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Анна Каренина (Anna Karenina) by Lev Tolstoy Tom Send a noteboard - 26/10/2011 03:21:35 PM
Despite having majored in the Russian Language and Literature in undergrad, and despite having read most of the “classics” of Russian literature, there are nonetheless some notable works of Russian literature that I have not read. Anna Karenina stood out as perhaps the most inexcusable item on that list, and so I decided to remedy that gap in my Russian literary knowledge.

Of course, I knew the general story and had watched the 1967 movie with Samoilova, but I knew that watching an adaptation of a Tolstoy novel was a far cry from reading a Tolstoy novel. War and Peace can never be properly put into a cinematic format, any more than Doctor Zhivago can (both the 1965 David Lean film and the more recent Russian miniseries are quite far off the mark, although in radically different ways). Well-written prose cannot be expressed in a different medium, and Tolstoy is a master of well-written prose.

Despite knowing that Tolstoy’s aesthetic qualities as an author are near the peak of literary achievement, I still approach Tolstoy’s novels with more reticence than I would the work of any other Russian writer because I find his political views to be nauseating. His almost obsequious reverence for the simple Russian peasant was an overreaction to the coarse disregard of the Russian government and many in the aristocracy, to be sure. When compared to conservative aristocratic views on the peasantry, it certainly looks more attractive. I cannot, however, fail to draw the parallel between this sort of adoration of the peasantry and the misguided notion that uneducated peasants or factory workers had the wherewithal to run an entire nation. As Bulgakov had Professor Preobrazhensky note in his brilliant novella Собачье Сердце (Heart of the Dog), people who the day before were sweeping the trolley tracks were taking on problems of global scope and with global stupidity.

Tolstoy’s philosophical musings beyond the realm of politics were even more erratic and, particularly from a modern standpoint, repulsive. Anyone who has read War and Peace will be familiar with Tolstoy’s opinions on a wife’s duties based on the portrait of Natasha Rostova from the epilogue. As a result, I was less than enthusiastic about reading Anna Karenina, a novel that clearly had much more to say about family life, spousal duty and, presumably, Tolstoy’s antediluvian views on the same.

The book was generally a masterpiece. While I cannot say that all of my fears were unfounded, my worst fears were for naught. The book was surprisingly tightly written for a 936-page novel, although this was not apparent for the first few hundred pages. Only after reading roughly half of the book did I come to appreciate how every last word was making a point.

While he touches on a wide variety of issues in society, religion and philosophy, Tolstoy seems to have made two general points in the novel. The first is a tired and cliché statement about human society that finds its roots in the Bible, though it is more at home in the austere Protestant culture than the mystical Russian Orthodox tradition. Tolstoy goes to great lengths to contrast the inherent goodness of nature and the inherent decay and evil of cities. All of his lyrical descriptions apply to natural landscapes, and he devotes one particularly extended interlude to a hunting trip. Another notable event of this sort is the famous (at least in Russia) series of chapters devoted to Konstantin Levin’s cutting hay with a scythe alongside the peasants that he, a nobleman, used to own and who still pay rent to him. Tolstoy believed the old saying that idle hands are the devil’s tools, and in particular believed that manual labor was spiritually as well as physically healthy.

Everything the city touches, on the other hand, is bad in one way or another. The falseness of high society, Anna’s affair with Vronsky, Stiva Oblonsky’s numerous affairs – all reflect a decay and evil that comes from the removal of people from nature and the removal of nature from people. All of the negative personalities are expressed as essentially idle people. When Anna and Vronsky move to the country to get away from the judgment of society, they bring a level of style and excess that defeats the point of the countryside, at least the way Tolstoy describes it. Vronsky’s only saving grace is that he starts to occupy himself with building a hospital, while Anna simply assumes that he will take care of everything, including making sure that their guests are properly accommodated and that dinners are properly planned.

The second major point of the novel is the expression of Tolstoy’s views on marriage and fidelity. It is clear that Konstantin Levin, the character that is based primarily on Tolstoy himself, serves as the ideal of marital bliss. Reading about Levin is at times irritating, insofar as Levin’s relationship is idealized. Levin and Kitty have the perfect wedding. Even their quarrels are insignificant. Their baby is born without complications. Everything is predictable and happy. Kitty shows on numerous occasions that she is the perfect wife, even helping Levin through the tragedy of his brother’s death from consumption (which occurs in the only chapter of the book to bear a title, that title being simply “Death”).

Kitty and Levin are faithful, loving and happy, and even though at times their relationship may seem too perfect, I can forgive Tolstoy for this situation because he needs to contrast their relationship with other, less happy arrangements.

