November 1, 2012

Anna Karenina

If someone's considered a master, there's usually a good reason. I had my doubts with Tolstoy, never having felt the slightest desire to read his novels. But with the movie adaptation of Anna Karenina coming up, I knew my number was up and I'd have to crack its (metaphorical) enormous binding and get to work.

For the first few chapters, work is what it was. Slow, odd, unfocused. But as in so many great novels, a slow start means that the author is carefully building a world whose foundation can be tedious to work through but that eventually results in a damn impressive structure.

Anna Karenina seems to me now like a bridge between Dickens and Woolf. Like Dickens, who wrote slightly earlier than him, Tolstoy provides a panorama of society, if not as broad as Dickens's then still wide. Like Woolf, who wrote after him, he carefully portrays the interior life of his characters, often on a moment-by-moment basis. I don't know if Tolstoy was the creator of the stream-of-consciousness technique, but I can't think of anyone earlier. And he uses that particular third-person omniscient narration in which the narrative style changes with the character being dealt with; it's third person with essentially a first-person perspective or focus.

Tolstoy must be one of the first to create such ambivalent personalities in his work. No one is wholly good, no one wholly bad. It's not a matter of a good character who has a flaw or a bad character who has a redeeming feature. Everyone is completed riddled through with flaws and virtues that roil within them at every moment, completely intertwined. Levin has sincerity but his emotions are out of control; his moods turn on a dime, the slightest perceived insult sending him into a tailspin. He'll walk away angry at some slight, but also angry at himself for being angry, hating that he lets these things get to him. An hour later he'll catch a glimpse of the injuring party, see him do something nice, and think, "What was I thinking? He's a perfectly nice fellow and I was unbearably rude to him." Then he's in a shame spiral (the first shame spiral in all of literature?) and desperate to see the person again so he can make it up. The same can be said of bon vivants like Oblonsky, who are easy to hold in disdain for their frivolity. Then you see them making peace between other parties, deftly managing the tempers of the more difficult souls among them, making the standoffish and the querulous feel welcome and at home, and you think, thank you goodness there are such people in the world.

What most impressed me in Anna Karenina, though, was Tolstoy's deep penetration into the world of women. If there's another male novelist of his time who gives women the dignity of such sustained attention, I don't know who it is. He expresses their values with warmth and respect, and he portrays the  injustice of their position. You see this in, for example, Levin's ignorance of his new wife's needs:

"He ought, as he conceived the position, to do his work, and to find repose from it in the happiness of love. She ought to be beloved, and nothing more. But, like all men, he forgot that she too would want work."

And you see it in passages like this next one, again addressing Levin's lack of understanding of his young wife, who is setting up house away from her parents for the first time. I have to chuckle thinking how this passage is likely to evoke arguments that are still being fought today regarding domesticity. Is our supposed love of linens and dishware and pretty things a sign of our deepest values (the importance of home)? Or is it a sign of our brainwashing? Or is it not even real but instead a false story that society tells about us? Whatever you think, Tolstoy gets into the head of women and sees their domestic concerns as dignified and important:

"He did not know how great a sense of change she was experiencing; she, who at home had sometimes wanted some favorite dish, or sweets, without the possibility of getting either, now could order what she liked, buy pounds of sweets, spend as much money as she liked, and order any puddings she pleased. She was dreaming with delight now of Dolly's coming to them with her children, especially because she would order for the children their favorite puddings and Dolly would appreciate all her new housekeeping. She did not know herself why and wherefore, but the arranging of her house had an irresistible attraction for her. Instinctively feeling the approach of spring, and knowing that there would be days of rough weather too, she built her nest as best she could, and was in haste at the same time to build it and to learn how to do it."

Anna Karenina is not really about Anna Karenina. Anna ends up with the most sketchy psychology of all the characters. Her opposition to divorce feels forced, like she opposes it simply because the plot needs her to. And the weed-like growth of her neurotic attitude toward Vronsky in the second half of the novel doesn't seem in keeping with her earlier psychology. She's Tolstoy's patsy, sacrificed for the greater good. The novel is really centered on Levin, who was Tolstoy's Mary Sue. Always struggling, always trying to do his best and right his (frequent) wrongs, the world is a tough place to be for Levin. I loved the expositions of his depressive tendencies, which made me laugh with recognition:

"I do value my idea and my work awfully; but in reality only consider this: all this world of ours is nothing but a speck of mildew, which has grown up on a tiny planet. And for us to suppose we can have something great--ideas, work--it's all dust and ashes."

"I consider my idea very important, but it turns out really to be as unimportant too, even if it were carried out, as doing for that bear. So one goes on living, amusing oneself with hunting, with work--anything so as not to think of death!"

Poor Levin. But he's saved by love and his determination to do better next time. We should all be so lucky.

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