Friday, April 15, 2011

Anna Karenina

I spent the last week reading Leo Tolstoy's work, Anna Karenina.  I had seen the 1997 movie with Sophie Marceau many years ago.  I found it to be tragic, riveting, and equal part uplifting and crushing.  I'm not certain what drove me to download it to my Kindle, maybe because it is free?  Probably.

It begins:  Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It is painful from the outset in a way that you can't get at by watching the movie.  I knew the facts:  there are two central couples:  Anna/Alexy and  Kostya/Kitty.  My vague recollection was Bad vs. Good, Passion vs. Intellect, etc and then at some point near the end: Anna throws herself in front of a train and dies.  Reading the book, I was drawn in, I experienced real emotion -joy, grief, revulsion, horror- no longer a mere observer.

I was horrified by Anna's transformation from a good woman of society into a wretched wreck.  What was horrific was how much I have ever been Anna (no, not in adulterous sense).  I have been Anna in her rages and recriminations, with her jealousies and coveting.  I have been Anna.  Halfway through the book, seeing that she could not stop herself and knowing that there was a train coming, I began to flinch whenever Tolstoy would lead me back to the sordid disaster of an existence that is Anna Arkadyevna.  I would speed through her pages half urging her to just hurry the hell up and end it and other times begging her to just stop, turn around and go home to her son.  

It was the passages about Kostya, particularly as he and Kitty drew closer and closer together, that made it possible to get through the text.  Kostya's mental turmoil and judgements, fair or otherwise, were an oasis amidst the harsh environment created by Vronsky and Anna.  They reflect the best and most wonderful versions of me or rather there are shadows and glimpses of their love in me, in my marriage.  Their innocence and tenderness and even their ridiculous arguments transported me back to the first year of my marriage.  Kostya's struggle as an unbeliever and his wife's certainty that his love of neighbor made up for whatever disbelief he might actually have were sweet and touching.  I know what it is to struggle with belief and yet to be smacked flat with the fact of Christ, laid bare by the Church's truth.  I know the devil that teases and dances in the thoughts of Konstastin Dmitrievich.  How hard it is for him to surrender;  how hard it has been for me to surrender!  Yet, he does.  

Part 8 of the book was spurned by Tolstoy's editor and was first introduced when the author paid for the book to be published.  Had we been left simply with Anna's desolation, her despair,  the tragic triumph and defeat of her final act, the book would not be the masterpiece that it is.  It would have left us dull, cold . . . as hopeless as she.  I dare say the final paragraph makes the entire work for me something wholly new, hopeful, even lyrical.  Levin leaves us with these thoughts to ponder and reconcile:
"This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith — or not faith — I don't know what it is — but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."

If you have not read the book, go get it.  And if you have, read it again.  Yes, I know I spoiled the ending for you, but honestly this is such a beautiful examination of people and their suffering.  Tolstoy truly knows the human spirit and I dare say you will see aspects of your life reflected in these pages.  


GretchenJoanna said...

You've conveyed that experience that great literature gives, of seeing ourselves more clearly. I haven't read Anna -- I know I should!

Mimi said...

I have read "Anna Karenina" three times. The last time, in a far better translation than the old Garnett I'd done previously.

One of the things that I've always carried,and I think is key, is my professor said, "I keep noting her drug use this time I'm reading it" - I think that she gets more and more into opium (? is that what it was) as their relationship breaks up, and she slides away from him, from the kids, from her life. It's truly key to assessing the novel, I think.

Svetlana said...

I agree. She really does get into a drug induced cycle of self-loathing and vicious jealousy. It becomes a real psychotic break in the end what with her 'harem' of adorers collected by her brother and her ability and desire to lash out at those who find her piteous (like her meeting with Dolly and Kitty on her way to her doom).

His depiction is frightenly accurate of that opiod state. Did you notice her transgression from some morphine to so much morphine her aunt (a truly awful creature) actually complains and then abandons her and then finally to opium. Whereas Levins suffering is born and analyses, her avoidance of suffering and her cooperation with temptation send her running off a cliff of her own creation.
Frightening stuff.

Mimi said...

It is indeed. I think that the drug-addledness of her decline is often overlooked, instead being seen as a romantic thing, but you are right. I also think the contrast between her and Levin is striking.

I've heard a couple of interesting anecdotes. One is that Levin is supposed to be Tolstoy.

The other is that once at a party, a woman came up and gave him grief about the way AK ends, and he said something to the effect that it surprised him when she did that too, characters have a life of their own. I find that so fascinating.