I well recall the first time I read Anna Karenina.
It was over a long period of time, late December 1987 to early June 1988. I read the first 200 or so pages in the winter and left the book idle for another six months, until I found myself with too much time on my hands and a lot I didn't wish to think about, so I devoted several long nights to devouring those 600 or so pages.
I wasn’t new to Tolstoy; I’d already read War and Peace and was surprised by how easily it went, save for that uniquely Russian problem of keeping track of long names. It was long because it was full of incident and detail, not (as I remember anyway) because it was wordy or convoluted, and the same went for Anna -- except for one thing. I didn’t really get the structure. It followed a dual narrative of two characters, Anna and Levin, neither of whom who seemed to have all that much to do with each other. Tolstoy seemed to be driving at something a lot larger than just adultery, but I was never sure exactly what it was.
Anna, of course, is the beautiful wife of a government official who has a disastrous affair with a dashing military officer. Levin is a moody landowner who seems mainly concerned with maximizing productivity on his farm, and who seemed to me to exist mostly as a platform for whatever political, social or theological concerns were troubling Tolstoy in 1852. Although both characters are connected by family ties, the parallel lines never really seem to meet.
A few weeks ago, I picked up the book again. I bought the new Pevear-Volokhonsky translation back when Oprah picked it for her book club, and according to my marginalia and underscoring got about a fourth of the way through before setting it aside for whatever reason.
This time around, the book seized me almost from the beginning, mainly I think because of the way I approached it. I suddenly just found myself staring at the binding and thinking that there was something perfect about it and I couldn’t recall what. The memory of the book had stayed with me; something worked in it that I may have only registered on a subconscious level.
It starts with one of the most famous first lines in literary history: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Contrary to the title of Tolstoy's earlier short novel "Family Happiness," this one is about both family distress and family joy -- it's about the scope of family life as played out over several interwoven plots, and more than anything it seems to me to be about coming together and coming apart. Indeed this last aspect is what the balance of the novel involves, as it constantly mirrors on one hand a growing unity and on the other an ever-widening gap, and Tolstoy weaves in and out these with a lacework delicacy and a sense of editing that seems to me almost cinematic.
(I kept thinking of The Godfather, Part II, which paralled both the rise of the Corleone family and it's decline.)
I also read the book somewhat under the tutelage of Nabokov's fabulous Lectures on Russian Literature, always a humbling exercise -- as he reveals a depth of knowledge and understanding not just of Tolstoy's genius, but of the life and world of an aristocratic 19th-Century Russia he knew firsthand.
Nabokov was the first to note that the novel had a most extraordinary sense of time, and that the hour in the book is very much in keeping with the hour on the reader's watch. Indeed, a good deal of the novel's interest, and the fact that it often (but not always) moves with a page-turning breathlessness, is because it seems to be unfolding before your very eyes. You feel yourself watching the story as it occurs; I'm not altogether sure of the uniqueness of this device or exactly how Tolstoy pulls it off --- Nabokov isn't either, by the way -- but it's extremely effective.
I always love a novel that starts off in a corner, away from the main action, because you know you’re going to get a very rich, detailed picture, the way you know you’re going to get a full view of a valley as the camera pans over a mountain. Anna Karenina is of course about the protagonist’s marital disaster, but it begins with another disaster involving another couple, a story that will ultimately recede to the background as the greater drama of joining and dissolution plays out: Stepan Oblonsky has been cheating on his wife, Dolly, with the children's governess. For Dolly, this is an absolute nightmare; for Stepan, it's an unfortunate end to a game. There is talk of divorce, but little of it is very serious, as divorce in 19th Century Russia is far more trouble than it is worth for either party. It means shame before society and the church, loss of status and loss by at least one parent of children. The only solution is to stick it out, marital unhappiness being a good deal less painful than the alternative.
Arriving to console Dolly and hopefully make matters better is Stepan's sister, Anna, who is married to Alexei. Anna is stunningly beautiful; Alexei is a stuffed shirt who frequently offers opinions on matters he knows nothing about. As we will only learn later, theirs was an arranged marriage; as we learn very soon, in concert with Anna herself, the marriage is an unhappy one.
Also on hand to console Dolly is her sister Kitty, but Kitty has her own future on her mind. She, and the entire Scherbatsky family, are pinning their hopes on a marriage between Kitty and the dashing military officer Vronsky. Stepan's friend Levin, a moody, solitary, and not especially handsome introvert, is also in love with Kitty, and dreams of having a family with her. This is only one of many matters which weighs on Levin’s mind, the others being management of the family farm, guilt over the life of an estranged younger brother who is engaged in radical politics and living in filth, and his own loss of belief in God. (Levin is generally regarded as Tolstoy’s self-portrait, and it is through him that he addresses at length the kind of political and theological issues that gripped mid-19th Century Russia.)
