Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Books: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

When I first started reading this book, I was doing so at work, online on Project Gutenberg. I got about half through before picking up the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation at the library, and suddenly started reading a lot faster. The Garnett translation on the internet, while perfectly serviceable, gave me a book that was only slightly less tedious than War and Peace, which I fought through with a machete a few years ago (aside: now that I know there is a Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, I might have to read it again. Blast!) But the new translation, free of those strange and clunky anachronisms so common to translated Russian literature, feels "pure" in a way, as if we can read precisely what Tolstoy intended.

This is not to say that the novel doesn't still feel boggy in places; there are lengthy discussions about contemporary politics, the problem of the peasant, what the land-owner's role is in the countryside, and all these do draw out what could otherwise be a two- or three-hundred page romance novel. But there is enough emotion and even anguish, even in these sections having nothing to do with romance, to pull us through. The crises Tolstoy describes are, forgive my cliche, timeless. I could not help identifying with his characters, and developing weirdly strong alliances with some and against others.

Anna, for instance, I loathe. I was rather happy to see her throw herself in front of a train at the end. She's a melodramatic princess, addicted, as so many women are, to constant attention from men. Although her husband is perfectly kind and whole and a good provider (unlike, say, Emma Bovary's husband, Lady Chatterley's husband, or Undine Spragg's husband, although maybe he is a wee bit like Emma Bovary's husband, in the sense that he bores his wife terribly), she allows her head to be turned by the totally unappealing Count Vronsky, who abandons Kitty, the young girl he had previously been courting (luckily for her, because he's plain no good, and would never have married her anyway). Once she's thrown away her entire life for Vronsky, and as good as eloped with him to the countryside, leaving her supposedly beloved son behind, as well as society, which can no longer accept her, she remains neurotic and fretful, constantly worried, in spite of his obvious devotion, that the Count does not love her enough, and that he wants to marry someone else. Her extreme selfishness and lack of responsibility ultimately ruins two men's lives, three if you include that of her son (and why not add another for the daughter she has with Vronsky, for which she doesn't care at all?)

Karenin, her husband, I feel a deeply sorrowful sympathy for; his love and his trust blind him to Anna's affair at first (and perhaps some complacency, although the demarcation between trust and complacency is sometimes difficult to distinguish), and once she tells him about it (in a rather mean-spirited way, I would say), he still forgives her, even gives her free reign to do as she pleases so long as she does not disturb the household, his business. What the man lacks in passion, he makes up for with the more important prudence, and incredibly generosity.

But Karenin is not Tolstoy's ideal man (nor is, of course, the clownish cad Vronsky). Konstantin Levin, who marries Kitty after Vronsky abandons her, is the epitome of prudence, generosity, responsibility, intellect, and depth of soul. Here is a man who perhaps worries too much, is too self-conscious, and so has trouble with society's empty and expensive customs. But in the country, on his farm, he works alongside the peasants at cutting the hay. He is able to silence the raging philosophical questions inside his head by working harder (yes, like the poor horse in Animal Farm). His realization at the end of the novel is worth quoting: "When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely." Perhaps if Anna had the opportunity to work on the farm herself, or in fact do anything laborious at all, she wouldn't have been so ripe for distraction.

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