Reading “Anna Karenina”

I put off Tolstoy's novel for years, but I finally had to find out: Is it truly one of the greatest books ever written?

Topics: Fiction, Books,

Reading "Anna Karenina"

When you wait as long as I did to read “Anna Karenina” for the first time — I’ll be 50 in August — there’s no way you can come to it without any preconceptions. For one thing, I already knew the famous first line (“All happy families are alike,” blah blah blah), and for another, I already knew how it ends (Anna, train). And I had a rough idea of what happens in between — that the title character is a beautiful Russian aristocrat who leaves her chilly, older husband for the dashing Count Vronsky, and that their scandalous love affair is juxtaposed with the fraught courtship and marriage of the anxious Levin and the innocent young Kitty. I knew that Levin was basically Tolstoy, and that Tolstoy, like Levin, was torn his whole life between the profane and the sacred. And I knew from the very first time I ever hefted a copy that “Anna Karenina” is a really, really long book.

So I’d never quite gotten around to it. I had an old Signet edition for years, back when Signets had tissuey pages and smudgy type, and a few years back I read the first 50 pages or so on an airplane. The main thing I took away from that attempt, though, was the realization that I needed bifocals. Then, last year, my agent, who was just about to publish his own first novel, told me that “Anna Karenina” was his favorite book, and I promised him I’d read it for sure, along with his.

“Read mine first,” he said. “I don’t want you reading my book after you’ve just read Tolstoy.”

In the meantime that fat, smudgy Signet had vanished, so I bought a new copy, a World’s Classic from Oxford, a stout little hardcover. But the print in that one was too small even for bifocals, and finally I invested in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation from Penguin — it’s Oprah-rific! — and a brand new pair of reading glasses. And just last month I settled into my sofa, worked out the proper distance to hold the damn book from my geriatric new glasses, and started reading.

And wouldn’t you know it, this particular new experience, like everything else that’s new in midlife, has turned out to be both predictably melancholy and unexpectedly rewarding. Melancholy, because that pure joy of discovering a great novel on your own (the way I discovered “Lord Jim” when I was 10 years old) is greatly diluted by the fact that I’m denied the simple narrative pleasure of not knowing how the story turns out. And there’s another reason: Just as you’ll never fall in love again the way you did the first time, you’ll never read a great novel at 49 in the wholehearted way you would have read it at 20, if only because so much life, and so many books, have happened in the meantime. The younger me would have been more credulous, perhaps, would have taken the novel’s reputation as a masterpiece — maybe even as the masterpiece — at face value. The younger Jim would perhaps have read the book more meticulously than the older Jim just did, especially those long and frankly tedious passages where Levin — who has to be the most painfully self-conscious character in literature; he makes Stephen Daedalus seem like Mike Hammer — agonizes over, I dunno, the Slavic question, whatever that is. Jim Jr. at least would have paid closer attention to the footnote explaining exactly what the Slavic question is, while Jim Sr. just sighed and peeked ahead to see how many pages there were before we got back to Anna and the good stuff (and I say this as a Slav — I’m half Serbian).

The older me is a little more world-weary and streetwise: OK, Mr. Big Shot, Mr. Canonical Masterpiece, Mr. Greatest Fucking Novel Ever Written — what makes you so hot? Bring it on. And here’s the rewarding part — you saw this coming, right? — the rewarding part is that the book does bring it, after all. I don’t believe in fate, and I don’t even believe that you’re meant to read certain books at certain points in your life, but I do believe that you have to be ready for a great book if it comes along. The younger me might have read the more pedantic passages of “Anna Karenina” more meticulously, but he would have read the magnificent set pieces of domestic life with less understanding than I did.

When he wasn’t shaking his finger at the reader about God or the Slavic question, Tolstoy was a brilliant and effortlessly confident dramatist, creating scene after magnificent scene in that attractively declarative 19th century style, in which infinitely detailed and subtle evocation of the tiniest gesture or glance (the envy of any contemporary novelist) is seamlessly interwoven with plain-spoken exposition of hard psychological truths. The book is full of heart-stopping set pieces: Vronsky riding his race horse to death as Anna watches; Levin mowing hay all day with the peasants on his estate, and then staying up all night on a haystack to ponder his life; Levin and Kitty caring for Levin’s consumptive brother in his final days. My favorite, though, is a little episode about two minor characters, Kitty’s spinsterish friend Varenka and Levin’s scholarly half-brother Sergei Ivanovich, whom everyone, including Varenka and Sergei Ivanovich, thinks would make a perfect match. But in a heartbreaking and bitterly honest scene set in the woods on Levin’s estate, they come to the brink of passion but no further:

To be the wife of a man like [Sergei Ivanovich]… seemed to her the height of happiness. Besides, she was almost certain she was in love with him. And now it was to be decided. She was frightened. Frightened that he would speak, and that he would not.

He had to declare himself now or never; Sergei Ivanovich felt it, too. Everything in Varenka’s gaze, colour, lowered eyes, showed painful expectation. Sergei Ivanovich saw it and pitied her. He felt that to say nothing now would be to insult her. In his mind he quickly repeated his arguments in favor of his decision. He also repeated to himself the words in which he wished to express his proposal; but instead of those words, by some unexpected consideration that occurred to him, he suddenly asked:
     ”And what is the difference between a white boletus and a birch boletus?”
     ”Varenka’s lips trembled as she answered:
     ”There’s hardly any difference in the caps, but in the feet.”

