Friday, August 9, 2013

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy (Transl. Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky) (1877)

I am very pleased to present our newest writer on Flying Houses, Juan J. Perez.  He has reviewed a book for me that is somewhat famous.  I openly admit that I am a tyro when it comes to Tolstoy.  I have read part of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but I have generally favored the Russian writers that adopted America as their new homeland.  I do not know very much about the political climate in Russia in 1877, but I am guessing this book reflects it accurately.  This review, on the other hand, focuses on matters of the heart, or the "doomed romance" aspect of the novel.  Juan has written an excellent review, and if he feels up to it in a few years I will welcome a review of War and Peace.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins what Leo Tolstoy was to call “his first novel” with a sentence that has been oft-quoted since its creation. Anna Karenina is truly in a realm of its own. It’s almost akin to a soap opera in that one finds it impossible to take their eyes off the drama unfolding. The comparison might sound insulting to some, but it is only the lowly opinion of a literary fledgling penning his first review. The particular version that is going to be discussed is the translation done by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If the reviews on the jacket are to be believed, it is a superb translation a cut well above the rest. Still, the main reason it found itself in my book bag was not because of the glowing reviews or even the acclaim the story itself has received, but rather, my desire to educate myself on the classics which with high school had neglected to acquaint me. The English classes in my curriculum were more focused on sending students out of class for juvenile behavior than on Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare was enjoyed on occasion, but that was on my own, and there was no extent beyond that. That is what led me to peruse the aisles of my local library and grab Anna Karenina without a second thought.
While having heard the name in passing often enough, Tolstoy was very much an enigma to me—something similar to a shadow undulating in my peripheral vision. The introduction in this version gave an enlightening apercu on Tolstoy, his work, and, most importantly, the novel in question. Anna Karenina was written amidst a time of great questioning in Russia. Many publications advocated for ideals such as sexual freedom and communal habitation. Women’s education, enfranchisement, and role in public life were very much debated. As Pevear states, “On all these matters Tolstoy held rather conservative views. For him, marriage and childbearing were a woman’s essential tasks, and family happiness was the highest human ideal….An intentional anachronism, his novel was meant as a challenge, both artistic and ideological, to the ideas of the Russian nihilists.” (ix) Yet, although he essentially despised adultery, Anna was not portrayed unsympathetically.  In fact, Tolstoy’s wife wrote that he had “envisioned the type of a married woman of high society who ruins herself. He said his task was to portray this woman not as guilty, but as only deserving of pity…” (xi)
Anna Karenina’s plot revolves around a vast array of characters and settings that is splintered into eight parts. Part One introduces us to the predicament that is the Oblonsky household. Stepan Arkadyich has been caught having an affair with the family’s former French governess by his wife, Dolly. Despite his best attempts, he is unable gain her forgiveness. He desperately turns to the visit of his sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, as his only hope for salvaging his marriage. Ironically enough, while Anna does indeed convince Dolly to forgive Stiva (Stepan) and take him back, it is this very visit from St. Petersburg to Moscow that introduces her to her folly, Count Alexei Vronsky, a young and handsome officer who is very well regarded in society. It is also during this time that Stiva’s childhood friend, Konstantin Levin, has come to Moscow with the intent of proposing marriage to Stiva’s belle-soeur, Kitty. Unfortunately for Levin, Vronsky has also begun courting her, albeit seeing it as a minor flirtation rather than expressing intent for marriage. Due to this, Kitty rejects Levin for Vronsky which sends a depressed Levin back to the country. However, it seems karma plays a hand in this for, as soon as Vronsky meets Anna, he loses all interest in Kitty and is determined to pursue Anna back to St. Petersburg to woo her. This leaves a very distraught and unresponsive Kitty in his wake and the Shcherbatsky family travels to the country in order to try and brighten her spirits. Back in St. Petersburg, Anna finds herself drawn to a different social circle which is radically different from the virtuous and pious one she used to belong to. It is here where she gives in to Vronsky’s advances and begins her deadly dalliance with him. This does not go unnoticed by her husband or other society people, and it commences a whirlwind of adultery, jealousy, and hypocrisy amongst everyone.
The part that most captivated and enraptured me was Part Seven’s finale, where Anna meets her demise. The style that Tolstoy uses to describe Anna’s stream of consciousness during her last moments flows effortlessly and beautifully. One can practically picture themselves in Anna’s position. “What was he [Vronsky] looking for in me? Not love so much as the satisfaction of his vanity,” she ponders. (762) In what this reviewer believes to be one of the greatest internal dialogues ever written, Anna displays her paranoia at her situation, “ My love grows ever more passionate and self-centered, and his [Vronsky’s] keeps fading and fading, and that’s why we move apart…And there’s no help for it. For me, everything is in him alone, and I demand that he give his entire self to me more and more. While he wants more and more to get away from me…He tells me I’m senselessly jealous, and I’ve told myself that I’m senselessly jealous, but it’s not true. I’m not jealous, I’m dissatisfied…If he is kind and gentle to me out of duty, without loving me, and I am not to have what I want—that is a thousand times worse even than anger! It’s hell! And that is what we have. He has long ceased loving me. And where love stops hatred begins.” (763)  Her mind is completely revealed to the reader and all one can do is read on as Anna’s mental state deteriorates, “Ah, a beggar woman with a child. She thinks she’s to be pitied. Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others?”(764)
This brings me to a subject often discussed by critics: was Anna mentally ill? While I am not an authority on the matter, as psychology was never a class of mine, I will say that Anna does indeed seem to display characteristics of mania and schizophrenia. In fact, it is my belief that Tolstoy actually alludes to her mental instability with a line from Anna herself, “’No, I won’t let you torment me,’ she thought, addressing her threat not to him [Vronsky], not to herself, but to the one who made her suffer, and she walked along the platform past the station-house.”(767) What follows is the infamous suicide scene which was foreshadowed in the beginning of the book when Anna was introduced, “And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.”  (768)
Many will probably disagree with me on this, but the book should have ended there. Part Eight was admittedly a hastily added part, but it detracted from the book for me a great deal. There was little to no closure for Anna’s death in that section and my annoyance at Levin’s “sufferings” tainted my enjoyment of the book. My desire to finish the book from beginning to end was the only reason it was read. It seemed very odd and out of place for Levin to have such conflicts after all that he has endured and gained throughout the story, which only increased my perplexity and vexation at his supposed woes. Despite a rather unsatisfying end for me, Anna Karenina was a greatly enjoyable book to read. My curiosity is sufficiently piqued for me to go and search out Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which many claim is his magnum opus. Let us hope the owner of this blog does not ask me to review it as well. Adieu, my fellow book lovers.

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