Archive for September, 2012

Happy families, unhappy families: the two strands of “Anna Karenina”

The famous opening line of Anna Karenina, however we may choose to interpret it, focuses out attention on one of the novel’s principal themes: families – happy and unhappy. As is well-known, there are two principal strands of narrative contrasting with each other: the breakdown of an unhappy family contrasts with the formation of a happy one. But is this all? Is this frankly rather banal contrast the only reason why Tolstoy has decided to splice together these two tales that, in narrative terms, barely touch each other?

Looking around the net at the various comments on this novel, it seems that most readers belong to either one or the other camp: there are those who find the Levin strand with its endless depictions and discussion of farming methods a distraction from the doomed tragic love story of Anna and Vronsky; and there are others who are fascinated by Levin’s and Kitty’s discovery of domestic bliss, and are irritated by the irrationality of Anna and Vronsky and Karenin that brings to them so much needless sorrow. But rarely do I find any commentary from readers that sees the two strands as not merely equally important, but, indeed, vital to each other, such that if one were to be missing the other would be incomplete.

And yet, if we are to see the novel as a unity that it surely is rather than as two disparate strands awkwardly meshed together, we need to see it in precisely these terms. I find it hard to believe that a writer who could create a work of such endless complexity would splice the two stories together simply to depict something so banal as a contrast between happiness and unhappiness, light and shade. The ties binding these stories together must be stronger than merely this.

In searching for these ties, we should note, I think, that the story of Anna and Vronsky is not unrelievedly dark, nor the story of Levin and Kitty unrelievedly light. Quite clearly, Vronsky and Anna experience joy together – a joy that is more than merely that of sexual gratification; and Vronsky’s relationship with Anna ennobles him, as he finds in himself a greater depth than either he or anyone else had suspected – a sense of commitment and of self-sacrifice that transcends the mere unthinking hedonism in which his life had previously been rooted. Meanwhile, Kitty and Levin’s lives are by no means purely sunny and cloudless: that things work out happily for them in the end should not lead us to overlook the suffering that had come before. After Levin is humiliated by Kitty’s initial rejection, he tries to bury himself in his work, to close his mind from all remembrance of Kitty. In this, of course, he fails, as each renewed memory administers a sharp lash to his stubbornly open wound. (Interestingly, when Karenin is humiliated by his awareness of Anna’s affair, he also, like Levin, tries to drive it from his mind by burying himself in his work; and he is similarly unsuccessful.) Kitty, meanwhile, appears to have what amounts to a nervous breakdown. Neither Levin nor Kitty can understand why. Why have they come to this? Why has Kitty behaved as she has done? Why is Levin so unable to blot out those thoughts that cause him such pain? In their inability to understand these questions about themselves, they curiously resemble those personages from the tragic strand who are similarly incapable of understanding the forces that are driving them.

Tragedy is rarely far from Levin’s and Kitty’s lives. There is only one chapter in the entire novel that is given a title, and that title is “Death”; and it occurs not within the tragic strand, but in the happy. Before Kitty discovers her pregnancy, before the miracle of the creation of a new life is realised, they, and we, are faced with that other inexplicable event – that which, equally mysteriously, ends human life. And we find later in the novel that Levin, even at his happiest, has to hide away ropes and guns in case he is tempted to kill himself. Yet again, he is driven by forces he cannot understand.

It seems to me that the tragic fates of Anna and of Vronsky render all the deeper the dark shadows that co-exist with the happiness of Levin and Kitty; and, conversely, that which constitutes merely the potential for tragedy in the lives of Kitty and Levin is realised all too terribly in the lives of Anna and Vronsky. The two strands are intimately knit together, far more deeply that may be suggested by a mere banal contrast between light and dark.

