100 Novels: #91. Anna Karenin

I had promised to offer some thoughts on my list of the 100 novels literate people should read, but like all good intentions here, time slowly erodes the ability to perform.

I had not planned on dealing with Tolstoy’s masterpiece so soon. In fact, the later it was pushed back the better, because, after all, how can anyone formulate something interesting to say about such a near perfect work of art? Rather than essay a futile task, better to postpone it.

I was forced to change my mind when I saw a trailer of a movie version, by Tom Stoppard, starring Keira Knightley. I have not come to praise this film. Tom Stoppard, however, is probably the person best suited to turing the novel into a movie, and Knightley certainly appears like one would imagine Anna. The trailer has some of the feel of the novel, and you can see hints of all the great scenes with steam locomotive, ice skating, the famous ball, etc. The language also seems to come right out of Tolstoy’s mouth (via Constance Garnett). But I am not suggesting you see it. In fact, if you have not read the novel, I plead that you not see it before you do so.

And this should be a spur for you to read it right away.

Reading the novel is one of the experiences you should not deprive yourself of. The hard bopper Art Blakey used to say at the end of his sets, “Tell your square friends to check this out before leaving the planet.” That advice is definitely true of Anna Karenin. (I use the form of her last name used by the her husband, because some translators Anglicize it this way, and because we are unused to having the husband’s and wife’s last names differ, even by the added -a.) Reading it for the first time is an enveloping experience. The two main story lines slowly unfurl down different lines with the pace of inevitability. The more famous of the lines (because who could deny priority to a character whose black curls lying on her neck are as lovingly described as here) become dreadful in its certainty, just like all truly mythic stories.

So why not just get it over with in a couple of hours while watching Knightley? Well, because the essence of the novel is the author’s ability to portray the interior of characters. Movies can’t do that. And in this case, though the story is compelling in itself, one can’t ignore how the great artist portrays the inner lives of the characters.

Even the scenes known so well by Tolstoyites that just the name of them brings up wells of memories: the ice rink, the race track, the ball, the train station, all these are visualized not because Tolstoy describes the picture like a camera, but because he illuminates the characters’ souls so perfectly that we can populate the scenes with the physical props by ourselves. The bashfullness of Levin, for example, at the ice rink is so perfectly drawn that we don’t need details about the furs worn by the women, the boots of the men and how the rink physically appeared. All of that is more or less irrelevant. But in the movie that will be what is shown.

By the time Tolstoy wrote this book, he was a master of psychological understatement. The scenes are drawn with humanizing subtlety. Take, for example, when Levin goes to visit his impoverished, bohemian brother. His woman companion is described with empathy. Tolstoy saw no need to emphasize the urban pathology that Dostoevsky dwelled on. And yet, the clash of cultures could not be better explained. In fact, all the major characters emphasize a specific aspect of the socio-economic problems of the professional and aristocratic classes. But the book is no manifesto, merely a couple of moral tales taking place in a three-dimensional jungle that was late nineteenth century Russia.

I have in another post described how Tolstoy artfully introduces new characters, organically:

Characters are introduced, not by an assessment but rather simply as they come in contact.  Their personalities become apparent in their relationships.  In fact, the entire story is largely propelled by the handing off of one character to another, much like an elaborate partner trade in square dancing.

The characters gradually populate the tale to the point that stories begin to have increasing lengths, which grow and intertwine. And all this happens under an overall architecture where symbols, like trains, associate with internal crisis points. This great cathedral is described by the opening biblical aphorism: “Vengeance is Mine.” But the steps to damnation and salvation are so small, we have to pay close attention to see what path is being taken.

Anna is truly one of the great tragic figures in all Western art. Like Milton’s Satan in how she pays for violating divine rules, but a hero motivated not by ego or willfulness but by tender passion. And she pays out of proportion to her crime. Levin achieves something like salvation, although it is never certain and not something that brings ecstasy, by being truer, emptied of driving selfishness, and too willing to believe his ardor defeated. Is that the moral? And what of Count Vronsky? Is he spared grand suffering because he is hollow or does he truly understand the destruction he is bringing down?

Tolstoy was on the edge of giving up art to become a moral thinker. This work happily sees his power as both artist and moralist. In both he is subtle. It is a subtlety that brings one back over and over to the text. It cannot be captured on film, which is why there have been so many attempts.

This abridged and unfocused look at the novel deserves additional thought, which I hope to give later, after we look at some of the other 100 novels.

  1. July 2nd, 2012

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