The question of who winds up with whom will be semi-disastrously resolved at a fancy social ball: Kitty rejects Levin in the hope that she will find favor with Vronsky, who rejects her for the quite married Anna, who rejects him at first but is too attracted to keep him at bay.
The social ball thus locks in place the novel's two intertwined narratives, one serving as a bit of a drag on the other before catching up to it: Anna’s destructive affair with Vronsky, and Levin's retreat into solitude before his pursuit and eventual marriage to Kitty. Anna and Levin are the central characters and their stories are the hubs of activity, although they don’t always have much to do with each other. Indeed, sometimes the stories often seem to be working at cross-purposes; no sooner do we become interested in Anna and her affair than Tolstoy suddenly cuts to Levin, joining his workers as they scythe a field, wondering at length whether taking this common man approach will win the esteem or contempt of the workers.
Anna is a wind-up doll who has led life in the most conventional possible manner, a fact which doesn't really hit home with her until she meets Vronsky -- a make-out artist who is used to get everything he wants, and is especially attracted to what isn't available, thereby giving Anna a price beyond rubies. She, though resistant at first, soon becomes aware of the sheer addictive power of being desired.
For a writer whose name has come to be associated with huge books no one ever finishes, Tolstoy is a writer of sparkling clarity and directness. He illumines the surface and conceals the complexity. The sage old advice of “show, don’t tell” doesn’t exist for him; he does whichever suits him. He can very bluntly reveal the raw motives of a character, and he can very slyly keep them in check, uncovering them bit by bit. We are frankly told, for example, that Dolly -- grown cynical by being chained to Stepan for life -- admires Anna for having committed a moral crime. We are not frankly told about Vronsky’s motives regarding Anna, although we suspect them all along
Tolstoy sees, first, the human quality in people; one is almost tempted to say the animal quality in people, their basic character and drives, because he is just as acute with Levin’s hunting dog, Laska, one of the most charming animals in literature. Another who comes to mind is Tomas’s dog, who happens to be named Karenin, in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a title which, incidentally, I thought of more than once with regard to Anna: she feels guilty, but the guilt never is quite the burden she wants it to be or needs it to be; she has this constant yearning to really feel the lash of conscience against her skin, but it never arrives. For all the trouble it causes her and those around her, adultery has arrived too easily, and the consequences aren't as convincing as she needs them to be.
If life is painfully light for Anna, it's unbearably heavy for Levin, despite his happy marriage to Kitty. Levin's life is full of matters that can never be happily resolved, whether it involves the people laboring away on his estate or his anguished desire for belief in a God whom he rejects on a rational level.
Nabokov points out continually in his lectures the way Tolstoy keeps using images that foreshadow Anna's death: there are train motifs from the beginning of the novel, as well as a recurring nightmare of Anna's in which she is watching a man doing something (she can't quite make out what) with an iron -- ultimately both will dovetail when Anna throws herself on a rainroad, and a great force of iron will run over her.
Another image that kept recurring to me (and not just to me, of course) is that the book's two narratives are like a horse race, with each story kind of jockeying for position: good and evil, evil and good: the self-justifying and selfishness of Anna/Vronsky versus the constant soul-searching of Levin, between the allure of pure sensation on one side and the great yearning struggle to, shall we say, "only connect," as forster put it -- only here it means to really grasp a sense of overriding purpose in life in relation to God.
Maybe this is what people mean by dialectic == the narrative cooks up an intellectual and emotional friction between the two, between a story that is very concrete and narrow and one that is abstract and universal.
And yet, both Anna and Levin are striving for some kind of formula, something that will put all of life and all of their struggles in some kind of workable balance. For Anna, it means leaving her husband, staying with Vronsky, working out problems with the kids. With Levin, it means work and family and God.
One is a story of rupture, one is a story of joining together -- pure anguish versus pure bliss, and it'ws in the way these stories rub against each other that Tolstoy is able to capture a great sense of life at its most crummy and domestic and mundane and its most cosmic.
This is all a very dim and clumsy way of saying that betweenn the struggles of these people Tolstoy creates a novel of extraordinary scope.
Another thought: for all the great Russians, the story of life is inevitably a story about man's relationship to God. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol -- all of their lives were wracked with deep religious crises. The same goes for the greatest American writer, Melville.
Anyway, the two narratives are desined to play out the only way they can: disaster and death for Anna, and a sense (if only a sense, and nothing more than that) for Levin of final comfort in the mystery of the universe. Hell and heaven. One begins solid and safe, one begins in a mess, and they spend the novel moving gradually toward the opposite.