Re-reading Anna Karenina: Observations

I do not often reread books. In fact, I’m not sure that I have re-read any of the books that I read during the last four years except Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dante’s Commedia. But I reread War and Peace in the same translation by the Maudes again and again. And I eventually learned to read Dante in the original. But I was unsure of what to expect from a second reading of Anna Karenina, this time in an acclaimed translation from the remarkable Pevear and Volokhonsky duo, who have given us such excellent translations of the Russian classics in recent decades. I admit that the earlier translation I have was done quite poorly — I only bought it because it was the cheapest thing available.

What I perceived from my first reading was that in Anna Karenina, unlike in War and Peace, Tolstoy had, to a great degree, removed himself from the scene, and his moralizing instinct was curtailed. The characters, especially Anna, seemed like giants who ‘bestrode the narrow world like a colossus’. There was a tragic heroism in her ability to rise above societal convention — exemplified by her shriek, “I’d rather be his [Vronsky’s] whore than your wife!”, and be who she was. Levin sort of appealed to me, but I confess the Levin/Kitty story was hardly interesting. You must realize that I read the work in two days, plopped on a couch and barely gazing up.

I decided that this second reading would not be done at full speed. Indeed I read no more than one book (approximately 100 pages) at one sitting. And this new translation demanded it. Tolstoy’s sentences here, unlike in the older translation, moved in a measured and languid pace. The quote above, “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!” came to something like three lines long, with plenty of pauses in the middle. Anna, instead of unleashing her wrath at her husband Karenin, seemed until the last moment to be engaged in an internal dialectic: she clearly loves Vronsky, and has no feelings for Karenin, but it is equally clear that she is not fully certain that she wants to leave the society and family that she has come to love. Her love for her son in particular is keenly emphasized.

Anna therefore emerges here not as a tragic heroine, clad in all the tragic grandeur of Oedipus but rather a beautiful and vivacious woman who feels keenly the pangs of love and the affection of her family. Tolstoy, whose original plans reveal a desire to write a story about a ‘fallen woman’, had hoped, I imagine, to write a moralistic tale in which he punished his heroine with all the ferocity with which he had punished Helene Bezhukova in War and Peace. And indeed, when we first meet Anna, there is little that is special about her. Here is how Vronsky sees her,

Her shining grey eyes, which seemed dark because of their thick lashes, rested amiably and attentively on his face, as if she recognized him, and at once wandered over the approaching crowd as though looking for someone (Book 1, XVIII)

Compare this to how Levin describes Kitty,

He stepped down, trying not to look at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking. (Book 1, IX)

Now, some allowance must be made for the fact that Levin is already head over heels in love with Kitty and that Vronsky has only just met Anna. But the statement stands, that there was nothing particularly impressive about Anna. Every character in the novel seems to admire her, but none can place exactly what it is about her that they love. She is beautiful, surely, and initially Tolstoy perhaps wanted her to be just like Helene; a beautiful woman, concerned only with sex with no consideration of those around her and the effects her actions would have on their lives.

But it is quickly apparent that Anna’s finest qualities are very different from those of Helene’s. Anna initially appears to patch up a family that is on the verge of breaking apart, and does a good job of it too; she initially wants Vronsky and Kitty to elope, but falls for Vronsky almost despite her better instincts; she cares deeply for her son, but initially also feels an obligation for Vronsky’s child developing inside her; she cares for Karenin, and indeed wants him to step in and chastise her for her behavior, but he never does. I had previously imagined that Anna was Tolstoy’s greatest creation — indeed the greatest character in modern literature, for her ability to rise above the novel; but if this rereading has made anything apparent, it is that Anna is so great because she is part of the novel. Her greatness — unlike that of Hamlet, who seems to challenge his creator for artistic freedom — lies in her ability to be so enmeshed in her world, so connected with it and so bound to its characters, that when she chooses to break from it — first by leaving the country and then the world, it is all the more powerful.

I imagine that Tolstoy, that man with “luciferian pride” in D.S. Mirsky’s words, felt immeasurable pity for Anna, as we all do. She does not break societal bounds simply because she can, or indeed because she wants carnal gratification; she does so because she cannot help doing so and because the society in which she lives is so cruel. By the puritanical moral code that he lives by, Tolstoy must punish Anna. An adulteress cannot live with impunity; but to the last second he wants to save her. I had never before realized how powerful was Anna’s mental dialectic as she stood before the train. It is one of the most intense moments in art as both a great author and his greatest creation engage in argument, both with each other and with themselves — Anna knows that she should not do this, that needs to take care of her children, that her death would kill Vronsky (whom I argue she still deeply cares for), and Tolstoy, as many critics have recognized, cannot but help loving his greatest creation and both of them know that Anna can still be saved.

Yet she leaps into the running train.

Why? Anna to the last does not know, and we even get the sense that she regrets it in her last moments of consciousness; but from Tolstoy’s perch the answer is clear; she must suffer for her sins. The novel begins by quoting the old Bible verse, “‘Vengeance is mine’ saith the Lord” and here Tolstoy does the good Lord’s work for him by punishing this sinner. In this sense this ongoing dialectic between character and author is resolved in the author’s favor. Tolstoy here gets the last word — for a tale where Tolstoy abandons his moralistic instincts see Hadji Murad.

I noted also that my initial readings had left me unimpressed by the Levin and Kitty story. On the whole, I do still think that that is the case; Levin’s endlessly bothersome lectures on peasants, the farm and the countryside become dull very quickly. He is a boorish fellow, and while he may be the character most closely based on Tolstoy, we would never expect Levin to write anything like Anna Karenina. He is best at writing books on farming that rush headfirst into the dustbin of history. The concluding book — which Tolstoy had to print at his own expense, gives Levin a good send off. Tolstoy understands that Levin can never change, but still, it is better to understand his faults and learn to live with them than be ignorant of them.

Kitty retains much of her vivacity this time around also. I never observed how, in one of the most moving chapters in the book — the only one with at title (Book 5, XX), it is Kitty who is there helping her spouse’s siblings, much in the same way that Anna initially appeared to help Oblonsky patch up his marriage with Dolly. For her efforts, Tolstoy rewards her,

No sooner had the one mystery of death been accomplished before his eyes, and gone unfathomed, than another arose, equally unfathomed, which called to love and life.
The doctor confirmed his own surmise about Kitty. Her illness was pregnancy.

The Oblonskys remain as ever a family of great fun. Dolly and her epicurean husband simply go through life as most people do. There is no Promethean struggle in them as there is in Anna or Levin. We pity Karenin for Anna’s behavior, but Tolstoy makes it very clear that had Karenin wanted to stop Anna, he could have done so. Anna herself at times seems to want Karenin to take some initiative, but the dull bastard did not discover that he had love inside of him till she left.

Many critics — quite rightly let me add, accuse Tolstoy of being a misogynist for the way he treats Anna (and for other,better, reasons, but lets stick with Anna here). I both agree and disagree. I agree that the way he displays her corrupting influence is sickening; note how the Oblonsky children, when Anna first comes to visit them, love her, but how when Anna comes while after she started having her affair, they treat her coldly. Her own behavior to her daughter by Vronsky is nothing short of callous; and we can have no sympathy for the author who would dare sentence his heroine to a heartless existence simply because she began experimenting with the commandments.

Yet I insist that Tolstoy loved Anna, and loved her more than he loved his other creations. Notice the effort he puts into writing the chapter of her suicide. He is not merely adopting a facade of affection. He has not decided her fate in advance. We sense that he genuinely wants to save her: genuinely wants to help her. But eventually his moral instinct gets the better of him.

And perhaps that is for the best. Anna Karenina, faults and all, glides through our imaginations with a sure step, a twinkle in her eye and a smile that contains all the lust and bounce of life. We stare up in awe at Hamlet, we kneel in reverence before Antigone, we withdraw in fear from Medea, but we meet Anna face to face; and with her rustling dresses trailing behind her, she offers us her hand and leads us again onto the dance floor.

Could we have wanted it any differently?

*All images from Google. No copyright infringement intended. All copyrights belong to the respective owners*

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