"The Kreutzer Sonata"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 17, 2005)
"[Composer Leos Janacek] is working on a composition inspired by Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata," the novella that excites him, annoys him, and no doubt intrigues him greatly. For almost twenty years he's been carrying the lovesick, jealousy-ridden characters around in his head, and the composer in him has toyed with the idea before. Now, in just eight days, he jots down what he has to say. Everything immediately falls into place. The composer…gives a new twist to the spiral of passion and fate that has gone from [Beethoven's] sonata to [Tolstoy's] novella to [Janacek's] string quartet."
In Tolstoy's novella entitled The Kreutzer Sonata, which inspired composer Leos Janacek to write his Kreutzer Sonata for strings, a man in a train compartment tells another passenger the story of how he happened to murder his wife. Both the man and his wife were musicians, and it was her work as a violinist which brought her into contact with another musician with whom her husband believed she was having an affair. Consumed by jealousy, he murdered her, only to be later acquitted. Janacek uses this story as the basis for his own "Kreutzer Sonata," transposing the story into melodic themes played by a string quartet, and featuring a "love story" between the first violin and the viola, which resonates with passion and, ultimately, violence.
Margriet de Moor uses the pattern of Janacek's sonata and the story behind it to create her own adaptation of the story. An unnamed narrator, a musicologist, meets Marius Van Vlooten, a blind music critic, at an airport as they are both leaving Brussels for Bordeaux on their way to International String Quartet Week. While there, the narrator introduces the very beautiful first violinist for the Schulhoff Quartet, Suzanna Flier, to Van Vlooten, whose previous relationship was so passionate that when his lover left him, he blinded himself in a failed suicide attempt. Soon Suzanna and Van Vlooten are conducting an affair, one to which Van Vlooten is as committed as he was in his previous relationship.
Suzanna Flier's quartet has been preparing Janacek's Kreutzer Sonata, "a fatal psychological drama that no earthly power could bring to a halt." Dealing with "a sentiment which is inherently more powerful than compassion…jealousy," the sonata requires that the players "not play the notes" but "humanize" them instead. As Suzanna and her quartet rehearse their presentation, the reader observes the parallels connecting Tolstoy's Kreutzer story and the action in this novel.
Ten years after this music festival, the narrator again runs into Van Vlooten at the airport in Amsterdam, and Van Vlooten looks like a shadow of himself. He tells the narrator that Suzanna, who had married him, has left him two weeks ago, after ten years, and is suing him for mental cruelty and for sole custody of their child. Through flashbacks, Van Vlooten tells the story of their marriage, and his jealousy is obvious. He resents her friendship with the viola player of her quartet, calls her at all hours when he is away from home to be sure that she is there, and hires a chauffeur so that she will be returned home immediately after all her concerts. Convinced she is having an affair, he eventually decides to kill her.
Sixteen years after this meeting, the narrator again takes a plane, this time to Amsterdam to deliver a paper. During the flight he and the reader learn the conclusion of the story of Marius and Suzanna.
Author de Moor creates a tautly constructed and very romantic story as she explores the relationship of Suzanna Flier and Marius Van Vlooten. Symbols, like musical motifs in a sonata, abound in the novel. When Suzanna has just begun her affair with Marius, for example, she tries to catch a black butterfly, and, in the process, falls out a third floor window, surviving only because she grabs onto a vine to keep from falling. Later, after she and Marius are married, she finds that their house in Wassenaar "pinned her down like a butterfly." Water imagery echoes throughout the novel, the fountain outside their room at the beginning of their affair annoying Suzanna and, later, their house on the beach near Wassenaar confining her.
In crystalline prose, de Moor selects details which reveal the point of view of a blind man and the reactions of his wife. "[Van Vlooten's] world, transparent, infinitely vast, consists entirely of the audible, things that are heard in disconnected fragments, in conjectures that cease abruptly as soon as they stop producing sound: Trees are only trees as long as the wind blows, an entire block of houses on a quiet Monday morning vanishes from the face of the earth until someone flings open a window…" As he creates Van Vlooten's life with Suzanna, the reader alternately sympathizes with Van Vlooten—and for his need to have every object in the house remain exactly in place—and becomes angry with him because he uses his need for consistency as a means of controlling Suzanna.
Though some might argue that the desire to form parallels between the story of Marius Van Vlooten and Suzanna Flier and that of the Kreutzer Sonata leads to an artificial skewing of the characterization and plot, de Moor does an admirable job of giving an old story a new twist, and her conclusion is surprising. Romantic in the sense that the action is often implausible and carried to extremes, the novel is nevertheless compelling and fascinating reading. Throughout, De Moor is so observant of details and conveys them so perceptively that the reader cannot help but feel that s/he is learning something new-- about the blind, about musicians, and about lovers and the way they interpret their worlds.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Seen From Behind (1988)
- Double Portrait ( (1989)
- First Gray, Then White, Then Blue (1991; 2001 in US)
- The Virtuoso (1993; 2000 in US)
- Duke of Egypt (1996; 2002 in US)
- The Sea Road (1999)
- The Kreutzer Sonata (1999; January 2005 in US)
- Drowned (2005)
- The Juggler (2006)
- The Storm (March 2010)
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- Biography page on Margriet de Moor
- Margriet de Moor's article on writing Duke of Egypt
- SFGate.com review of The Kreutzer Sonata
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Storm
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About the Author:
Margriet de Moor was born in the Netherlands in 1941. She led a career as a singer before becoming a novelist. She began singing when she was seventeen, studying at the conservative in Hague. Later she studied studied history of art and architecture in Amsterdam. Her novels have been translated into twenty languages.
She is the mother of two daughters.