Why Anna Karenina, you might ask. And well you might. Since Writer Working musings are most often dialogues between me and myself, and the “you” is merely another aspect of the “I” that pervades all thought, conscious and un, I guess I’m wondering about myself to myself. Or something.
The first answer is my recent commitment to essay a classic or two a year, and A.K. melds well into my very satisfactory excursion into Golgol a year or two ago, and a highly impressive encounter with The Death of Ivan Illyich not long after. Second, it’s one of that plethora of workswhich I’ve read so much about that I almost think I’ve read the damn thing when, of course, I have never cracked the cover. So, wandering the bookstore shelves at Diesel, bereft of current reading, library closed, and none of my modern choices immediately available, Anna fell lovingly (and cheaply) into my hands.
For all his fame for epic and length, Tolstoy is a remarkably plain-spoken writer. Translator Joel Carmichael frames the matter this way:
Tolstoy represents par excellence … the profound and well-known distinction between art and artfulness, summed up in a quotation from Goethe he was fond of: art is bad when “you see the intent and get put off.” In Tolstoy one is unaware of the intent, and sees only the thing itself.
I coincidentally ran across some comments from the narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year to somewhat the same effect:
In the novel, the voice that speaks the first sentence, then the second, and so onward—call it the voice of the narrator—has to begin with no authority at all. Authority must be earned. On the novelist author lies the onus to build up, out of nothing, such authority. No one is better a at building up authority than Tolkstoy. In this sense of the word, Tolstoy is the exemplary7 aurthor. Tolstoy;s story telling [seems] so natural, that is to say, conceals its rhetorical artistry so well. [Great authors are not necessarily great thinkers,] but they are masters of authority.
And there are in these thousand pages legions of scenes such as this one:
All the women had gathered together on the balcony. They generally liked to sit there after dinner anyhow, but today there was some work to do as well. Aside from the sewing of little shirts, and the knitting of swaddling bands, which they were all busy with, some jam was being made there according to a method that was novel to Miss
Agatha, without adding any water.
We then get a complete description of the jam-making. Much in the same way that Moby Dick can, in addition to being a great novel, serve also as a handbook for the history and methods of nineteenth-century cetology, Anna Karenina operates as a guide to Russian philosophy, agriculture, class distinctions, sartorial fashion (both military and civilian), government, politics, and more. Yet nearly every passage, however, lengthy and detailed, is tied intimately to the character of some individual or group and bolsters the narrative as well.
Occasionally the Count sounds one of those omniscient pronouncements such as the famous one that begins the book, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or, much later on, “For anything to be undertaken in a household, what is essential is either total discord between husband and wife or loving harmony. When their relationships are vague … it is impossible to do anything at all.” He goes on to prove his point through the conduct of the households at hand and thus gives his statement the power of aphorism. Delicious. Just the kind of thing you want from a big thick 1880’s tome.
Just as delicious, though less believable for yours truly, are the host of melodramatic romantic conventions that have people of both sexes blushing in embarrassment or anger or whatever intense emotion is appropriate to the scene. Sometimes they choose instead to swoon with shock, or fall ill for days, weeks, months when confronted with life-crises such as unrequited love, betrayal of a friendship, or societal snubs. Of course, Tolstoy’s people can afford to get sick and/or hide out for extended periods because their class and finances allow them the luxury. Despite his endearing pretense of concern for the peasants, it’s the upper classes about and for whom he writes, and his attitude toward the simple people drips of condescension and ignorance. But aren’t the rich folks people also, and don’t they deserve their day in the court of fiction? You bet.
So what, aside from this collection of sociological, historical, and literary tidbits did I take away from Anna Karenina? For one, a big surprise. Anna is not really the main character. She’s the title character, and her actions set in motion most of the actions of the plot. But the novel that bears her name is one that is about the search for meaning in life, and the person who searches most energetically and persistently and, indeed, successfully, is Levin. Anna herself fails completely to make sense of any part of her life. She follows her powerful and capricious emotions from one extreme to another without apparently any ability to learn or change from the huge mistakes she makes, the people she hurts, or the turmoil she causes. In one sense, she can be seen as a rebel against societal convention, but she makes no systematic attack on the mores or the people who represent them. She spasmodically defies social standards, then mourns the results of her opposition. Tolstoy does a remarkable job of taking us into her inner life (as he does for each of his main characters), so that we follow the progress of her thoughts and emotions believably even if we do not fully understand her actions or feelings. When she commits her final, irrevocable act, we think she would have probably relented had she waited a couple of hours for the depression to clear. I suppose that’s true of most suicides, as well as of her lover, Vronsky’s, attempt earlier in the text.
In the end, I believe the reader gets a bonus. On one hand, there’s an epic story of a beautiful, fascinating, and tragic woman; on the other a parallel tale of a man devoted to his land and to ideals of purity and spirituality, ideals which, despite his deficient intellect, he pursues, and arguably attains because of his refusal to quit searching and his determination to be and do good even though he disappoints himself continuously.
So A.K., was an extended and worthy expedition, and the answer to the Why? It’s there, it’s been there, and it’s stayed for reasons far beyond the assignment habits of the academics.