There is also a third family in the novel: the Oblonskys. Structurally, husband and wife, Stiva and Dolly, hold together the strands of the Karenins and the Levins (Anna is Stiva’s sister, and Kitty is Dolly’s) . But they are important in their own light, and, had Tolstoy’s perspective been slightly different, they could easily have held the centre of the novel on their own. Is this a happy family or an unhappy family? In an earlier post, I had suggested that Dolly was, in her own way, every bit as tragic a figure as is Anna. But as for Stiva, he is perhaps the only happy character in the entire novel: this is because he cannot feel anything deeply enough to be unhappy for too long. Even as we see Vronsky at the end, his very soul ripped out and suffering from toothache, and going to the wars with the sole wish that he may perish there, Stiva, Anna’s own brother, appears as jolly and as amiable as ever, the recent tragedy seemingly forgotten. The sheer variety of human types never ceased to be for Tolstoy a source of wonder.

Approaching the end of “Anna Karenina”

Recently, on the commuter train back home, I finished the seventh of the eight parts that comprise Anna Karenina. I think this is my sixth reading of the book, but I was reading it all as if for the first time.

The tragic climax of the novel occurs at the end of the seventh part: the eighth part (which I started on the commuter train the next morning) is effectively an epilogue. As I was approaching the end of the seventh part, I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. I really was living and breathing every sentence of it. Throughout the novel, Tolstoy is fascinated by why people think and act and perceive as they do. There is no obvious or easy answer to this; and there is no one reason, or even an identifiable set of reasons. But Tolstoy takes us into the characters’ heads, and, no matter how irrational and even lunatic their thoughts and actions may be, he allows us to see why they are thinking and perceiving in this manner.

Before leaving her husband, Anna had been misinterpreting her husband’s words and actions – and misinterpreting almost deliberately. Almost deliberately: her mind was blocking out anything that it couldn’t handle, anything that was too much for it to take; and she would interpret only in a way that would minimise her mental anguish. She had to imagine her husband as an automaton incapable of human feeling because she would not have been able to live with the thought that she was causing him pain, So, everything her husband said or did, every slightest gesture, she had to interpret in such a way as to confirm this picture of him – this picture that, from the chapters dealing with Karenin, we know is quite false. And perhaps Anna knows it as well, deep down: but to think of her husband as a sentient being capable of feeling pain would have been too much for Anna to have handled.

Now, towards the end, Anna, suffering quite clearly from what nowadays would be diagnosed as severe depression, misinterprets, again almost deliberately, Vronsky’s words and actions; but this time, she misinterprets to cause herself maximum anguish – almost as if she wanted to punish herself. She want to believe that Vronsky is losing interest in her, that he is tiring of her, that he is happy to allow his mother to arrange a suitable marriage for him. None of this, we know is true. And yet, terrible though it is, utterly irrational though it is, Tolstoy convinces us that, yes, this is exactly how she would have acted, this is exactly how she would have perceived.

Throughout this novel, people’s ability to control their thoughts and behaviour is limited. Even when Anna behaves utterly irrationally, Vronsky cannot help reacting in the way he does. Despite his feelings for her, despite having sacrificed just about everything for her sake, he is frustrated by Anna’s mood swings, and can’t understand her irrationality. At one superb moment, Vronsky wants to comfort Anna, but…

He wanted to stop and say a word of comfort to her, but his legs carried him out of the room before he could think of what to say.

– From the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and  Jenny Hughes

And Tolstoy keeps us, effectively, prisoners in Anna’s disturbed mind right up to the very moment of her self-inflicted death. There really is nothing like this in the whole range of literature.

When my commuter train arrived at the station that night, I just had one page remaining of the seventh part. I couldn’t stop there. So I got off on to the platform – it was quite dark by then – sat on a bench, and read that final extraordinary page. Yes – on the platform of a railway station.

“Darya Oblonskaya” by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy didn’t write the novel Darya Oblonskaya. But he could have done. For Darya Oblonskaya – Dolly in Anna Karenina – is, in her own way, just as tragic a figure as is Anna.

