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Zelitch, S. (2001). Tolstoy on the Couch: Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother. By Daniel Rancour-Laferriere. New York, NY: University Press, 1998, 270 pp., $40.00.. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Stud., 3(1):63-67.

(2001). Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 3(1):63-67

Tolstoy on the Couch: Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother. By Daniel Rancour-Laferriere. New York, NY: University Press, 1998, 270 pp., $40.00.

Review by:
Simone Zelitch

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (1984) writes, “But isn't it true that the author can only write about himself?” Perhaps. However, intelligent readers know that the relationships between authors and characters are far from straightforward. Kundera adds, “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of all of them and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border I myself have circumvented” (p. 221).

It is tempting to read the actions of these characters as wish fulfillment, to see in a character an author's double, and in fact, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere's Tolstoy on the Couch assumes such an equivalence between author and character. As Rancour-Laferriere reduces narrative to symptom, we are left wondering what insight we are meant to gain about Tolstoy and his work. If his mother had lived, would Tolstoy have been a cheerful nobleman who loved red meat? More perversely, is Anna's Karenina's suicide “… a representation of Tolstoy's own wish to punish or kill himself” (p. 6)? Rancour-Laferriere's scholarship is impressive, but far too often, in its attempt to find neat categories for the author and his characters, Tolstoy on the Couch reads like a parody of psychoanalysis.

The assumed connection between work and life is inherent in Rancour-Laferriere's very notion of a “psychobiography.” He quickly insists that we are not reading the definitive biography of Tolstoy because that work would have to take into account everything Tolstoy had written. Not only his novels, but “every single messy page of every single draft of The Kreutzer Sonata has to be part of Tolstoy's biography, for Tolstoy went to the trouble of writing each page within the bounds of his real lifetime” (p. 2). Whether or not Tolstoy meant for these drafts to be examined, let alone read as autobiography, is not questioned.

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