Archive for September 2nd, 2012

“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.