I’ve heard it said that Tolstoy didn’t take Dolly’s predicament very seriously. That while he punished Anna’s sexual transgression, the various sexual transgressions of Dolly’s husband Stiva are taken more lightly. I have even heard this excused on the grounds that Tolstoy was, after all, a man of his times, and that he was but reflecting the patriarchal values of his times. So, as a consequence, Anna is punished, but Stiva isn’t.

Quite apart from confusing the values of the author with the values of the society that author is depicting; and, further, seeing quite needlessly in the fates of fictional characters the author’s own judgement on his creations; such views seem to me to the views of people who haven’t read the novel with adequate care. For Dolly, right from the start, is a tragic character.

At the very start of the novel, Stiva is in an awkward situation. His wife has found out about his harmless little affair, and he is forced to sleep on the settee in the library. But what to Stiva is but an awkward situation – and one he quite easily puts out of mind when he goes in to work – is, to Dolly, nothing short of a disaster. Still only in her thirties, she is burdened with all the household responsibilities that her husband finds too uninteresting to bother with; she is worn out with constant childbearing and nursing; and she has lost her youthful good looks, and knows – as indeed, does her husband, honest in this respect if not in all others – that she is no longer loved. And on top of all this is the insult – the sheer humiliation of it all. And yet, what can she do? She has to stay, to continue with this humiliating situation, because, quite literally, she has nowhere else to go to. If this is not tragic, I don’t know what is: if Anna’s tragedy is that of a woman who leaves her family, Dolly’s tragedy is of a woman who doesn’t.

Much later in the novel, when Anna, as a “fallen woman”, is beyond the pale of respectable society, Dolly makes the brave decision to visit her. And on the way there, she daydreams of doing what Anna has done – to leave her family, to relinquish all the worries and troubles that have so devastated her life. Anna, when Dolly sees her, seems at first happy and carefree. But later, Dolly is shocked to see the real mental state of her friend. Anna is what we would now describe as “clinically depressed”: she has to take opium to rid herself, at least momentarily, of those thoughts that torment her so. Dolly returns from her visit thinking that her fate isn’t so bad after all. But she is perhaps mistaken in this. Anna’s tragic fate we all know about: Dolly has to continue with her unloved, humiliating existence, without remission, for the rest of her life, while her husband continues, quite unembarrassed, with a string of further affairs. And Dolly has to accept because, once again, she has literally nowhere else to go.

Tolstoy does not pass judgement, either on Dolly, or on Stiva, or even on Anna or Vronsky or Karenin. Indeed, he made a point of not passing judgement on anyone. He depicted, with utmost honesty, and leaving nothing out – merely trying to understand why people think and act as they do, and to what extent people are morally responsible. Any judgement we form is our own.

“Antony and Cleopatra”, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Chichester Festival Theatre (co-production with Everyman Theatre, Liverpool), 2012, featuring Michael Pennington as Antony and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, directed by Janet Suzman

The first and biggest surprise came even before we’d entered the theatre: posters advertising the production featured Michael Pennington as Antony, and, instead of the vigorous middle-aged man beginning to decline into the vale of years that I, for one, usually expect to see in this role, we were presented with a man who is already very much declined: Antony here is an old man with a leonine snow-white mane of hair and beard, glowering at us in truculent defiance. This is not how I had previously pictured Antony: had I not known which play this poster was advertising, I would have suspected King Lear.

Opposite Michael Pennington is the extremely glamorous presence of Kim Cattrall, seemingly unwithered by age, but, perhaps, lacking something of that infinite variety Enobarbus speaks of. But then again, it is not possible for any actress to present that fabulous, endlessly fascinating creature that Shakespeare had written. Indeed, I often wonder whether Shakespeare, a practical man of the theatre, had actually expected this character to be depicted as she is described:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Now, who could possibly live up to this? But then, this is a play in which lays bare the gap between soaring poetic imagination and flawed mediocrity of mere mortals: possibly, Shakespeare didn’t expect anyone to live up to Enobarbus’ depiction: rather, he wanted his audience to contemplate this gap, perhaps even to laugh at it, and yet, at the same time, learn not to be disgusted by the flawed mediocrity, and also to wonder at the sheer power of the human imagination that could transcend it. For, increasingly, it is this transcendence that seems to me to be at the heart of this extraordinary play.