And as soon as these words were spoken, both he and she understood that the matter was ended …

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is fucking brilliant. Tolstoy was never the fastidious stylist that, say, Flaubert was, and the prose here, at least in translation, is plain-spoken to the point of gracelessness. But the psychological insight is so acute and subtle — Varenka is “almost certain” she loves him; Sergei Ivanovich is more afraid of hurting her feelings than winning her heart — and Tolstoy’s attitude is so calmly honest and compassionate, that it’s not like you’re reading this harrowing and humiliating moment, but you’re living it. Sergei Ivanovich (or Varenka, for that matter), c’est moi.

The greatest set piece, though, is the climactic one, the sequence leading up to Anna’s famous suicide under the wheels of a freight train. For five breathless chapters, as Anna convinces herself, erroneously, that Vronsky loves someone new and careens about Moscow looking for him, Tolstoy inhabits her feverish consciousness nearly as deeply as Virginia Woolf inhabits Mrs. Dalloway’s, or (perhaps more apropos) as Joyce inhabits that more carefree adulteress, Molly Bloom. With the same sturdy prose, we look through Anna’s eyes as the streets of Moscow pass her carriage window and she imposes her frenzy on everything she sees. A fat man raises his hat to her, thinking he knows her, then realizes his mistake:

‘He thought he knew me. And he knows me as little as anyone else in the world knows me. I don’t know myself. I know my appetites, as the French say. Those two want that dirty ice cream. That they know for certain,’ she thought, looking at two boys who had stopped an ice-cream man, who was taking the barrel down from his head and wiping his sweaty face with the end of a towel. We all want something sweet, tasty. If not candy, then dirty ice cream. And Kitty’s the same: if not Vronsky, then Levin. And she envies me. And hates me. We all hate each other. I Kitty, Kitty me. That’s the truth.’

No she said no I won’t No — it’s a sequence, in fact, that blows apart any facile dichotomy between the loose bagginess of the 19th century novel and the intense inner focus of the modernists, reminding this reader, anyway, that the history of the novel is organic, an evolution, not a hierarchy.

It’s a critical commonplace by now that Tolstoy the philosopher manqui was at odds with Tolstoy the peerless artist, and that “Anna Karenina” represents a tug of war between the brilliantly dramatized scenes of domestic life and warfare, and Tolstoy’s passionate, if tendentious working out of his own spiritual dilemma through the character of Levin. Of course, I’m being a little glib, it’s more complicated than that. At the heart of every great novel is a mystery, or, if you prefer, a contradiction. At the heart of “Ulysses” is the paradox that Joyce fled Dublin, never to return, and then spent his whole life reconstructing the place brick by brick in his imagination. There are a number of mysteries at the heart of “Anna Karenina,” but perhaps the greatest one lies in the heart of its author.

You don’t need to know a thing about Tolstoy’s biography to understand that he was a profoundly sensual man who at the same time yearned to reject the material world and be spiritually pure; this struggle is indelibly etched on every page of “Anna Karenina.” Perhaps no one understood this struggle better than Vladimir Nabokov, not just because he was a great novelist himself, but because he was also a Russian. “What one would like to do,” Nabokov writes in “Lectures on Russian Literature,” “would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under [Tolstoy's] sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper — far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.” But in the same passage, Nabokov allows that “the thing cannot be done: Tolstoy is homogeneous, is one,” and the “truth which he was ponderously groping for or magically finding just around the corner, was always the same truth — the truth was he and this he was an art.”

If I wanted to be criminally glib here, I could boil this down to the workshop truism that it’s all about the process, dude. But I don’t think that’s what Nabokov meant, and it’s certainly not what Tolstoy’s life and work meant. As this middle-aged novelist (and I’m the same age as Tolstoy was when he published “Anna Karenina”) struggles up off the couch and takes off his aggravating reading glasses and returns to work on his own novel, he’s faced with the fact that the author of the greatest novel on the greatest conundrum in human experience — flesh vs. spirit, profane vs. sacred, whatever — finally decided that writing novels was downright sinful and immoral. For what it’s worth, Jim the philosopher manqui (and I have the useless B.A. to prove it) thinks Tolstoy was wrong about that, and that what Nabokov is really saying is, don’t listen to what Tolstoy said about art, look at what he did, at the magnificent art he created. For that matter, I don’t have to look any further than my agent, who, with the towering example of “Anna Karenina” before him, turned around and wrote a first-rate thriller (“The Icon,” by Neil Olson. Check it out).

At the climax of “Anna Karenina,” Anna’s final moment is represented as the extinguishing of a candle, “by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil,” and one last time it flares up, “brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.” Any reader who finishes that passage and isn’t weeping doesn’t have a heart. And any writer, no matter what his age or her ambition, who finishes that passage and isn’t inspired to at least reach for that level of grace and subtlety and truth — who isn’t inspired, in other words, to keep Anna’s flame, and “Anna Karenina’s,” burning a little longer — well, that writer hasn’t been paying attention.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

James Hynes lives in Austin, Texas. His latest novel is "Kings of Infinite Space."

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