For some of us, home is not a place itself but a person. For some of us this person can live inside a book. Anna Karenina first came to me in the middle of a feverish night. The discomfort of a really bad cold not only made it impossible for me to get some sleep but also kept me from getting the fresh look I needed for my very important dream job interview the next day. Struggling, I made one last attempt. I used my phone as a flashlight to go to my bookshelf and pick something that would surely bore me to sleep. My choice was the Tolstoy classic my father had recently given me for my 17th birthday. The weight of the old volume only reassured me of my choice. Huge mistake. I devoured the book from beginning to end within eight hours. With the rising sun I could barely distinguish myself in the mirror as someone that was not there the day before. Something had shifted. In a hurry I tried conceal the dark circles around my eyes and got myself ready for the interview in spite of the newly found sense of mourn in my chest.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Russian classic (or slept through universal literature in high school) Anna Karenina tells the story of an aristocratic married woman who has an affair with a young handsome officer, Count Vronsky. Such scandal leads her to lose her family, social status, and condemns her to opprobrium of the people that once worshiped her. She is finally driven into madness and kills herself in a morbidly symbolic and tragic way. (Talk about karma!)
So there I was, completely shaken up but still managing to bring out my best during the interview. Luckily, I got the job (assistant manager in a touristic archaeological site off town) and after my induction I saw him: Sitting carelessly under the shadow of a tree was my very own Count Vronsky. He greeted me with a bad boy smirk and when he said my name it sounded like lemonade in a hot summer morning. I blushed and walked away trying hard to remember my then-boyfriends face but knowing there was no scape. My new office became Anna’s cursed train station. I was doomed.
At the time, identifying myself with such a romantic and tragic character distracted me from the monotonous failure that my first serious relationship had become. Having grown up as a bookworm, I used to glorify fiction as my life paled in comparison. In my mind, despite the drama it felt so much better to act like Anna than being myself. My confidence went through a notorious boost during the first month. In high school no one had ever payed attention to me and suddenly I had two guys “fighting” for my attention. Havoc broke. My boyfriend became jealous by noticing me careless while Count Vronsky insisted on taking me out on a date. I thought I could go on safely, being too insecure to make a final decision but making sure to stay in line by not letting actual cheating happen. But almost as if it was scripted, Anna finally gave in. I kissed Vronsky while he and I walked into the sunset after a long day of work. I felt so guilty I rushed to confess my sin and pronounce the “I don’t love you anymore” that would set me free. My (now ex) boyfriend disavowed be. He made sure to tell everyone what I’ve done. Our circle of friends showed no mercy and were ready to throw (at least via-Facebook) the first stone at me.
Suddenly everyone had something to say about me. I read mean comments about how “they always knew the real me” and how that “good missionary girl act” had always seemed fake. They almost seemed happy I’ve fallen from a moral pedestal and revealed myself as the true sinner I was. I thought they were right. How dare I cheat on a guy that had given me nothing but love?
Exiled and ostracized, I turned to my new boyfriend. My literal “partner in crime”. How funny no one had said a word about him. “He was there too” –crossed my mind, instantly making me feel guilty. I was the one in the relationship and therefore responsible for it. After a while, I gave myself a break. “I’m not a bad person”- I thought- “I know made a mistake but why?” I examined my previous relationship and how exactly it had let up to a boiling point and found myself quoting my tragic anti-heroine.
“No one understands it except me, but they [society] don’t see what I’ve seen. They don’t know how he has crushed my life for eight years, crushed everything that was living in me — he has not once even thought that I’m a live woman who must have love. …”
-Anna thinking of Karenin, Part 3, Chapter 16, p. 273
A hopeless romantic. The title summarized me perfectly and probably still does. Having spent my childhood trying to find in books the love that I’ve never seen in my house since my parents are divorced, love for me was a life or death issue. I longed for the letters in yellow papers and desperate love confessions under the rain. Somehow, serving time in Siberia or drinking arsenic didn’t seem like such a bad idea in dealing with unrequited love. While these extreme situations never happened, most of my teenage days ended with me parading ghostlike through my porch with an old nightie while singing that Olivia Newton-John song. As I turned 18, a terrifying truth crossed my mind: What I knew or thought about love didn’t exist outside the novels and poems and books.