Antony, when he first see him here, dances awkwardly towards Cleopatra, a ludicrous figure, a man who, like Lear, has but slenderly known himself. But unlike Lear, Antony, even at the end, does not quite know himself. When he has to ponder on what really he is, he confesses to being puzzled: he is like those clouds that constantly change shape, as “indistinct as water is in water” – he cannot hold his “visible shape”. Like Coriolanus, that other tragic protagonist of late Shakespearean tragedy, this is a man who is lacking in thought, lacking in self-awareness; and, as his mortality draws close, he is puzzled.

Usually, Antony is presented as a man who, in his late middle age, is tired of all his responsibilities, and seeks nothing more than the pleasure of lying in Cleopatra’s arms: but the extreme age of Antony in this production somewhat changes this. Here, we have an old man who has not outgrown the habits of youth, and who doesn’t realise how absurd those youthful habits are in venerable old age. When, later in the play, Antony imagines sporting with Cleopatra after death in the Elysian fields, he cannot resist reverting momentarily to his dance, forgetting for one brief second the grim reality of the present: the afterlife awaits, and for Antony, the rest is not the silence that Hamlet imagines, nor the damnation that Othello knows he cannot escape: Antony’s rest is but an eternity of youthful dancing in his beloved’s arms.

And yet, Antony seems to love Cleopatra more when she is absent than when she is with him. When they are together, they merely mouth to each other banalities:

There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

Thou art
The armourer of my heart.

Even when Cleopatra bursts into those miraculous lines

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven

she is speaking in the past tense, and is upbraiding Antony. They both speak magnificent love poetry – some of the very finest in the whole range of literature – but rarely to each other. And this production, more than any other I have seen, made me wonder precisely what these two characters feel for each other. That there is a powerful attraction between the two cannot be doubted; but, perhaps, it is not as all-consuming as either may like to think.

Kim Cattrall does not have the variety of vocal delivery that one may ideally wish for in this role, but she conveys, nonetheless, a person who, like Antony, cannot even begin to understand herself. Director Janet Suzman, herself a famous Cleopatra in the legendary Trevor Nunn production in 1973, speaks of Cleopatra’s political nous, but it’s hard to discern much evidence of it in this production: this Cleopatra mechanically signs documents placed before her without even looking at them, and shows no interest whatever in affairs of state. Or even the state of her own battleships, as she calmly assures Antony that she has “sixty sails, Caesar none better”. Antony is a character who had once, at least, taken his responsibilities seriously: even the very serious-minded Octavius can barely contain his admiration for Antony’s past acts of heroism. But there is no suggestion in Kim Cattrall’s Cleopatra of someone who had ever taken her responsibilities at all seriously. It is easy to side with the lovers against the cold pragmatism of Octavius, but Octavius is a leader who can at least consider seriously the concept of “universal peace”: all Antony and Cleopatra seem able to consider by the end of their lives is walking for ever hand in hand in paradise.

