Monday, August 15, 2011

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Lovers and scholars of Russian literature will skewer me for this, but so be it. It may be heresy, but I truly believe that the terms great and monumental, when applied to Russian novels, refer to the weight of the book.  No, not in intellectual gravity but in kilograms.  (Or kilobytes, in the case of the e-book versions.)  There. I've said it.  So deport me to Siberia, or shoot me.

We all know the central plot of Anna Karenina:  Married woman meets handsome officer, falls head over hoop skirts in love, leaves her boring and officious husband, meets with societal approbation and dies in disgrace. It's a great story line, universally accessible, rich with drama and possibility. 

My gripe is with the snipes.  Tolstoy included two accounts of bird-hunting expeditions in the novel, each one spanning 2-3 chapters.  Fine, they are picturesque scenes of Levin and his hunting companions slogging through marshes at odd hours with their shot-guns and dogs, including detailed accounts of their bagged snipes, ducks, partridges and grouse.  

Levin is Tolstoy's mouthpiece for his own fancies, philosophies and spiritual struggles.  My complaint is not so much with Tolstoy as with his editor.  Anna Karenina becomes, in the end, an almost minor character in her own book, because he's cluttered it up with so much extraneous material.  If an editor had pared off much of the political philosophy, thoughts on peasants and agriculture, musings on religion and spirituality, and the damned duck hunts, there could well have been another few books -- and perfectly fine ones -- just from those trimmings.  Poor Anna nearly drowns in Tolstoy's 'kitchen sink' novel before she gets round to throwing herself under the wheels of the train.  

I find this especially frustrating, because Tolstoy's handling of the central theme -- love and marriage in 19th-century Russia -- to be so strong and insightful without all the clutter. If he felt he needed to provide readers with breaks from the intensity of Anna's drama, he needed only give us a bit of comic relief, as he did here, displaying the typical Russian husband's view of marital fidelity...
Stepan Arkadyevitch was a truthful man in his relations with himself. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct. He could not at this date repent of the fact that he, a handsome, susceptible man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, and only a year younger than himself. All he repented of was that he had not succeeded better in hiding it from his wife. But he felt all the difficulty of his position and was sorry for his wife, his children, and himself. Possibly he might have managed to conceal his sins better from his wife if he had anticipated that the knowledge of them would have had such an effect on her. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.

Well, all right, maybe that was a bit of tragi-comic relief. Stepan Arkadyevitch mourns that his wife, Dolly, is less indulgent than he might hope when it comes to his dalliances, but what else has Dolly to do with her time? Her life exists within the small circle of her immediate family and a handful of lady friends of her own class. One day Dolly bubbles over with pride describing her children's accomplishments to Levin. Moments later, one of the daughters does something slightly naughty, and Dolly collapses into a black funk. Her confined life has robbed her of all perspective.

It was as if darkness had swooped down upon her life; she felt that these children of hers, that she was so proud of, were not merely most ordinary, but positively bad, ill-bred children, with coarse, brutal propensities—wicked children. She could not talk or think of anything else.

Tolstoy's rendering of Anna's infidelity is deep, rich, and timeless. Yes, her passionate affair with Vronsky created more of a scandal in her time than it would today, but the emotions of the participants -- unfaithful wife, lover, and cuckolded husband -- transcend time and place.

The position was one of misery for all three; and not one of them would have been equal to enduring this position for a single day, if it had not been for the expectation that it would change, that it was merely a temporary painful ordeal which would pass over. Alexey Alexandrovitch hoped that this passion would pass, as everything does pass, that everyone would forget about it, and his name would remain unsullied. Anna, on whom the position depended, and for whom it was more miserable than for anyone, endured it because she not merely hoped, but firmly believed, that it would all very soon be settled and come right. She had not the least idea what would settle the position, but she firmly believed that something would very soon turn up now. Vronsky, against his own will or wishes, followed her lead, hoped too that something, apart from his own action, would be sure to solve all difficulties.

And then, as today, love affairs born of great passion tend to go passionately wrong. Anna's ardour turns to poisonous jealousy, and Vronsky wonders how their love could have turned so toxic

These fits of jealousy, which of late had been more and more frequent with her, horrified him, and however much he tried to disguise the fact, made him feel cold to her, although he knew the cause of her jealousy was her love for him. How often he had told himself that her love was happiness; and now she loved him as a woman can love when love has outweighed for her all the good things of life—and he was much further from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow. Then he had thought himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt that the best happiness was already left behind. She was utterly unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over, and in her face at the time when she was speaking of the actress there was an evil expression of hatred that distorted it. He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it. 

With a story like this, who needs 3-chapter duck hunts? I felt the same frustration with The Brothers Karamazov, as Dostoyevsky also tended to wander off onto tangents. Is this simply a characteristic of the classic Russian novel? Should I just give it up and fast-forward to Nabokov, or can someone recommend one of the earlier novels that sticks -- more or less -- to a central plot?

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