Note: Those who do not know what happens to Anna Karenina at the end of the novel may find a few “spoilers” here
Every once in a while, I feel an urge to return to Tolstoy, to War and Peace or to Anna Karenina. It’s a pleasure I feel I owe myself. Of course, some will tell me that there is no point reading over something I have already read when there is so much out there that I haven’t, but how likely is it that whatever else it is that I may read instead will give me anything like the experience I know I’ll get from re-reading Anna Karenina?
I am now in the second of the eight parts of this novel, and am relishing every single sentence. First-time readers have the advantage over the 5th time reader (or is it the 6th? I’ve lost count) in that, not knowing what comes next, they may be taken by surprise, or shocked, or astonished, or whatever. But the truth is, the twists and turns of the plot, such as they are, are no big deal: these are not the elements that confer greatness to a work of literature. When you read actually knowing what comes next, it is actually more rewarding: one catches so many intimations of the future, so many little details the significance of which registers only when one does know what is to come, that it is hard to escape the suspicion that Tolstoy had intended this novel to be read many times over.
In the much criticised epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy writes an essay musing on the nature of free will. This essay is not arbitrary, as many readers seem to think, and neither is it an aberration, an embarrassing polemic tacked on to a great novel: it is perfectly in keeping with the nature of the book, and, I’d argue, an integral part of it. For, after all, Tolstoy himself had denied that War and Peace was a novel: there is a novel in it, certainly, but the book is much more than a novel, and we should not be surprised if it were to contain elements that do not belong to the novel. In War and Peace, Tolstoy is not merely telling a story: he is speaking to the reader, musing, thinking aloud. And he thinks aloud not merely on why it is that individual characters behave the way they do, but also why it is that people en masse, entire nations, also behave as they do. What are the causes historic events, the great movements in the tides of human affairs? Tolstoy, who attempted, as far as he was able, to penetrate into the reasons for all human actions, refused to allow that anything could be arbitrary. If anything appears arbitrary, it is only because the causal factors are too many, and each one too apparently trivial, for the human mind to take it all in. Each event, Tolstoy felt, was the consequence of a virtually infinite number of infinitesimally small causes; and it is because the human mind is incapable of taking in and processing so much data that the appearance is given of arbitrariness. But it is but an appearance: could we but see through God’s eyes, we would see that all is as it must be, that there is no real free will at all.
It is hard to tell to what extent Tolstoy was merely thinking aloud to himself here. I personally don’t think that the conclusion Tolstoy presents in the epilogue to War and Peace is intended to be a definitive statement. Tolstoy knew that definitive statements are not possible given how little we are capable of understanding these matters. But the ideas continued, it seems, to whirl in Tolstoy’s mind: and it seemed particularly to worry him that if humans have no real free will, then they cannot be responsible for their actions, and, hence, cannot be subject to moral judgement. And Tolstoy recoiled at this. It’s a conflict that cannot be resolved: if human behaviour is capable of analysis, there must be reasons behind each action, even though we may not be aware of these reasons; but if each act is an effect of a cause or of causes, then human beings are subject to these causes, and, hence, cannot be free; and hence, they cannot be judged on moral grounds. The premise that Tolstoy insists upon leads to conclusions that he found unacceptable.
This conflict echoes throughout Anna Karenina. We start with Oblonsky, Anna’s brother: he is charming, well-liked, and affable, but deeply irresponsible. His household is in turmoil, because his wife – who is worn out with childbearing, and is no longer pretty – has discovered that he has been having an affair. Oblonksy had meant no harm: he is honest enough to admit to himself that he no longer loves his wife, but he wouldn’t deliberately have wanted to hurt her. Even so, he is incapable of imagining what she is going through, and he tells himself, quite honestly and quite sincerely, that he couldn’t help it – that it wasn’t really his fault.
We see his wife, Dolly, and she is quite clearly a tragic figure. Her life is a meaningless and endless stream of household chores, and, though aged only about thirty, she is worn out, both physically and mentally. She knows that she is no longer beautiful, and no longer loved; she knows she is utterly humiliated; and yet, she also knows that there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere for her to go. With the advantage of knowing what is to come later, we know that there will come a time when will fantasise about leaving her husband and family, as Anna had done. Dolly, in short, is every bit as tragic a figure as Anna is: Anna’s tragedy is that of a woman who leaves her family, and Dolly’s tragedy is that of a woman who doesn’t. But to what extent is any of this anyone’s fault?
