Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Some years ago, LBJ biographer Robert Caro said he read a page of Tolstoy every day just to stay focused on how to write a compelling story. I’m not sure that’s why I picked up Anna Karenina again several weeks ago and have been reading it in fits and starts ever since, but it was probably for similar reasons. Sometimes, you just need to be reminded what a great novel is, what craft is, what inspiration is and character. What real artists do.

Like Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time or Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina is a great staggering example of the interior life of minor people. That’s what all great novels are, mostly, I sometimes think; a vast vision of the world crammed into a tight space, populated by more or less average, even petty people.The people who crowd these books – whether they live in filthy Dublin or provincial Combray or are heirs to the 19th Century Russian aristocracy -- are not the kind who would necessarily loom large in real life; they aren't people who do great things or take great risks or who would leave all that much behind. They’re variously small-minded, stupid, obsessive, kind or good-natured people caught up in very ordinary traps.

These books all excel at finding the unique distinction in ordinary events, at taking a small domestic world and making it a sweeping panoramic landscape.

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