Sunday, April 7, 2019

Anna Karenina

There can be few books that have been as extravagantly praised as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Everyone from George Orwell to Vladimir Nabokov to Oprah Winfrey has called it one of the greatest novels, if not the greatest. Robert Byron, whose Road to Oxiana is regularly called the greatest of all travel books, wrote that he recovered from a horrible disease that struck him down in a remote Persian town "mostly because of Anna Karenina, which I had never before read."

Or consider this amazing story about a prisoner in solitary confinement who heard the book tapped out by the man in the next cell, all two million letters, and says that the book "saved him" and cured him of his anger against his wife.

My elder daughter and I wanted to read a classic novel together, and we settled on Anna Karenina as something we both wanted to try. I have just finished, and I am not at all sure what I think.

I expected that the book would be about Anna and her lover Count Vronsky, but it is not. It is about a whole circle of elite Russians, all related by blood or marriage, perhaps a dozen major characters plus assorted acquaintances, servants, horses, dogs (multiple dogs, with different personalities), and others. Anna actually gets a lot less space than some of the others.

The remarkable thing about this assemblage of closely connected, fabulously wealthy Russians is the diversity of their personalities. My favorite of them was Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, or Stiva, a charming, philandering, good-for-nothing spendthrift who treats his government job as an opportunity to socialize with his many, many friends, who all rely on him for recommendations as to what wine to drink or food to serve while enjoying his endless flow of banter. "However much he tried to be a caring father and husband," the narrator tells us, "he could never remember that he had a wife and children."

Most of Anna Karenina is people talking to each other, or else silently brooding. The plot, such as it is, revolves around two couples: Anna and Vronsky, and some cousins of Anna's called Kitty and Levin. Levin is often said to be a stand-in for Tolstoy, sharing the author's spiritual turmoil, love of the countryside, and obsession with the "peasant question," that is, how to organize Russian agriculture after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. But if he is a self-portrait, he is a very modest one, since Levin suffers from a sometimes damaging shyness, inability to understand politics, difficulty explaining his ideas, fits of jealous rage, and other foibles. Kitty - the Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya - is a sweet but rather boring woman, except that she, too, suffers from an inability to trust or speak plainly to her spouse. This makes the scenes of their married life hard to bear. Which brings me to what I see as one of the book's themes: how hard it is for men and women to get along.

Tolstoy seems to me quite good at creating both male and female characters, and I thought he had great insight into women's lives. Among other things this book contains the best literary description of nursing a baby I have ever read. But he has strongly nineteenth-century ideas about how men and women differ. Over and over you see men and women misunderstanding each other, unintentionally slighting each other, flying into rage or collapsing into tears for reasons their spouses cannot fathom. This may perhaps be impressive, but it is one of the many things that make this book not much fun  to read.

Anna's story is this: married to a pedantic older man who cares only about his career, she is bored and emotionally empty. Then she meets the dashing Count Vronsky at a ball, and by the time they are through dancing she is hopelessly in love. At first they carry on a clandestine affair, but eventually she confesses all to her husband and asks for a divorce. This he is reluctant to do, for a shifting array of reasons that include potential damage to his career, trauma for their son, religious scruples, and, it is hinted, a desire to see Anna suffer for her sins. Anna and Vronsky begin living together anyway. But nineteenth-century society being what it was, no society woman can have Anna in her home, and the harsher moralists publicly shame her whenever she tries to go out. At first this only reinforces the couple's devotion to each other, but over time it wears them down. Vronsky wants to be out more with his friends, and begins thinking of a political career, while Anna sinks into depression. Completely dependent on Vronsky, she falls into bitter misery whenever they quarrel, which they do more and more as the sad reality of their status batters at their psychic defenses. Eventually Anna feels herself abandoned and completely alone. The long passage that describes her suicide is an amazing piece of writing, one of the saddest episodes of fiction I know.

So there is much to admire in this book. But, as I said, much of it is rather tedious. People are often absurdly irrational, and I kept wanting to slap them. Some of the scenes vibrate with life, especially those set in the country, but also an evening at a gentleman's club and the ball where Anna and Vronsky began their affair. But much of the world is flat and gray. You get from this book no sense of what Moscow or St. Petersburg was like, despite hundreds of pages set in them. For a while Anna and Vronsky live in Italy, but you get no idea what it would have been like for a Russian aristocrat to live in Italy.  A good half of this book barely held my attention.

But I will say this: Tolstoy could really write about love:
"I didn’t know you were going. What are you coming for?" she said, letting fall the hand with which she had grasped the doorpost. And irrepressible delight and eagerness shone in her face. "What am I coming for?" he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. "You know that I have come to be where you are," he said, "I can’t help it.”

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
The world would be a lot more romantic if lovers could talks to each other like Tolstoy's characters do:
They talk of happiness, but they don't know that without this love there is no happiness or unhappiness for us--there is no life.

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