Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoyon January 13th, 2013
There we are: only 12 days into the year, and I’ve already read Anna Karenin from cover to cover.
The Reading Experience
Now, I don’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I had a lot of time on my hands (particularly due to missed flights and hanging around airports and having to sit out in the sun for long periods in foreign countries); and I feel if I hadn’t had so much time, it would have taken me about a year to read. I would, no doubt – as in the case of Tristram Shandy – have given up in the middle for a long time, finding it all a bit much; and perhaps after, I’d have come back to it refreshed and enjoyed it. Because the truth is, I wasn’t all that taken with Anna Karenin. Plodding on and on, it seemed to me a flabby mess of a book – not at all “the world’s greatest novel”, as it claims on the back.
Unity of Action
At times, during my reading of Anna Karenin, I found myself thinking of a passage from Aristotle’s Poetics, which turned out to be the following:
In composing his Odyssey, [Homer] did not put in everything that happened to Odysseus – that he was wonded on Mount Parnassus, for example, or that he feigned madness at the time of the call to arms, for it was not a matter of necessity or probability that either of these incidents should have led to the other; on the contrary, he constructed the Odyssey round a single action of the kind I have spoken of, and he did this wih the Iliad too.
Or perhaps it wasn’t that part precisely, but the section dealing with Unity of Action (Plot, if you will), in which he argues that each piece of the work of art should be perfectly and classically placed to contribute to the whole; there should be nothing superfluous. Not, of course, that I am against superfluity as a means towards art (see Tristram Shandy – but then, Tristram Shandy is purposely superfluous, which is perhaps different); but the superfluity in Anna Karenin seems constant and everywhere – oh, no doubt building a fine and inclusive portrait of Russian society in the 1870s, just as Homer did with the [made up mish-mash of Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Greek] society he portrayed – but in Homer’s case, the society is integral to the art itself, whereas Tolstoy is inclined, irrespective of plot, to go off for 50 pages on a discussion of the Russian peasant or a rant about Panslavism; so that I’m almost inclined, with the philistines, to suggest the work would not suffer from a little abridgement – until possibly, all that remained were the scenes between Kitty and Levin (though I suppose you’d have to think about changing the title then too).
Character and Psychological Coherence
For the truth is, I wasn’t much taken with any of the story or characters in the book except these episodes (and, of course, Laska the dog). Oh, they’re each given certain characteristics certainly – Vronsky and Anna (Oblonsky was ok too, I guess) – but their relationship wrought no emotion in me – affected me not at all – was dull, at times unintelligible. Tolstoy jumps, it seems to me, from the couple being happy to the couple being unhappy, without any great indication of how we got there. Circumstances are put forward, but there’s no real development, just this violent jump; so that I don’t really come away believing half the stuff at the end of the book (I shan’t say what, in case you want to read it); – Tolstoy doesn’t have me under his spell. – Oh, I’m not asking for a perfect mechanical sequence like Oedipus Turannos; just, you know, a few steps between one extreme and the other.
At one moment in the plot I swear I could see Tolstoy’s brain itself ticking. Karenin – I imagine it was somewhere midway through the work – agrees to a divorce from Anna, for the sake of all Tolstoy being able to write all that stuff about magnanimity and being nice to people; but then later, when Anna’s happiness depends on Anna getting a divorce, Tolstoy’s forced to make up some way in which Karenin becomes unwilling to grant it, so has to have him coming under the spell of a religious cultist – the whole of which episode seemed to me most unlikely, out of character, if not actually absurd.
Philosophy in Novels
Oh, but the last fifty pages (I was back in the country by then, so perhaps that was the reason) I had to struggle and struggle. Yes, to end the book, he comes up with 25 pages of “philosophy” on the meaninglessness of life and how it might be ameliorated by listening to the views of Russian peasants; and then another 25 pages on the madness of Panslavism which has led to recent Russian involvement in the Serbian insurrection against Ottoman rule. (Sorry if I’ve now ruined the ending for anyone who hasn’t yet read it). Seriously, I’m not interested in one or the other. Please novelists, think twice before putting your own half-baked philosophy into a novel!
But one bit I did like were the sections just prior to this, where we enter into Anna’s mind. As noted with last year’s big Russian novel (Dostoevsky’s The Devils, which I recommend in preference to this), there’s not much difference between what’s set down here and what would, a few years down the line, be heralded as the invention of stream-of-consciousness. Let’s have an extract: this is Anna travelling along in a carriage thinking to herself:
“I implore him to forgive me! I gave in to him, confessed myself in the wrong. What for? Surely I can live without him?” And leaving the question unanswered she fell to reading the signboards. “Office and warehouse … Dental surgeon … Yes, I will tell Dolly everything. She doesn’t like Vronsky. It will be painful and humiliating, but I’ll tell her all about everthing. She is fond of me and I will follow her advice. I won’t give in to him. I won’t allow him to teach me … Filippov, pastry cook – I’ve heard he sends his pastry to Petersburg. The Moscow water is so good. Ah, the springs at Mitishchen, and the pancakes! …” And she remembered how long, long ago, when she was a girl of seventeen, she had gone with her aunt to visit the Troitsa Monastery. “There were no railways in those days. Was that really me, that girl with the red hands? How many of the things I used to think so beautiful and unattatinable have become insignificant since then; and the things I had then are now for ever beyond reach! Could I have believed then that I could fall so low? How proud and self-satisfied he will feel when he gets my note! But I will show him … How nasty that paint smells! Why is it they’re always painting and building. Dressmaking and millinery”, she read.
It goes on a lot longer than the Dostoevsky; but it must be admitted, both writers use the technique to show a disordered human mind – a mind pushed to emotional extremes – rather than the everyday state we find ourselves in.