Monday, August 3, 2009

What do I have in common with a Russian aristocrat born in 1828?

Maybe more than I think. Leo Tolstoy surprised me with Anna Karenina, in more ways than one. Some reasons for this involve the plot, so if you haven't read it yet and don't want to find out what happens, read not on! Otherwise, by all means, please do.

First of all, the book is named after Anna Karenina. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that she plays the main character, the heroine if you will, of the story. But in typical long-winded fashion, we don't even meet Anna until page 64, and then she dies at the end of Part 7, leaving Part 8 and Constantine Levin (the other main character) to finish out the novel without her.

Secondly, I expected Anna to be racy. You know, the woman that leaves her husband and runs off with another man should have a devil-may-care-attitude. But she doesn't. She's worried about everything: what people will say, not being able to see her son, living "in sin" as a woman separated from her husband but not divorced. She's actually quite miserable for most of the novel. I found myself first excited for her to be happy with Vronsky, then I pitied her when it didn't turn out the way she'd planned, and then I became disgusted and saddened as she sank lower and lower into jealousy and depression. When seen with others' eyes, Anna has a special quality, almost magical, a touch of je ne sais quoi. But when we enter her mind, she's tormented and afraid.

The third reason I was surprised was by the ending. After Anna threw herself under a train, I expected the novel to go downhill from there. I've read other Russian literature, and I steeled myself for the worst case scenario: Vronsky shoots himself, Levin and Kitty's baby dies, Levin is caught up in his faith crisis and hangs himself, Kitty falls apart from grief... etc. But no: Anna and Levin's brother are the only casualties. Levin has a revelation in the end and sorts himself out, and he and Kitty and baby are all set to live happily ever after. True, Vronsky does go away to war with the intention of being killed, but at least he's noble about it.

But the biggest reason I was surprised was because of the connection that I felt at times to Tolstoy and his characters. I was reading the book as a project. I'd picked it up for a dollar at a thrift shop and decided that it was about time that I made my way through it. It felt good to be able to tell my writing group that I was reading Anna Karenina, especially when I learned to say her name right.* That's why I started reading it.

I kept reading it because I wanted to know what happened, because I wanted to say I had read it, and because I never knew when I might find a sentence or two that really clicked with me. Sometimes, in the midst of dense description of what was being eaten at a dinner party, what the table settings were like, what kind of cigars the men were smoking, conversation about Russian farming or some such thing, would be a little nugget of gold, one that Tolstoy nailed home to make a brilliant point about human nature, or the way the world works. Then I would get out my pen and note that passage, shaking my head in amazement at how this Russian nobleman who's been dead for 99 years and I could share something so closely, no matter how trivial it might be.^

Some of my favorites:

[Oblonsky explaining why he sees women on the side]"All the diversity, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shade" (44).

I think that's a very true and very wise statement, although I'm not sure it applies to Oblonsky's situation as well as he thinks it does.

[Levin on his brother's charity work]"... the thought came into his head that this capacity of working for the common welfare, which he felt himself to be completely devoid of, might not be and was not so much a quality as the contrary, a lack of something. It was not a lack of kind, honorable, noble desires and tastes but of some vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse that forces a man to choose, out of the countless ways of life presented to him, just one, and to desire that one alone" (255).

This passage says two things to me: First of all, I often say "In another life I'm a neuroscientist," or a photographer or living in a cabin in the woods or whatever. This is a good reminder that I can't do everything that I want to do, so I have to pick carefully where I decide to spend my time and energy. Secondly, for the past year I've really worked hard at making taking care of myself my first priority, and this quote somehow makes me feel like that's not such a selfish thing to do.

[Levin's thoughts on taking communion in order to get married] "For Levin, as an unbeliever who respected the beliefs of others, being present at and taking part in any church ceremonies was very tiresome. Now, in the softened mood he was in, sensitive to everything, pretense was not only tiresome to him but seemed quite impossible. Now, at the moment of his glory, just as he was bursting into flower, he was supposed to lie or blaspheme! He felt incapable of doing either one or the other. ... he tried to look on it all as an empty formality like paying calls; but he felt that he couldn't do that either.
Like most of his contemporaries, Levin had the most indefinite views about religion. He could not believe, while at the same time he was not completely convinced it was all false. This was why, being incapable of believing in the significance of what he was doing, or of looking on it indifferently as an empty formality, throughout this whole period of fasting he had a feeling of awkwardness and shame, since an inner voice told him it was false and wrong to do something he didn't understand" (468-9).

Levin's feelings about church and Christianity here mirror mine pretty closely. In the past year I've stopped holding onto the faith I grew up with, and although in some ways this has been the best year of my life, it's still disorienting. Being in church often puts me in a situation that I'm not ready to be in at the moment, for precisely the reason that Levin describes: I can't believe, but I can't dismiss it, and so I'm left in an awkward place that I don't understand.

