most of the time and occasionally drops by at his estate. Then he calls our magistrate and they party for days. The narrator describes their parties and adventures. At one point the narrator meets a beautiful young woman who lives nearby. There is mutual attraction. A lot of things happen after that – love, wedding, seduction, affairs, fights, heartbreaks, jealousy. At around three-fourths into the story, one of the main characters is dead. It looks like this character was murdered. The rest of the story is about finding out who the murderer is.

I think ‘The Shooting Party‘ is probably not Chekhov’s best work. For a significant part of the story, it is more and more parties and people getting drunk, and seductions and affairs and jealousy and fights. Chekhov tries to do a Turgenev here, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t work. Turgenev was a master at this kind of plot. Chekhov – maybe the play or the short story form was more his thing, or maybe he wrote this book when he was young, before his style matured. Wish he had tried his hand at a novel again, later in life.

There are some nice passages here and there in the book, which are a pleasure to read. One of my favourites was this one :

“Pine trees are boring in their silent monotony : they are all the same height, they all look exactly the same and they do not change with the seasons, knowing neither death nor vernal renewal. On the other hand they are attractive in their very gloominess – so still, so silent, as if they are thinking melancholy thoughts.”

There are beautiful, evocative character sketches in the story. One of my favourites is the narrator’s servant Polikarp, who is hardworking and loyal, loves reading Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, but who is also fearless and speaks his mind to his master and doesn’t think twice about screaming at his master, if his master has done some reprehensible thing. Polikarp is so cool! Another of my favourites is the doctor Pavel Ivanovich, who is wise and kind and loves knowledge and learning new things.

When one of the characters drops dead, the story undergoes a transformation and becomes a murder mystery. There are some dark, almost Dostoevsky-ian passages, in this part, and in the end when the identity of the murderer is revealed, we jump from our seats, because we don’t see that coming – the surprise is as good as the best Agatha Christies, it would have had even Hercule Poirot stumped. That revelation turns the book on its head, and we start seeing everything in new light.

It was fun reading Chekhov’s longest story. It is probably not his best work, but I am happy that I can cross it off my checklist now. I discovered that this book was adapted into a Russian movie. I want to watch that sometime. (In case you are interested, it is called ‘Мой ласковый и нежный зверь‘ (‘My Tender and Affectionate Beast‘) (A Hunting Accident). You can find it here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have English subtitles.)

Have you read Chekhov’sThe Shooting Party‘? What do you think about it?

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I always wondered how contemporary Russian fiction looked like, because when discussing Russian literature, readers always talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Turgenev and Pushkin and other 19th century greats – writers who are affectionately called the ‘Dead Russians’ now. Sometimes readers talk about writers who can be termed as ‘dissident writers’ – writers who resisted the Soviet regime and whose books were banned in the Soviet Union – writers like Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Akhmatova, Shalamov, Zamyatin. But contemporary writers are rarely mentioned. Russians, of course, still read today. Their love for books is legendary. I am sure there are still Russian writers who write books for these readers, books set in contemporary Russia, which talk about how today’s Russians live their lives, how they fall in love, what kind of work they do, how they respond to political developments, the relationship between Russian parents and their children, these and other contemporary themes which are relevant today. I wondered who these writers were and how I could get their books. Then I discovered ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia‘. I was thrilled.

Rasskazy‘ has 22 stories. Each of these stories is by a different writer. So that is 22 new writers – whoohoo! Some of these stories are a few pages long, many of them are around 10 pages long, some of them are even longer. The longest has 43 pages.

