Cosmic Bros: Tolstoy, Janáček and Murakami

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I love finding weird connections between artists, musicians and writers. While it’s easy to conceive of artists drawing inspiration from one another in the present day, it’s intriguing to see how artists of the past were influenced by one another and how that translates to the present. In my Wikipedia wanderings I discovered some interesting links between Russian literary great Leo Tolstoy, Czech composer Leoš Janáček, and the contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Each are masters in capturing the sensation of the aching, wonderful, terrible, beautiful nature of life, and were influenced by one another in intriguing ways.

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Let’s start chronologically with Tolstoy, who is best known for Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (By the way, I am firmly on Team Tolstoy in the Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky debate, just throwin’ my bias out there!) In his later years, Tolstoy composed shorter works  that capture his exceptional insight without the insane page count. His novella The Death of Ivan Ilych is one of my favorite philosophical pieces, and at only 134 pages it’s much easier to handle than carting War and Peace onto the bus.

Tolstoy’s short story The Kreutzer Sonata , which was inspired by Beethoven’s music, was forbidden by the Russian government when it was published in 1889. It was banned in the United States in the following year, with Theodore Roosevelt calling Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.” Surprisingly, the radical content was Tolstoy’s argument for abstinence against the “swinish” nature of relationships.

In 1923, Czeck composer Leoš Janáček was inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata in his creation of String Quartet No. 1. Describing his influence, Janacek wrote that he “was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” Janáček’s piece captures a sense of infatuation mingling with fear.

In turn, Janáček proved to be an inspiring force nearly a century later for internationally-acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s 2011 novel IQ84, Janacek’s Sinfonietta plays a recurring role, starting from the first page as the orchestral piece plays from a taxi’s radio.

An excerpt from IQ84:

She closed her eyes again and concentrated on the music. She knew nothing about Janáček as a person, but she was quite sure that he never imagined that in 1984 someone would be listening to his composition in a hushed Toyota Crown Royal Saloon on the gridlocked elevated Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo.

And now to come full circle, Murakami discussed the influence of Leo Tolstoy’s storytelling techniques in his novel Kafka on the Shore:

“That’s how stories happen — with a turning point, an unexpected twist. There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”

The intermingling influences of Tolstoy, Janáček and Murakami which span generations show the timeless nature of  philosophical and aesthetic concepts. We can play a major role in others’ lives without ever actually meeting them. It reflects the causal connections between individuals that transcend space and time, how ideas can go beyond one’s corporeal existence.

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