[during a fight in Levin's early days of marriage to Kitty] "It was only now for the first time that he clearly understood what he had been unable to when he had led her out of the church after the wedding. He understood that she was not only close to him but that now he no longer knew where she ended and he began. He realized this because of the agonizing feeling of cleavage he now underwent. At first he felt offended, but that same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, since she was himself. During this first moment he had a feeling such as a man might have when after suddenly receiving a powerful blow from behind, he turns around angrily with a desire for revenge to find his attacker, and discovers that he has unwittingly struck himself, that there is no one to get angry with and that he must endure the pain and soothe it....
Like a man half-asleep and wracked with pain he wanted to tear out and cast away the aching part, and on recovering himself he felt that the aching part was - himself. All he could do was try to relieve the ache and endure it, which is what he did" (515).

I've never experienced this feeling of being one with another person, so much so that I can't be angry at them. But I have felt that way about myself. When what is agonizing you is inside of you and you are incapable of removing it, you feel like you just want to jump out of your skin and run away - but you can't.

[Kitty caring for Levin's dying brother] "There was an excitement and alertness about her which men show before a battle or a struggle, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when a man shows his worth once and for all, and shows that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for such moments" (532).

I've had a few of those moments, and it makes you very glad for all those regular days when you just kept at it. Most importantly, it's good to remember this when you have those uneventful days: you're just storing up your energy and knowledge and resources for the day when you need them.

[Levin explaining why a friend of his couldn't propose to Varenka] "...he's so used to living a purely spiritual life that he can't reconcile himself to reality, and Varenka, after all, is a reality" (598).

I've known people like this. We have to find a way to hold onto our ideals while still engaging in the messiness of life. (Maybe sort of like holding onto a big red balloon while splashing through a mud puddle in rain boots? That sounds like it could be delightful.)

[on the tea time conversation] "Not only was there never a moment it was necessary to hunt for a topic; on the contrary, there was a feeling that one didn't have enough time to say what one wanted to oneself, and one gladly held back to hear what the other was saying" (746).

I've experienced this more often at sleepovers than during tea, but there you go. That is an experience that probably most people can remember having at one point or another. It's this sort of thing that makes me feel like Tolstoy and I would get along.

[during one of Levin's crises of faith] "If I don't accept the answers given by Christianity to the questions of my life, what answers do I accept?" (835)

This is exactly what I am working at figuring out at the moment. I don't think I will come to the same conclusion as Levin, but you never know. Or, it may be a similar conclusion, but explained in different language. I find that the vocabulary one uses is key to understanding thoughts and ideas.

You'll notice that there were no quotes from Anna. I guess her and I don't see eye-to-eye on too many things. I underlined some of what she said, but it didn't make the final cut. I'm glad I don't really find much in common with her, because I actually really pity her. You'll also notice that I talk about these characters like I know them. After 868 pages together, I feel like I do. I've probably spent more time with them than with my own family in the past few months (although, if you've read my last post, I did have some quality time with my family, and it was wonderful). I haven't actually done the calculation on how many hours I've spent reading Anna Karenina. Okay - I just did a rough calculation, and if you don't count the time when my family was here but we were sleeping, I did indeed spend more time with Tolstoy's cast (because I was generally awake while reading the book). One observation I had about those crazy Russians was that every single one of them should have gone to counselling. If they had, the book would have been less tragic, and probably less interesting. But if only Anna had talked to someone before committing suicide, she might not have done it, and actually gotten the support she needed to take charge of her life... I know, sometimes I talk like a counselor. I guess it comes from long-time exposure to them :)

So far, I've only discussed things that you could verify for yourself by picking up any copy of Anna. But part of the reason I love books (and, by extension, working in libraries) is that they're so material. There's something about holding a book in your hands and knowing that everything inside its covers will be revealed to you in good time. Books are so concrete; I like their aesthetic on the shelf, the way they have character, the stories that the stains and spots and tears on their pages tell. So to end off, I want to share a little about my specific copy of Anna Karenina. Being old and crotchety and full of character, at one point during the reading it decided to split itself in half and give me Vol. I and Vol. II. This actually made it considerably more convenient to carry around, but also left me without the distinction of the cover as I read Vol. 2. It split at page 520, not halfway, and not at any particular turning point (Levin and Kitty are simply having a little quarrel over tea).

My very unpretentious paperback copy has been my constant companion for a good chunk of the summer, and I sometimes miss its weight in my hand. It has entertained me, amazed me, bored me, taught me, and most importantly, made me think. Thank you Anna.

PS. I am now reading Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley. Don't worry, I read less intense books too, like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Richard Scarry's Best Little Word Book Ever! (I rescued them from the side of the street and took them home because they remind me of my childhood.) I think I might have to balance all that philosophy out by reading a little Chocolat by Joanne Harris concurrently.

*For the record, it's Anna Ka-REN-in-a. At first I pronounced it to rhyme with "ballerina," but then I was informed by a good source (well, actually on the authority of my source's mother)that this was incorrect. Sometimes I like thinking of Anna as a ballerina though.
^What's even more amazing is that this all comes through in translation. I think translators have a pretty demanding job, and that we don't give them enough credit.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting Mimi, I think I will need to read this book sometime in the future.