Octavius is a difficult character to bring off. He seems to embody all the virtues of puritanism – hard work, abstinence, discipline – all those virtues that are so necessary for the well-being of the world; but he is devoid of poetry, incapable of deriving any pleasure in being alive. In the banquet scene on Pompey’s barge, Antony advises the young Octavius to be a “child of the time”: Octavius’ brief answer – “possess it, rather” – is chilling. Sadly, and inexplicably, this brief reply is cut in this production, but it crystallises perfectly very differing perspectives in life of the two characters. It is Antony’s perspective that is, inevitably, the more attractive, but it is a mistake, I feel, to present Octavius merely as an unfeeling killjoy: his perspective, whether we like it or not, has validity also. Martin Hutson presents Octavius as, by nature, a very passionate man, but also as a man who knows that he needs to curb that passion: thus, his grief on hearing of the death of Antony, emerges, as it should, as a genuinely heartfelt lament, and not merely as an embarrassing piece of cant. This Octavius is also, at least to begin with, in awe of Antony, and conscious of his own lack of stature in Antony’s presence: in the conference scene in Act 2, he is both angry with Antony, and yet, at the same time, somewhat intimidated by his rival’s very presence. If Antony is an old man still playing at being young, Octavius is a youngster – and very recognisably a youngster – who, despite his inexperience, understands what his duty entails, and who spurs himself, though not always very successfully, to rise to it. Meanwhile Antony, without any self-awareness or self-restraint at all, sinks into mere unthinking hedonism and bluster. Octavius may still not be a likable character, but nonetheless, he demands our respect. It is a marvellous performance.

Only Enobarbus disappoints – rather surprisingly, given that it is performed by the experience old hand Ian Hogg. His big speeches about Cleopatra should ideally be spoken with a relish indicating Enobarbus’ own infatuation with the Egyptian queen, but here, they pass for very little. Neither his desertion of Antony, nor his remorseful death, makes the dramatic impact it should.

As for the production itself, it may be described by those sympathetic to it as “uncluttered”, and those less sympathetic to it as “bland”. The sets, on two levels, are mainly functional; and one could certainly have wished for a bit more imagination in the Egyptian scenes, which appeared here to be taking place in some tacky night-club with a few Oriental trappings. But the main thing, for me, is that there was no eccentricity or quirkiness to distract from those glorious words: it is in those words, after all, that the drama is contained, and I much prefer a functional production, such as this, that doesn’t obscure the language, to some grand directorial statement in which Shakespeare’s language and construction take second place. Others who prefer the director and designer to show stronger hands may disagree.

But what drama it is! I really do not know why this play appears to obsess me so much (I have written about it here, here, and here), but even mediocre performances can leave me breathless with excitement. It is a play in which two deeply flawed and frankly rather ordinary people are raised to the most exalted level by the sheer power of Shakespeare’s soaring, poetic imagination. This particular production may not go down in theatrical history as, say, Trevor Nunn’s 1973 RSC production, but I left the theatre last night feeling exhilarated.

The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.


One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.

“All happy families are alike…”: Some thoughts half way through “Anna Karenina”

Is it really over two months since I started reading Anna Karenina? Yes, I suppose it must be. I had expected to have finished it by now, but I see I am still only about half way through it. This is partly because, for reasons I need not go into here, the past few months have been quite fraught, and I have had less time than usual for my reading; but it is also because I am relishing this book so much that I have no desire to rush ahead: I am reading it slowly, often pausing at intervals the better to take in what I have just read, and often re-reading individual pages or chapters, just for the sheer delight of it. This has long been one of my very favourite works of literature, but reading it again, it really is even better than I had remembered it. There’s so much in it, and every single thing Tolstoy attempts, he pulls off.

I am fascinated especially by his long term pacing, and by his ability to structure the vast material: the opening part – well over 100 pages – is one continuous narrative arc, introducing all the major characters, themes, and milieux; thereafter, the various strands go their own ways, and the subtlety with which Tolstoy balances them and makes them counterpoint each other is breathtaking: this really is the sort of thing one does not – can not – notice at first reading. As ever, Tolstoy enters fully the mind of each character; and because we know why it is they act as they do, we do not condemn any of them. In the hands of any other author, Karenin would appear merely a pompous, emotionally desiccated bureaucrat, who is smothering his wife in a loveless marriage; but Tolstoy will have nothing to do with such simplistic nonsense. The passages where Karenin’s situation becomes too painful for him even to think about, and, turning his mind gratefully back to his work, expends his inarticulate fury on matters quite unrelated to what is really tormenting him, are simply extraordinary: we suddenly see a very vulnerable man. Anna, meanwhile, has to force herself into seeing her husband as a heartless man, as she cannot bear the thought of causing hurt to a man who can actually feel the hurt: to bear her sense of guilt, she has to convince herself that her husband is incapable of feeling; she has to convince herself that her marriage really is utterly loveless. Tolstoy takes us into the minds of both, and dissects their psyches with the most disconcertingly direct of touches: but he does not pass judgement, he does not condemn.