Infidelity is shown in two different fashions: the infidelity of Stiva Oblonsky that opens the novel, and the infidelity of his sister, Anna, which dominates the rest of it. In this, Tolstoy makes an odd distinction between Oblonksy’s affairs and Anna’s affair. The first is a man’s purely physical dalliance with serving girls, nannies hired for his children and the like, and Tolstoy seems to show that, although this may be frowned upon from a moral standpoint, it is not destructive. A case in point:

Мужчина должен быть мужествен – сказал Облонский, отворяя ворота.
То есть что же? Пойти ухаживать за дворовыми девками? – спросил Левин.
Отчего же не пойти, если весело. Ça ne tire pas à conséquence. Жене моей от этого не хуже будет, а мне будет весело. Главное дело – блюди святыню дома. В доме чтобы ничего не было. А рук себе не завязывай.
– Part Six, Chapter XI.

A man should be a man – said Oblonsky, opening the gates.
Meaning what? Go and chase after peasant girls? – asked Levin.
Why not, if it’s fun? That doesn’t bring any consequences. There’s no harm to my wife from that and it will be fun for me. The most important thing is to maintain the sanctity of the home. There shouldn’t be any of that at home. But don’t tie your hands.
(my loose translation)

Later on, Stiva’s wife, Dolly, who at the very beginning of the novel was considering leaving him when evidence of his dalliance with a young girl fell into her possession, admits that he is cheating on her constantly and calls him her отвратительный, жалкий и милый муж – her disgusting, pathetic and dear husband.

This “European” view of infidelity (though perhaps it’s unfair to characterize it as such) is something that I might have expected from a fin-de-siècle or modern French writer, but not from someone as pedantically religious as Tolstoy. Perhaps he felt that his general contempt of urban aristocrats was expressed clearly enough that he didn’t need to say any more about this sort of infidelity, or that it was just another symptom of a general decay but not a fatal one. It could also be, knowing Tolstoy’s misogyny, a way of expressing the notion that men know better and wouldn’t let a relatively harmless thing like a fling get out of hand. It is hard to say whether this double standard is something Tolstoy approves of, disapproves of or cares neither way about. It is also difficult to say, knowing his despotic thoughts regarding marriage, if Tolstoy feels that male infidelity is by its nature physical, and female infidelity is by its nature emotional and spiritual, or whether he is contrasting two different types of infidelity regardless of the sex of the unfaithful spouse.

One thing is clear, however: Anna’s affair with Vronsky, filled with love and deeper meaning than Stiva’s chasing girls for short-term sexual encounters, is a deadly poison infecting everything with which it comes into contact. Anna forsakes her husband and, worse, her son, in order to pursue an illicit affair, and even when she has a child with Vronsky, she doesn’t love the little girl as much as she loves the son she lost, reflecting a situation that is deeply unfair to both children.

Interestingly enough, Vronsky comes across as a fairly sympathetic character from start to finish. He puts up with all of Anna’s increasingly erratic moods (probably exacerbated from abusing opium) and remains faithful to a woman who has helped to ruin his life in many ways, at one point even attempting suicide. It is clear that the fault, in Tolstoy’s mind, rests on Anna.

One of the reasons that I wanted to read Anna Karenina was because I recently read Madame Bovary, and it seems to me that Tolstoy was inspired to write his novel by Flaubert, just as I suspect he wrote War and Peace in response to Hugo’s Les Misérables (looking at a timeline, it is clear Tolstoy started writing War and Peace shortly after the release of Les Misérables, which lends credence to the notion regarding those two books at least). While Tolstoy’s echo of Hugo’s work is much stronger than the original, I think that Anna Karenina is only able to match Flaubert’s novel in terms of its aesthetic and cultural value. This is as much a compliment to Flaubert and Tolstoy as it is a slight to Hugo and a way of saying, in short, that both novels are among the best ever written.

As with many other great novels, knowing the end, or even the entire plot, of the story doesn’t ruin the enjoyment that one can get from reading the book. Stylistically and aesthetically, the novel is a pleasure. While there were a few dull moments here and there, I found them to be mercifully short, and the pace quickened again after a chapter or two. I am glad that, unlike most Russian schoolchildren, I did not read Anna Karenina in school or college. I think that the message of the book is one that can only be properly appreciated by an adult who is or has been married, or at least in a very long-term relationship. Younger readers simply will not be able to appreciate many of the nuances of the novel. Having said that, I would still not discourage anyone of any age from reading the book if they are so inclined.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Анна Каренина (Anna Karenina) by Lev Tolstoy - 26/10/2011 03:21:35 PM 6236 Views
It's a nice book - 26/10/2011 06:04:48 PM 731 Views
i've read a (tiny) bit of russian literature, but war and peace was a struggle - 28/10/2011 09:56:17 PM 818 Views
War and Peace is a different animal. - 29/10/2011 05:11:02 AM 657 Views
I loved this. I didn't expect to, but it is beautifully written. - 30/10/2011 10:32:09 AM 705 Views
I think this was the first Tolstoy I read. - 31/10/2011 09:51:18 AM 800 Views
So do you think Tolstoy is comparing male infidelity and female infidelity? - 31/10/2011 01:03:41 PM 683 Views
That was how I read it - 31/10/2011 01:21:25 PM 771 Views

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