The search for love then became an addiction. I went through a few boyfriends only to repeat a familiar cycle: Boy meets girl and the first few months are blissful perfection, girl must seize this moment and get all the love she can get since the months that follow will bring nothing but boredom and routine. When all seems lost just find someone else and start over. Maybe society was right from the beginning, I actually was a man-eater harpy. It’s no surprise that later on I was diagnosed with depression and couldn’t get myself to write or ever shower. I was as dead as Anna, staring my life pass like the train over my head while I laid lifeless on the rails.
I am now 23 years old and five years have passed since I first read Anna Karenina.
Not to fall in the “I’m older therefore I’m wiser” cliché but time does give you a different kind of lightning to see things that maybe were always there but were looked through. Distance can help you get a different perspective too, probably why all this came to me while traveling across Eastern Europe with my worn out copy of Anna Karenina and the man who recommended it to me in the first place: my father. He smiles when he sees my beloved book and refers to it as a “her”.
“I haven’t seen you with her in a while. You two used to be inseparable” — He teases — “is she coming with us?”
“We reconciled” — I answer calmly.
As I get the heavy volume out on the plane nostalgia overwhelms me. Instead of devouring it again and breaking my eight hour reading record during the twelve-hour flight, I decide to take my time instead and slowly let words sink me in like a hot bathtub instead of cannonball jumping into them. The long trip becomes slightly more wonderful because of this. During the day I live and enjoy exploring unknown cities next to my father, in the night I enjoy almost as much making myself some tea and reading a chapter or two. I am now able to hear Tolstoy’s narrating voice and see the story from above more as a spectator instead of the main character. This allows me to appreciate it even more and even give myself time to highlight the pearls of wisdom Tolstoy left scattered through its pages.
“I needed to be 23 and go what I went through to be able to relish the book as much as I am right now” — I realize.
Truth is, there was a reconciliation but not with the book per se but with myself. It is as fun as it is calming to identify oneself with a fictional character. It brings a kind of certitude knowing beforehand how someone similar to us would react to a specific situation. I identified myself with Anna because we were going through similar things and thought the same way about love. There’s nothing wrong in channeling certain aspects of fictional characters in your own personality. My mistake was wholeheartedly believing that her story was my own, as if I had no control over my own fate and merely played the part instead of living. The problem of getting so deep into this story was failing to see the magic in my own life and believing hers was more interesting and therefore better than mine.
Also, some relationships last and others don’t and that is how life works. There’s no use in martyrizing oneself over one failed relationship as I did. I do regret having lied to myself about my feelings for another guy. Had I accepted this, all the drama could have been avoided. However, the slut-shaming I got during that time still feels unfair but at least I got to see who my real friends were. I now find it amusing how big of a deal everybody including myself made out of it.
I see now what Tolstoy’s true intention was. He cleverly contrasted two love stories in parallel: Anna and Vronsky’s story which was chaotic and disturbingly passionate, and Kitty and Levine’s. A couple that doesn’t exactly share love at first sight but are able to admit their feelings for each other, care enough to do things “the right way” in order to be together and are able to overcome their differences through patience and understanding. It took me a while but now I realize I’m happier with the latter view of love and even found a “Levine” of my own.
I land in St. Petersburg and the Russian flight hostess smiles at my copy as she wakes me up. The scarce days I spend there are like living a dream. I walk in awe through the city’s old palatial streets and can’t stop replaying the novel in my head, feeling incredibly lucky to be there. Even my book seems happy to be home. I visit Peterhof, (in the book, the Karenina’s Versailles-like summer residence) and it’s inevitable for me to imagine Anna looking out the garden nervously, as she hopes her husband doesn’t come home until her lover is gone.
She stays with me until it’s time to leave to Moscow. After running through 18 wagons I find my train compartment and am able to catch a breath in my seat. I dispose myself to read the book when I realize it’s close to its ending. In order to make this moment last I take a deep breath and look out the window. Suddenly, I see her: She is looking desperate and fearful, morbid thoughts replay in her head and voices scream all her worsts nightmares. I feel so sorry for her. She took the same train I am on and met love, infamy and last, death. I wish I could save her. I don’t think even Tolstoy could have saved her. I stare in horror as she’s about to throw herself to the rails when she looks back at me: she has a face of her own, it’s not Keira Knightley’s, Greta Garbo’s or Vivien Leigh’s, not even my own, but the face I imagined when she was first mentioned in the book. I give her a shy smile and she seems embarrassed but smiles back. She wipes her tears with prideful grace and turns away from me, walking as if nothing had happened.
I close the book with no interest in another ending than the one I just witnessed in my imagination. She will be fine. I am fine.