Now a little about my reading experience. I got this book a long time back. I read the first 100 pages of the book at that time, but then got distracted. When I started reading the book again now, I remembered liking the first hundred pages, though I couldn’t remember the stories. I decided to read the book differently this time. I decided to read the last one-third first, followed by the middle one-third and then the first one-third. When I started reading the last one-third, a strange thing happened. I read one story and then the next and then a third. Nothing much happened. I went on and read five stories and still there was nothing. I was expecting moving stories and profound passages, but, unfortunately, it was hard reading. It was like I could understand every word in the story, but couldn’t get the story. I wondered what was happening. I wondered whether I should continue reading the book. I felt like I was hemmed in at the top of the mountain with nowhere to go. Then Natalya Klyuchareva arrived like the legendary Tolkien eagle, picked me up and soared high into the sky. She delivered a beautiful, stunning masterpiece called ‘One Year in Paradise‘. That was the end of the book as I knew it. This transformed new book was a different being, an amazing thing. I screamed with joy. It was one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read.

Things got better after that. I read the middle one-third and then the first one-third, and discovered other beautiful stories I liked.

Here are some of my favourite stories from the book and what I think about them.

(1) One Year in Paradise by Natalya Klyuchareva – This is my most favourite story from the book. It was the last story featured in the book. In this story, a man moves from the city to the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, and decides to live there. He just has a bag filled with books. What happens to him is the rest of the story. Such a quintessential Russian story, such a beautiful one. If you would like to read it, you can find it here.

(2) A Potential Customer by Ilya Kochergin – A young man who works as a hunter and a trapper in the Russian Far East, goes back to Moscow for a month. He goes to deliver a package to his friend’s aunt and there he meets a young woman with whom he falls in love. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

(3) History by Roman Senchin – A history scholar visits a bookshop, buys a book and is walking to the metro station to get back home. There is a political protest happening in front of the metro station and somehow our scholar gets trapped in the middle of that. And then bad things start happening. An insightful commentary on the situation in Russia today.

(4) The Diesel Stop by Arkady Babchenko – A young soldier goes home on leave to attend his father’s funeral. He comes back late to report for duty. The army establishment assumes that he was trying to desert. He is arrested. The strange, crazy things that happen to him form the rest of the story. This was the longest story in the book.

(5) The Killer and his Little Friend by Zakhar Prilepin – Describes the friendship between two soldiers in the army, one who is a giant, and another who is small. Makes us think of George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’.

(6) D.O.B. by Aleksander Snegirev – A young man goes through a series of adventures on his birthday, getting into trouble, one after the other.

(7) Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall by German Sadulaev – a story set in Chechnya during the war, mostly told from the Chechnyan perspective.

(8) Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish by Olga Zondberg – describes the life of a blogger.

(9) Bregovich’s Sixth Journey by Oleg Zobern – describes the friendship between a man and his neighbour’s dog, whom he calls Ivan Denisovich.

(10) Russian Halloween by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov – a man moves from the middle of the city to the outskirts after his divorce. He is depressed because he misses the city. But then strange, surprisingly pleasant things happen to him, unexpectedly.

(11) Spit by Kirill Ryabov – a man who is committed to an institution gets released after he is cured of his illness. How he navigates the wild world outside is the rest of the story.

(12) Drill and Song Day by Vladimir Kozlov – the story of the friendship between three boys in school who are outsiders in different ways.

I enjoyed reading ‘Rasskazy‘. It was wonderful to discover so many new contemporary Russian writers in one place. I am especially happy to have discovered Natalya Klyuchareva. I can’t wait to read more stories by her and by the others.

Have you read ‘Rasskazy‘? What do you think about it? Would you like to recommend some of your favourite contemporary Russian writers?

