I said in my last blog that I’d be writing about writing parties and meetings, and with the new Anna Karenina film soon out, along with Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I decided to take another look at Anna Karenina, before returning to the very great Gatsby. It takes a good deal longer to read the novels than it will to watch the films, so I am already started on my reading. (Not sure I’ll even see the AK film, although Aaron Johnson is looking devilishly handsome as Vronsky.)
The last time I read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was in my late teens, and there’s little memory of it left. Last week, with no copy to hand and keen to begin late one night, I downloaded the free 1901 Constance Garnett translation from Project Gutenberg (sorry, Australian booksellers).
But, the translation is dull, and although the opening chapters are witty and wry I wasn’t convinced. I was soon wondering how Anna Karenina could have been granted its esteemed status as the ‘greatest novel ever written’ by writers including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov.
I have now paid for the more recent and highly regarded translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s much more lyrical and precise and (I assume) better evokes Tolstoy’s intentions. With the novel well over 800 pages in length, it has been worthwhile to fuss over the translation. Garnett did a tremendous job of bringing many of the great 19th century Russian novels to English readers, but since then her translations have been learned from and bettered.
With the novel being about ‘high society’, I’d assumed we’d be going to dozens of balls and parties. But no. So far, the only notable ball is the first one in which Kitty feels abject humiliation when she realises that Vronsky has fallen in love with Anna and lost all interest in her (Chapter 22, Part 1). The second is the regimental races at which Vronsky rides his mare Frou-Frou in the dangerous steeplechase (Chapter 25, Part 2). Tolstoy starts this scene quite some time before Vronsky’s race when he’s walking through the crowd towards his mare. While Anna has only thoughts for him, Vronsky only has thoughts about Frou-Frou and the race. Vronsky is watched from the pavilion by Anna, who in turn is closely watched by her husband (Chapters 28- 29, Part 2). The choreography of these gazes is brilliant. When Frou-Frou falls and Vronsky disappears from sight, Alexey sees his wife break down sobbing. The mare is shot, her back broken. Vronsky walks away unhurt, after, despicably, kicking his fallen horse. Anna doesn’t see the kick. Alexey insists on taking Anna home so that she can no longer expose her feelings publicly. Tolstoy teases us in these chapters with what and who is seen or watched by whom.
What has struck me, is that in place of parties (I’m about a fifth of the way through and still in Part 2), is how many scenes there are that involve pairs of people talking. We see Vronsky and Levin verbally jostling, Vronsky elegantly insisting and Anna succumbing, Anna speaking with gay falsity to her terse husband Alexey in their St Petersburg residence (and grippingly, after the races), Kitty bored with her mother at the German health resort for consumptives and other invalids, Kitty excitedly and tenderly making friends with Valenka on the promenade, Dolly and Stiva (Oblonsky) arguing through doors.
It’s as if we readers are being drawn into an elaborate, perfectly paced dance such as I imagine the Baroque style to have been like. It is contrapuntal, determined, and the tension gathers inexorably scene by scene. Imagine the delicious anticipation that the Russian audience would have experienced reading the novel in its original serialised form, chapter by chapter over the four years. What a thrill to read of Anna and Vronsky’s affair, but to not know it was brutally doomed and Anna was to die until the book was finally published in 1878.
During these pairings, the characters frequently disagree with each other. Conversation and company is both passionate and disharmonious. Kitty doesn’t wish to be bossed by her sister Dolly or her mother. Levin is dismayed by his consumptive, drunken and erratic brother Nikolay. But still tries to like him. Dolly is furious and hurt by Stiva’s infidelity, and does and doesn’t want to leave him. Princess Betsy Tverskaya steers Anna through conversations with Alexey like a practiced arms dealer.
Together in the carriage going home after the race, we read that Alexey ‘opened his mouth to tell her [Anna] she had behaved unbecomingly, but he could not help saying something utterly different.’ But then Alexey does find the words, and Anna challenges him to explain himself by pretending to not understand what he is trying to delicately discuss. Yet, once Alexey asks her to forgive him if he has misunderstood, Anna abruptly tells him that she is indeed Vronsky’s mistress: ‘I love him, I am his mistress; I can’t bear you; I’m afraid of you, and I hate you… You can do what you like to me.’ The description of the two that immediately follows her outburst is exquisite.
Tolstoy understands the human gesture: ‘After dropping back into the corner of the carriage, she broke into sobs, hiding her face in her hands. Alexey Alexandrovitch did not stir, and kept looking straight before him. But his whole face suddenly bore the solemn rigidity of the dead, and his expression did not change during the whole time of the drive home.’ (Chapter 29, Part 2)
Tolstoy’s characters are in internal self-disagreement, too. In rapid succession they feel one thing, then another, then something else. Anna feels shame and love for Vronsky, and loathing and compassion for Alexey, all in the one evening. Striding over his farm, Levin can shift from an egalitarian impulse back to feudalism by the time he has entered the stables. He speaks openly to his peasant housekeeper Agafea about philosophy (her favourite subject), yet doesn’t countenance the end of serfdom. Alexey bores his wife with his political opinions and need to impress other dignitaries. And yet, because we have Alexey’s view on things too, we have compassion for his limitations, and understand how ensnared he is by his own prejudices. The novel is modern, and Tolstoy’s people are like us — or is it that we are still like them.
Tolstoy’s intimate pairings shows his characters (that is, us) as spirited beings who are invariably contradictory and complex, and who don’t have to be likeable, but realistic. Tolstoy’s experiment (for it was experimentation in the late 1800s) with interior monologue — the self speaking to itself — enables this complexity to be shown in the thoughts, feelings and words of the characters themselves. The literary technique, which now seems completely ordinary and intuitive, was very new to Tolstoy and his readers.
This is part 1 of the Anna Karenina blog. What will the next 600 pages suggest for part 2? Will I be invited to any parties? And if you feel like binging on the Tolstoys definitely get a hold of Melbourne writer Judith Armstrong’s brilliant novel about Tolstoy’s wife Sonya, War & Peace and Sonya (Pier 9, 2011). You can support Australian writers and booksellers by reading locally and buying locally.