Karenin has to turn to his work to hide from himself what is truly hurting him; and Levin, after being initially rejected by Kitty, does the same. (It’s one of the many subtle and unexpected parallels that hold together the disparate elements of the novel). Exactly half way through the novel, Tolstoy brings all the various strands of the novel together: Karenin is present at the party in Oblonsky’s house when Levin is finally accepted by Kitty. But even as one happy family is forming, an unhappy one is breaking apart: even as Levin floats on waves of joy, Karenin’s world seems to disintegrate. The chapters describing Levin’s elation are wonderful: it’s the most difficult thing in the world to depict happiness, but it’s hard to read these chapters without breaking into a smile. But immediately afterwards, Tolstoy gives us some of the most agonising scenes in literature – scenes that wouldn’t be out of place even in a Dostoyevsky novel. He takes us to Anna’s bedside, immediately after she has given birth: she is feverish, and, seemingly, on the point of death. And suddenly, and very unexpectedly, all three main characters – Anna, Vronsky, Karenin- seem to enter a different, heightened, plane of consciousness. Karenin, to his own astonishment, finds access to a reservoir of love and tenderness within himself that even he – or, perhaps, especially he – had not suspected; Vronsky, meanwhile, for the first time in his life, feels shame, and he cannot cope with it. I could hardly bear to read the chapter in which, barely knowing what he is doing, he attempts suicide. And I was surprised as well in discovering how few pages all this is crammed into: for some reason, these extraordinary scenes had seemed to me to comprise a large chunk of the novel. But they aren’t: it’s the sheer intensity of these chapters, and not their length, that makes them loom so large in the imagination.

Once the crisis has passed, Karenin is aware that, for some reason that he cannot grasp, he cannot continue to love and to forgive: there are present mysterious powers that are stronger than his love. His perplexity in the face of what he cannot even begin to understand is painful to read. And the brief scene in which he meets with Anna – in which Anna, her hair cropped after her fever, is unable to look her husband in the face, and, fixing her attention instead on a swelled vein in Karenin’s hand, finds herself, to her own shame, physically revolted – is simply extraordinary.

Yes, I am reading this very slowly indeed, but I am gasping in wonder and in astonishment in just about every page. Tolstoy, despite his reputation for didacticism, does not judge: Tolstoy once said that fiction is most effective when the author is not seen to take sides. This may seem strange coming from an author renowned for his didacticism, but he lives up to his principle: here, instead of judging, he explores. He questions incessantly the extent to which these characters are responsible for what they do, for being who they are. As he enters the mind of each of his characters, it appears that they cannot act otherwise: and yet, each is morally responsible for their own actions, and this remains, right to the end of the novel and beyond, a terrible unsolved paradox. Each of these characters is trapped within their own selves: they cannot even begin to understand their own complex psyches, and, to their terror, appear to rush headlong towards a doom they can vaguely sense, but cannot avoid. The sense of the tragic is intense: never has the terror in our everyday lives been expressed with such disconcerting power.

