Friday, October 29, 2004

Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy

The docket I have sticky-taped to the inside of my Penguin Classic says I bought my copy in June 1996. Eight years later I have read Anna Karenin again. I remember very much enjoying it the first time I read it. It really is a good read, not like War and Peace, which I found hard work and frankly boring in parts. I don’t think I’ll even attempt it again. (Henry James famously called it a loose and baggy monster.)

Why is Anna Karenin such a good read? I dare say because so much of it reads like a soap opera. It’s 850 pages of sex and infidelity. Of course there’s plenty of other stuff in there as well – history, religion, Russian politics, the position of women is society – yet the over riding preoccupations of the novel are about finding sexual happiness, and how people try to find that outside of marriage. Reading about these aristocrats and their love affairs reminded me very much of Woody Allen’s middle class professionals, unhappy in existing marriages, misunderstood by their partners, seeking sex, fulfillment and appreciation outside of marriage.

When I got to the novel’s end I felt like I had been reading a Greek tragedy, with Tolstoy’s characters the tragic gods and goddesses. Everyone knows the story of Anna Karenin, and how she flings herself in front of a train once her adulterous affair with Vronsky turns to ennui and self-disgust. Ostracised from society, knowing that her lover is bored with her and most likely looking at other women, unable to get a divorce from her finicky husband, Karenin, she decides to kill herself. Not only that, she does so in the hope of also in some way destroying Vronsky.

The last we see of Vronsky, he is like Oedipus, aimlessly wandering on a moving train, no longer a ‘man’, only a killing machine, a volunteer in the Serbian war.

Tolstoy became impossibly moralistic in the years after he wrote Anna Karenin. His marriage ended up like something out of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children – husband impossibly idealistic, wife carrying the burdens of day to day life. He tried to live a pure Christian life, and drove everyone around him almost mad in the process. If ever there was an example of why pure ideological doctrine cannot be grafted onto life, then Tolstoy’s life provides it.

One of the things Tolstoy was to renounce in his moralistic phase was sex. Sex was bad. Thus it is interesting to note that he takes such an amoral, or non-judgmental attitude towards the sex lives of his characters in Anna Karenin. Strangely, two of the key adulterers in the novel are brother and sister, the happy-go-lucky Oblonsky and the ill starred Anna Karenin. For some reason, Anna suffers absolute trauma, whereas her brother, Oblonsky, goes from woman to woman with a spring in his step.

Stranger still, the one character in the novel, Levin, who is a bridge to Tolstoy’s moralistic future persona, actually admires Oblonskly, knowing he is an adulterer. He enjoys his open, free and friendly manner.

The character of Levin is clearly autobiographical. Before Tolstoy married, he gave his wife to be his personal diary, replete with his sexual dalliances. She read it, was utterly shocked and disappointed, yet married Tolstoy just the same. Levin does the same thing to Kitty in Anna Karenin. One could suggest that this is done to try and purge himself (Tolstoy/Levin) of his sexual history.

Well, I just find it strange that Levin should be such an admirer of Oblonsky, when Levin is clearly such an advocate of orthodox marriage. Indeed, Levin is such an odd man out in this novel, with all of his ruminations on moral questions, on the nature of god etc., that he seems almost like an Old Testament prophet. The last 20 or so pages of the novel finishes with him musing about god, having left behind the Greek tragedy of Anna Karenin.

For someone so keen on confessing everything, he has a funny last few lines. After meditating on god and religion, he ponders if he should tell Kitty, his wife, what he has been thinking about, then thinks better of it:

‘No, I had better not speak of it,’ he thought, as she passed before him. ‘It is a secret for me alone, of vital importance for me, and not to be put into words.’

Poor Anna Karenin. Half way through the novel I thought I might be seeing parallels to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a pro-feminist novel of sorts. That novel throws up plenty of questions on the treatment of women, and the need for a review of the laws that govern women.

No. Anna Karenin’s problem is her desires overwhelming reality. Her imagination made too many demands on life. The choice before her was to stay with a dull, unsympathetic husband and live a life half-lived, or experience sharp, ecstatic moments, to be followed inevitably by sharp disappointments, or in this case, death.

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