Soon, there is a ball, and Anna discovers to her delight that the handsome Vronsky is besotted with her. Anna too has fallen in love with him, and, without quite knowing why, she finds herself exhilarated by the awareness of what Vronsky feels for her. And she knowingly makes the most of her considerable sexual appeal to hook Vronsky. She knows that, as a married woman, she shouldn’t do this; and she knows also that in doing this, she is cruelly destroying the hopes of the innocent Kitty, who had hoped that Vronsky would propose to her. The next morning, Anna feels ashamed of what she has done; but, like her brother, she tells herself that she couldn’t help it: it was not her fault.
Throughout the novel, people act as they do without quite knowing why: no-one, it seems, can help what they do. And even as they act foolishly, or selfishly, or maliciously, or meanly, they seem driven by forces beyond their control: they all rush headlong into an uncertain future that is a consequence of their actions, but which they cannot hope to foresee. Life seems almost to shape itself around them without anyone realising quite why, or how.
Tolstoy was not writing a treatise on free will; and he was certainly not insisting, as he had appeared to do in the epilogue of War and Peace, that free will is illusory. Anna Karenina is prefaced enigmatically by a quotation from the Bible: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay”. Actions have consequences: people are responsible for what they do, whether they like it or not, and, the clouds that gather over this novel’s landscape are dark indeed. Throughout, there is a sense of terror that lies immediately beneath the fabric of our everyday lives.
The first part of the novel is masterly. In one long, unbroken narrative arc, lasting over a hundred pages, Tolstoy brings together all the major characters, takes us into their minds as only he could do (no other writer I have come across can enter with such apparent ease the minds of so many different types of people), depicts their various milieux, introduces all the themes of the novel – and all with such seeming ease that one is left thinking that if novel-writing is really so easy, why can’t everyone do it?
And there is the imagery. The artifice that is an element of all art is so cunningly hidden here, that it is easy to get the impression that the novel is writing itself: as Isaac Babel once put it, “if the earth could write, it wold write like Tolstoy”. But of course, it is not possible to depict everything; when Tolstoy gives us details, he is not merely doing so to give an impression of a solid and realistic world: he is choosing those details carefully so they form an integral part of the larger structure. Thus, Anna, for instance, first meets Vronsky at a railway station (I am told that the Russian for railway is literally “iron road”), and, a few minutes after this first meeting, a workman is accidentally run over by a train. Later, Vronsky declares his love for Anna also at a railway station: a snowstorm is raging, and “there were sounds of a hammer striking some iron”. Once Vronsky has declared his love, Tolstoy gives us this:
At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail.
And obstacle is suddenly overcome; and a sheet of iron is rattled. This imagery of the iron, and of the “iron roads”, we know, continues. Anna later has a recurring dream that frightens her, in which she sees a peasant, sometimes in her very bedroom, doing something with some iron and muttering incomprehensibly in French. And of course, in the extraordinary climactic passage of the novel, as Anna throws herself under a train, a “little peasant, muttering something, was working over some iron”. One could, of course, analyse precisely what the symbol of the iron represents, what the railway (“iron road”) symbolises, and even, perhaps, why the peasant was muttering in French, but such a Spark’s Notes approach to great literature tells us little: the important point is that Tolstoy is constructing his novel in terms of emblems and motifs that bind together the vast material. Working out the various symbolic correspondences – even assuming they exist in the first place – is less important than appreciating the psychological import of these motifs.
Richard Strauss once said about Mozart that he cannot speak about him coherently – that he can merely worship. I know how he felt, for I feel the same way about Tolstoy: every time I try to articulate what it is about him that means so much to me, I find myself floundering. As I am reading this, I am exclaiming with admiration at every page. In all literature, it’s this novel, War & Peace, and about a dozen or so Shakespeare plays that mean most to me personally. (Throw in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I think I could be quite content just reading and re-reading only these books for the rest of my life.) I seem to be re-living this book rather than just re-reading it.
Quite a few years ago now, on an internet book group that is now defunct, I led a group read of War and Peace, and had written summaries of each part as I was reading. (I have put these summaries up on this blog.) I think I will start to do the same for Anna Karenina. Watch this space, as they say.
[All quotations from the novel are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinoviev and Jenny Hughes, published 2008 by Oneworld Classics.]