Art, emotion, ego & spirituality in Tolstoy’s masterwork.
Tolstoy is a magnificent writer. He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!—James Joyce
The book floats in some charmed section of the lake of literary opinion where the ripples from modernism and the ripples from Hollywood overlap without merging.—James Meek, on rereading the novel, in the Guardian
More than any other book, it persuades me that there is such a thing as human nature, and that some part of that nature remains fundamentally unaffected by history and culture.—Francine Prose, in the Guardian
As I said in my first post about reading Anna Karenina, I picked the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky based on its opening line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—liking their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph.
It took me a couple of weeks to read the 817-pager, and in the process I learned that Leo Tolstoy can do anything as a writer. And he wants to do a lot. A couple of times he goes into the mind of a dog and makes it feel easy and natural. I was impressed by the way he traces shifting human emotions, shows how people get embarrassed, get angry, change their minds, rise above ego and fall to it. In Anna, people blush—a lot. I imagine this is historically accurate, and makes me realize one way we’ve changed, our shifting shame points, though the same conflicts remain.
But more than this, Tolstoy excited and touched and astounded me with his depiction of the way people read each other—their feelings and even their plans shifting as they interpret facial expressions, body language, and comments that might say one thing and mean another. This complex inner ballet is in response to cues they’re picking up from each other or to feelings they can’t suppress. He’s obviously studied himself and others like a scientist.
Anna is a tragic figure but a very human one; famously the novel indicts social mores and hypocrisy, showing how social shunning plays out in a highly stratified patriarchal society in which affairs were countenanced but not serious love affairs. Yet because Anna’s fully rounded, this is the least of it; what lingers in your mind is her own nature, especially her mistakes, and how she crumbles mostly because she loses custody of her beloved son. Both her husband and her lover are unworthy of her, but she’s unworthy of herself.
The novel’s religion theme fascinated me. Almost everyone’s a nonbeliever, at least privately; then one character’s spiritual yearning and his breakthrough to a belief in Christian goodness (without having faith in a deity) become an impressive if mystical coda to Anna’s fate. And I’m still thinking about a passage that explores Tolstoy’s views of art and artistry.
Admittedly these may seem digressions, especially the religion one for most contemporary readers. The novel’s true digressions into civil service, farming, and politics can surely lose any reader briefly. Yet Tolstoy handles them well, even so. I loved the farming material, of course, and blanked out a few times on the other topics. How much to fault a writer or a book for this? It’s kind of like criticizing a cathedral because, while grand, it’s really too big and your feet got sore.
Anna’s vast swaths read like a dream. Tolstoy’s sentences are so stately, elegant, and rhythmical that once you get accustomed to them other rhythms can jar you. The first book I started afterward, I felt whiplashed. A celebrated memoir of place, written in a spare poetic and much more compressed style, almost telegraphic, it seemed to be missing transitional sentences. Nope, just a Tolstoy hangover.
Something that makes Anna Karenina easier to read, despite its length, than one might expect of a doorstopper 19th-Century novel is that, like Moby-Dick, its chapters are short. In Anna, they come in sets, like waves. After three or four chapters within the same scene/topic, there’s a big new wave: a shift to a new thread. That’s where I often stopped for the night, my brain rebelling at the effort of immersing in a new setting; though Tolstoy is easy to read, his prose like water, usually I got out my bookmark after finishing one set, depending on how much time I had.
Most of Tolstoy’s chapters don’t need to be broken that way—they could’ve been passages separated by space breaks, which Tolstoy also uses. But the short chapters make the book seem very user-friendly and also modern. They may be the mere consequence of the fact that its first publication was in serial form. According to Wikipedia, Anna was published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. It was the Sopranos, the Wire, the Breaking Bad of its day.
As I mentioned previously, reading Anna is part of a larger experiment: using Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature as my guide to some classic novels. That probably was my intent when I bought Nabokov’s book over 30 years ago, in 1981. So I’ve started. I’m now reading Nabokov’s analysis, and his insights help illuminate the text, though predictably he abhors Tolstoy’s essaying and preaching that I tolerate or adore. I may revisit this topic once I’ve finished Nabokov’s analysis.
Meantime I’ve also watched the latest movie version starring Keira Knightley. Enacted on lavish sets, it has a delightful theatricality and seems to yearn toward becoming a musical. I loved it.