Anna Karenina, a mixed reception

We discussed Anna Karenina last evening. Tolstoy apparently described his book as sentimental, ‘serving no purpose’ and ‘bad’. Writerly modesty? Nerves? Depressive reaction?

At a simple level I would agree that there is sentimentality in Anna Karenina, but I can see no reason why a book should have to ‘serve a purpose’ and something that has stood the test of time and criticism so well is surely not ‘bad’.

That said, several of our group were not impressed, at least two had given up at an early stage, some were barely half way. Others felt (as I did) that Anna was not the main character, though the consequences of her actions created fallout for most of the other characters. The characters, as depicted by Tolstoy, would have survived and behaved as they did if Anna had not even existed. This, for me, was the most potent effect of the book. Each of the main characters whirled on his or her own axis, internally consistent, baffled, enraged, delighted by the other characters, but not changed. This does not mean that they did not develop, only that their development was internally driven.

All the major characters went in for thought, and boy did they think a lot. Large tracts of the book are taken up with internal monologues. But this is how we are – at least this is how I am. Life is an endless guessing game, through which we each have to navigate solo, but some of us are luckier in our companions than others. Anna is unlucky; Kitty and Levin lucky. Others, such as Vronsky, Alexei, Sergei, Stiva, and Dolly have mixed luck in their companions, but vary a great deal in the uses they make of it. There is some inconsistency in the characters and their behaviour, but I buy that too. I think that is real, though a modern writer would struggle to get away with this.

We were an elderly bunch discussing the book and there was short shrift given to ‘the passions of youth’ and little sympathy for Anna, who was seen as choosing sex (though no one spelled it out) over her love for her son. For me there was something timeless and classical, about Anna’s situation. In a marriage in which passion played no part, she was as much a victim of passion when is hit her as Phèdre (c’est Venus as sa proie toute entiere attaché), consumed by Venus before she had understood the danger. From then on, there were no right choices for her and tragedy was inevitable.

Levin, like Anna, came in for some stick. His prickly behaviour, mood changes and endless existential angst made some want to strangle him, for others he was a loveable innocent – and the main character. On reflection, I can’t think of many characters I felt fond of (Agafya springs to mind), though I had no trouble feeling sympathetic.

As we were an all-female discussion group, it’s no surprise that Vronsky was dismissed as, not so much the villain more, the standard badly-behaved man. Stepan – Stiva, in the same grouping, was barely mentioned. Personally, I thought Stiva’s mixture of self-absorption and charm was interesting, and the dinner party where he mixed tricky personalities and managed to smooth social discomfort, was one of (or the?) book’s highlights. But would such a selfish man have had the empathy to behave like this? If he had empathy, would he really have treated Dolly as he did? I guess empathy and selfishness are not mutually exclusive, a successful con-man would possess both. Alexei, got less attention than expected. An essentially unlovable character, Tolstoy works hard to give him his due without, at any stage hiding his cruel and vulnerable self-justifying behaviour.

On the whole Tolstoy avoided authorial generalisations – but sometimes as here… ‘This playing with words, this concealment of the secret, held great charm for Anna, as for all women.'[my italics] he succumbs to a personal belief. Tolstoy also tackled such a vast number of existential worries, that you could take home any number of ‘messages’ from the book and adapt them your own belief system, perhaps that is one reason for it’s enduring popularity. Towards the end, talking of Levin, he says. ‘He lived (without being aware of it) by those spiritual truths that he had drunk in with his mother’s milk…’ (culture). Yet Levin goes on to worry that if he did not know that he should live for God, not for his needs: ‘I would rob, lie, kill.’ Yet again he also recognises the essential fallacy of this statement as he realises that other religions, other outlooks don’t make people more or less likely to rob, lie or kill.

This has now become a ramble on the experience of reading Anna Karenina, so I shall stop. I am glad to have read something that both daughters have so consistently praised. I may post again after discussing the book with them.

writing, painting and Tolstoy

I am more than half way through Anna Karenina now, and I had an ongoing draft blog about several things that struck me. However, this morning I read Tolstoy’s description of an artist letting visitors into his studio to look at his latest painting. Tolstoy writes about the moment that the artist, unveiling the painting, sees it anew from another’s point of view. “…he saw it with their indifferent, estranged, new eyes and found nothing good in it.” He saw banality and a “heap of defects”.

The idea of their attention excites the artist, the smallest praise, the slightest suggestion of defects affects him deeply and alters his own judgement of his work. The fact that he had assessed his visitors fairly accurately on sight and knew that they were unlikely to offer him constructive comments does not alter their effect on him.

Although Tolstoy is talking about painting, every word can be translated to written work. Since I started writing I have been baffled at how one day you can read a piece you have written and be surprised how well it reads and a few days later the same passages will strike you as banal or defective in some way. Pick up the book a year later and you could have either of these reactions. It is as if some malign optician is forever changing your glasses until you have no idea when you are seeing straight.

In October I will be meeting a reading group to discuss a novel about an opera singer I published in 2008 (Unseen Unsung). I will have to re-read it. Will I be appalled, amazed, embarrassed? I really wish I knew.

Tolstoy versus Sacks

I am disconcerted, by my lack of discipline when it comes to reading. I cannot think of a time when I only had one book on the go and though my ‘to read’ pile is enormous, I happily add to it on an almost weekly basis.

Our next book for discussion is Anna Karenina, given its length (and the fact that I requested it), nothing else should intervene. However, I am unable to resist The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, which I am finding riveting as it has case studies that are connected to the work I used to do. I popped in Smith by Leon Garfield, a Folio Society book which a friend wanted to know whether to bother with. A fast-paced, Dickensian story from the back streets of London in the early nineteenth (?) century. A little soppy perhaps, but very enjoyable. I picked up and started 22 Britannia road by Amanda Hodgkinson and I have been lent WordPress for Dummies which I keep dipping into.

It will, as it always does, sort itself out. I can’t make up my mind whether reading several strands simultaneously is productive or foolish.