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I had got ‘We‘ by Yevgeny Zamyatin years back, because I heard that it inspired George Orwell’s1984‘. I finally read it for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

The story told in ‘We‘ goes like this. The time is the distant future. The world seems to be one united country. People are not called people – they are called numbers, and are given numbers, because numbers are unique. Logic and reason dominate every aspect of their lives – what time they get up, what time they go to sleep, what they do at every hour, every minute of the day is regulated, based on logic. Nothing can happen without the government knowing about it. All houses have transparent walls and doors and everyone can see everyone else. There is only one exception. When a couple are having an intimate time together, they can lower the blinds. For this they have to get advance permission from the authorities. Our main character is D-503, who is a mathematician and scientist, who is building a rocket to reach outer space. Things are going well for D-503 in this logical world, till he meets I-330. I-330 is a beautiful, mysterious woman. And before long D-503 discovers that there is an inner world, inside his mind, which is not based on logic or reason – it is wild, passionate, illogical. D-503 is torn between the logical world that he has always known and this wild passionate thing that he discovers. And then events move at a fast pace and lots of stuff happens. Can we expect anything less in a dystopian novel? How does it all end? You have to read the book to find out.

I haven’t read ‘1984‘ and so it is hard for me to compare. But if ‘We’ was the first ever dystopian novel, it must have created a stir when it first came out. Its publication was not allowed in the Soviet Union and it was published abroad. It later led to lots of problems for Yevgeny Zamyatin and all his works were banned in the Soviet Union and Zamyatin himself had to migrate abroad where he didn’t live long. It is a sad story.

To me, Zamyatin’s story depicts the tussle between reason and logic on one side and the things that make us human – like imagination, love, freedom – on the other side. It is a fascinating thing to watch. The arguments given in the story for both the sides are very insightful and thought-provoking. Zamyatin’s story came out nearly a hundred years back, and in the century that has passed, we seem to have moved more to the logic-and-reason side of things. If we are not careful and things move to their logical conclusion, it wouldn’t be surprising if we end up in a world similar to the one depicted in the book. From that perspective, this book is as relevant today as when it was first published.

I loved most of the characters in the book. Though they don’t have names but have numbers, they have very distinctive personalities. Our scientist D-503, his long-term lover O-90, and the mysterious woman he meets, I-330, are all fascinating and complex characters, whom I loved very much.

The book is filled with beautiful, thought-provoking passages. I am giving a few below.

“I wondered at the ancients who had never realized the utter absurdity of their literature and poetry. The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous – everyone wrote anything he pleased. Just as ridiculous and absurd as the fact that the ancients allowed the ocean to beat dully at the shore twenty-four hours a day, while the millions of kilogrammometers of energy residing in the waves went only to heighten lovers’ feelings. But we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful.”

“Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my √–1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them…But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist, they must, they inevitably must exist : in mathematics, their fantastic, prickly shadows – irrational formulas – pass before us as on a screen. And neither mathematics nor death ever makes a mistake. So that, if we do not see these bodies in our world, there must be, there inevitably must be, a whole vast world for them – there, beyond the surface…”

He : “I hate fog. I am afraid of it.”
She : “That means you love it. You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I enjoyed reading ‘We‘. Though there have been many dystopian novels since which have explored similar themes, as probably the first ever dystopian novel, Zamyatin’s book was a pioneering effort. This book deserves to be much better known.

Have you read Yevgeny Zamyatin’sWe‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Alexander Pushkin’sRuslan and Lyudmila‘ for a long time and so I decided to read it now, for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

I discovered that I have three translations of the book. One of the interesting decisions I had to take was which translation to read. Initially, I thought I’ll read all three. But after I started reading, I thought I’ll read the one which appeals to me more, and which flows more smoothly for me, and reference back to the other two and read specific passages. This is what I did in the end. More about the translations in a while.

The story told in ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ goes like this. The young prince Ruslan is married to the beautiful princess Lyudmila. But on their wedding night, Lyudmila is kidnapped by the evil dwarf Chernomor. Ruslan and three other young men who are his rivals ride away the next morning in search of Lyudmila. Are they able to save Lyudmila from the evil dwarf? You have to read the story to find out.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ very much. Most of the characters were very interesting, but two of them were my favourites. When Ruslan rides through a Steppe-like plain, he spots a mountain in the middle. But when he comes closer, he discovers that it is a head, a huge head, and it is living. At present it seems to be sleeping. Ruslan takes his lance and pokes the giant head’s nostrils. The head sneezes. What happens after that – there is a reason they say ‘Don’t poke the bear‘ – you have to read the story to find out. That head is one of the most fascinating characters in the story and one of my favourites. Another favourite character was one of Ruslan’s rivals Ratmir. His life undergoes some major changes and when he comes out on the other side – you’ll have to read to find out what happened, it is so amazing.