Anna Karenina is often coupled with Madame Bovary as the two great 19th century novels about adultery, but this coupling is generally unthinking, and not, I think, very helpful: although it is true that adultery is, in terms of plot at any rate, central to both, they really could not be more different. While it is Tolstoy who is renowned for his didacticism and Flaubert for his detachment, it is, ironically, Madame Bovary that seems to me the more didactic work of the two. Tolstoy in his novel explores his characters without preconceptions: Flaubert’s work, on the other hand, is steeped in the author’s conviction of the sheer futility and pointlessness of life. Of course, it is not Flaubert’s conviction of pointlessness that makes Madame Bovary so great an achievement: its greatness is, rather, rooted in the profound underlying sadness that life should be so. But Flaubert’s authorial stance is apparent in every page of Madame Bovary. There is, however, no comparable authorial stance apparent in Anna Karenina, no insistence on an underlying principle that governs everything. In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, Isaiah Berlin had characterised Tolstoy as an author who wanted desperately to discover an underlying truth to everything, a principle that holds everything together, but, instead, found himself dazzled by the sheer variety and diversity of life, by the sheer plenitude of it all; and, given such variety, it was impossible for him to discover any underlying unity, any principle that knits together all the diverse elements. Levin and Vronsky, Anna and Kitty and Dolly and Karenin, may all be governed by forces beyond their control or their understanding; but in each individual case, these same forces lead to very different destinations: no one size can fit all.

And yet, artistically, some sort of unity must be found: otherwise, the centre would not hold, and things would fall apart. The challenge was immense: Tolstoy had to find a unity despite depicting diversity; he had to hold his divergent material together with the grandest yet subtlest of architectural designs. And even on the umpteenth re-reading, it is not clear to me just how Tolstoy pulls it off: I can spot some, at least, of Tolstoy’s stratagems, but the achievement remains something of a miracle.


The famous opening line of this novel seems to me a sort of challenge: All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way*. Did Tolstoy really believe this, I wonder? Could the author who could, perhaps more than any other author, see the infinite variety of life and of humans, really think that two families, happy or not, could ever be alike? It seems unlikely. Rather, we should, I think, see this opening line as a sort of challenge – a statement the truth of which will be tested in the crucible.

Of course, the story of Levin and Kitty is essentially a happy one: this strand, though often ignored by those who wish to see this novel as essentially a romantic tragedy, is given just as much space and attention as the story of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. But even in this happy story, we see the characters driven by forces beyond their control, and beyond their understanding. For those of us re-reading the novel, we know that Levin, even at his happiest, has to hide away ropes and guns and knives in case he is tempted to kill himself; we know also that the chapter entitled “Death” – the only chapter in the novel that is given a title – occurs in Levin’s story, not Anna’s. These two seemingly contrasting stories have not been spliced together arbitrarily: the forces that drive Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, are also the forces that drive Levin and Kitty. And yet they are not the same. For all the dark shadows, for all the terror, and despite the shadow of death that is cast over all our lives, Levin and Kitty are happy in their marriage – as happy, perhaps, as it is possible for humans to be. But throughout, their story is counterpointed insistently with the story of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, and the effect of this counterpointing, though remarkable, is hard to articulate. There is no underlying moral principle to which life can be reduced: for all the clarity of Tolstoy’s presentation, there remains at the heart of it all a tremendous mystery.


Recently, I have been wondering about the nature of our personal tastes, and of the various things that mould them. My own taste in literature has been moulded by Tolstoy more than by anyone else: I discovered his two great novels as a teenager, and have been reading and re-reading them ever since. And, looking over my personal likes and dislikes, it seems clear to me that I, wittingly or unwittingly, measure all fiction by the yardstick provided by Tolstoy. This naturally has problems: the further any fiction is from Tolstoy’s aesthetics, the less I find myself able to enter into its spirit; and yet, if any author’s aesthetic values do come close to Tolstoy’s, that author almost inevitably falls short. Perhaps my discovery of Tolstoy at such an early and impressionable age was not such a good thing after all. But I don’t regret it: there are, I suppose, worse tastes to be saddled with. Art, as we all know, is not a competitive sport, and there is no such thing as “the greatest”. Yes, I know, I know… And yet, at the same time, when I think of the most enriching and wonderful experiences I have had from reading fiction, it is War and Peace and Anna Karenina that first come to mind; only then do I think of all the others.

* From the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes.