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Amber Paulen

Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

1 September 2009


Putting down Anna Karenina for good and final is at first like succumbing to some strange deprivation. I flipped back pages, unwilling to part with those emotionally tearing scenes and those quite normal but excellently executed scenes. Because this novel of Tolstoy’s creation, this colossal capolavoro sinks one into its very fibers and skillful characters as only great books can do. It is a privilege to read such books, to be drawn in and fed by such words so that the ending is always sad for having ended.

But I’m not the same. In me, that Russian part of my imagination has changed, and widened and deepened and has been repopulated with characters and the brave flashes of some of what Tolstoy was trying to say. For though this great novel will no doubt come to many sittings, there is no time like the first time: sublime. Let it age. Let Vronsky go from charming to selfish, Stepan Arkádyich go from cheerful to, well… was he the only happy character in the book? More insight will no doubt come the second time, this is the flavor as it drops from my tongue.

O! Anna Karenina! Did you destroy yourself or were you destroyed? Was your love consummated in a flame of bad timing or was it never meant to be at all? Anna Karenina, the beautifully tragic center of this book, her black hair in curls with white arms, her smile charmed Vronksy until he held her, the murdered in his arms.

Happiness: What could be more fleeting? Unhappiness: What could be more obvious?

“I’m unhappy?” she said, coming close to him with a rapturous smile of love. “I’m like a starving man who has been given food. Maybe he’s cold, and his clothes are torn, and he’s ashamed, but he’s not unhappy. I’m unhappy? No, this is my happiness….”

What happiness or unhappiness? Anna’s happiness passes like spring clouds. As Anna told Vronsky (with her eyes) earlier on:

“We won’t be friends, you know that yourself. And whether we will be the happiest or unhappiest of people—is in your power.”

It would be wrong to assign a therapist to Anna. Though there are obvious issues she needed to talk about. The inescapable of her situation, her shame and guilt and all she didn’t want to face could have been the source of her decline. But that wasn’t all. Even before Anna’s affair her torment seemed there, in her smile. Some secret pain: her “mysteriousness,” as it has been called.

Anyone who found themselves in Anna’s situation would have suffered more than one break down. The stuffiness of Russian society, the ridiculous laws of divorce, the separation from her son, her isolation, the trailing stigma of her affair and then Vronsky’s ultimate exclusion near the end. If she had happiness, during her trip to Italy maybe, it stood on very tenuous ground.

The end of the book marks the cumulation of Tolstoy’s genius. Reading the portrait of Anna in decline was like watching the slow fraying of every imaginable thread she had left. I’ve not read anything like it in literature. It’s genius is in its power to convince. The rapid flight of Anna’s thoughts, from jealousy to reassurance that she should have none, the suppositions of Vronksy’s affairs to the most self-pitying despair. Blindness drove her. What was it?

In her last hours, interspersed between her fluctuating thoughts of Vronsky was the conviction that everyone looked at everyone else with hate. “Aren’t we all thrown into the world in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others?“ she asks herself as she rides in her carriage to the station. It was as if some slow poison had entered her veins and had transformed all that she looked at to bad. Even the thought of her son could not cheer her for he too had been sacrificed for Vronsky, like everything and everyone.

If I could be anything else but a mistress who passionately loves only his caresses—but I cannot and do not want to be anything else.

That “cannot” and “do not want” sound so determinative, so fatal in her mouth. Happiness. What had been her happiness anyway?

Then there’s Levin. Levin the simple country man who hardly mentioned happiness by name. Instead, he looked for ways to temper the upheavals in his soul. I had the feeling that the word happiness would have gotten Levin too confused. Throughout the book he reminded me of a ground mole, endlessly digging. Digging in circles, always coming around to the same cul du sac.

Tolstoy holds all big resolutions till the end. Levin’s inability to face the death of his brother—whereas the women thought of it as part of life—shook his convictions of purpose. Happiness doesn’t even come into play: we live for nothing and then we die. And all of this in between? Is it somehow meaningful if we are happy? What are we here for? Even the birth of his son doesn’t rejuvenate his faith in life; he’s got to find it for himself.

The struggles of Anna, who can’t find any way to make things right for herself, and the struggles of Levin, who tries so hard in his mole-digging way, hardly seem related. Most times they work in contradiction, predictably, on topics of immortality and in love, but at other times there is some kind of harmony. As the chapters swayed from one character center to the other I never wished for more concentration on one and wondered how Tolstoy managed to write such switches. For when the text went from Levin to Anna and Anna back to Levin the transitions were seamless.

The harmony lies in the answers of the other found in the one. Like a teeter-totter they play. As Levin thinks at the end:

The answer was given by life itself, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad. And I did not acquire that knowledge through anything, it was given to me as it is to everyone, given because I could not take it from anywhere.

The differences in Anna and Levin, what was for each good and what was bad. And I can’t help wondering that if Anna would have known Levin’s thought would it have been her salvation? If only she could have seen through to herself. But she was self-convicted and as the whole novel points: death was her only solution. As for Levin, it could have only been life, more life!

As I said before, the joy of such novels is their ability to immerse. To find one’s self out of the novel comes as a brash surprise. I find this especially true of the Russians. God bless the Russians and their writing of books! Nothing is finer than a long list of unpronounceable characters and the resulting interwoven mix. If Anna Karenina is not The Best Book of All Times I then now understand how it has come so close. Bravo! Bravissimo!



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