There are six cantos in the story – yes, the story is one long poem. At the end of the fifth canto, a heartbreaking thing happens. Why does this always happen in the penultimate chapter, in the penultimate episode, in the penultimate book? Why does someone always die in the ninth episode of ‘Game of Thrones‘? Why does one of the main characters die in the penultimate volume of the Harry Potter series? I am wondering whether Pushkin started this penultimate chapter thing. But I can’t tell you what happened to whom in that chapter. That is for you to discover.

Now a word on the translations.

All the three translations were interesting and very different from each other. The first one by Roger Clarke was a bilingual edition. It had the Russian text on the left and the English translation on the right. It was an easy to understand translation and Clarke had explained in his note at the end of the book on why he translated the original into free verse and didn’t use Pushkin’s rhyming scheme. The second edition was a translation by D.M.Thomas. Thomas had tried to keep the rhyming scheme intact and he had explained in his introduction how he tried preserving Pushkin’s tetrameter intact and why he tried doing that. This was very interesting, because here we have two translators who did opposite things and tried providing justification for the same, and they both sounded convincing! The third translation was by Jacob Krup and I felt that it was written in such a way so that it could appeal to children. The Roger Clarke translation was the one which flowed more smoothly for me, and that is the one I read, while comparing passages with the other two. I am giving below the first passage from the story from all the three translations. Tell me which one you like the most.

Translation 1 (by Roger Clarke) :

“By an arc of sea a green oak stands;
to the oak a chain of gold is tied;
and at the chain’s end night and day
a learned cat walks round and round.
Rightwards he goes, and sings a song;
leftwards, a fairy tale he tells.”

Translation 2 (by D.M.Thomas) :

“A green oak by the salt sea weathered;
And to it by a gold chain bound
A highly learned cat is tethered,
Who on the chain goes round and round :
Walks to the left – he tells a story,
Walks to the right – a song he sings.”

Translation 3 (by Jacob Krup) :

“At the seashore’s a golden chain;
That golden chain entwines an oak.
A learned cat around that oak
Day and night keeps his walk :
Goes to right – a song he sings;
Returning, left – a tale he brings.”

So, who is the winner – Clarke or Thomas or Krup? 🙂

I thought I’ll share the covers of all the three editions (you can see the first cover above) and some inside pages of the third one, because it has some exquisite Russian Palekh paintings. Hope you enjoy looking at them.

This is my first book by Pushkin. I can’t wait to read more books by him. Have you read ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my second book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. This is the slim 150-page book which launched Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant literary career and made him one of the twentieth century’s important writers.

The story told in ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘ goes like this. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is serving a ten year sentence in a Russian gulag. There is no reason that he should be in a prison camp, but the government has put him there for an imagined offence. Like the other millions of people that it has put there. The story describes how one typical day goes for him in the camp – how he and his campmates are woken up early in the morning, how it is freezing outside (not freezing but probably -40 degrees Celsius, which is beyond freezing, way beyond freezing), how the food they are given is a thin soupy gruel, how one has to fight and cheat and do all kinds of things to get a little extra food, how there are rules like one can wear only so many layers of clothes while going out to work, how the prisoners are expected to work in the biting cold but are not provided the tools for it, how the whole system is geared to crush one’s spirit but it doesn’t kill a person – there is more, but I’ll stop here. We see things through the eyes of Shukhov (or Ivan Denisovich – the author likes calling him Shukhov) – we go through highs and lows and our heart beats faster when we feel that he might be getting into trouble with the authorities and we pray for him, we rejoice when he is able to get an extra portion of soup or is able to hide his bread successfully or is able to find tar paper and use it to block the windows of the building he is working in so that it keeps the room warm. We become a part of the prison camp and we suffer agony and experience little joys as Shukhov and the other characters in the story go about their day. We look at our own lives, at the luxuries we have, at the food and the clothes we take for granted and which we complain about and we wonder how infinitely more privileged we are (yes, even the poorest of us is more privileged than the prisoner in the gulag). It makes us look at the world with new eyes – how totalitarian governments can give hell to innocent people, how those of us who have never gone through this are incredibly lucky. When I read the last passage in the book –

“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinner time. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the searchpoint. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.
The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.
The extra three were for leap years.”

– when I read that, I cried.

It is so hard to believe that someone can be positive at the end of a day like this. But Shukhov is. And so are many of his fellow campmates. My heart went out to Ivan Denisovich. And to the millions of Ivan Denisoviches who have suffered. And my heart went out to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered himself, and came out on the other side to tell the tale. It is so hard to believe that this book was inspired by real events and all this really happened to Solzhenitsyn and his campmates.

I am glad I finally read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘. This is my first Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. And what a book it is. I thought the book would be too heavy and heartbreaking for me and so I have been sitting on it for years. While reading it, I thought that if things got too hard and tough to read, I will push through and read fast and get through the book. But I am glad I didn’t do that. I gave the book the time and space that it deserved and the book opened its heart and sang its song. It was a beautiful song, an unforgettable song, but it was a heartbreaking song too.

Have you read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘? What do you think about it?

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It was time to read my first book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. I decided to read the slimmest book I had in my Russian reading list – ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ by Leo Tolstoy.

The story told in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ goes like this. There are a few people travelling in a train. They are mostly strangers and don’t know each other. The discussion turns to equal rights for women and marrying for love. People have different opinions on the subject. Then one of the quieter passengers asks the others what they mean by love and whether it is possible for someone to love another for their whole life. There is some passionate conversation which happens here, and then this man, who feels that love cannot last long, tells his story to prove his point. What happens after that – you have to read the book to find that.

In ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘, Leo Tolstoy takes aim at romantic love and the institution of marriage and fires his cannon. When it is all over, the building has collapsed and is in ruins, there is smoke all around and it is scary, heartbreaking and depressing. The love that Tolstoy talks about in the book is far removed from the beautiful love that Pierre and Natasha have for each other in ‘War and Peace‘ – this love looks more real and is filled with jealousy, anger, hurt, darkness. It is scary to read. The book is a frank portrayal of a marriage, with all the light and the darkness – mostly darkness – thrown in. When this story was first published, it created a lot of controversy, and it was censored. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya went and met the czar and pleaded with him and only after the czar acquiesced, was this story included in Tolstoy’s collected works. After we read the book, we understand why it created so much controversy.

I loved ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘. It is a small, slim book with big font, with deep amazing insights in every page. It is a late start for me for #RedOctoberRussianReads, but I think it is a great start.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“A terrible thing is that sonata, especially the presto! And a terrible thing is music in general. What is it? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully, but not in an ennobling way. It acts neither in an ennobling nor a debasing way, but in an irritating way. How shall I say it? Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have. Music seems to me to act like yawning or laughter; I have no desire to sleep, but I yawn when I see others yawn; with no reason to laugh, I laugh when I hear others laugh. And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time. I become confounded with his soul, and with him I pass from one condition to another. But why that? I know nothing about it? But he who wrote Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ knew well why he found himself in a certain condition. That condition led him to certain actions, and for that reason to him had a meaning, but to me none, none whatsoever. And that is why music provokes an excitement which it does not bring to a conclusion…and that is why music is so dangerous, and sometimes acts so frightfully.”

Have you read ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘? What do you think about it?

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