Posts Tagged ‘Anna Karenina’

Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

Presenting oneself

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.

Tolstoy’s darkening vision

When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably. But it is not easy to identify exactly why we should think so. After all, War and Peace has more than its fair share of darkness, both on a personal and on a wider historical level. And there are passages in Anna Karenina that are luminous with joy. And yet, for reasons not entirely obvious, it is hard to imagine anyone who has read both these novels who fails to perceive a greater darkness in the latter.

An obvious explanation is that War and Peace culminates in marriages, and with the promise of propagation of a new generation; while Anna Karenina culminates in death. But, undoubtedly true though that observation is, it tells us little. The culminating point of a novel – at least, of a novel of such quality as these – is not something random that is tacked on to the end, but is, rather, a consequence of all that has gone before. Why should marriages be an appropriate culminating point of one, while death the appropriate culminating point of the other?

Despite having given this matter some thought, I am not sure I have come across a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that the answer lies not so much in the course of events depicted, but, rather, in the different conceptions in the two novels of human character. In both, Tolstoy is fascinated by why it is different characters behave, think, and perceive as they do; in both, Tolstoy tries to delve as deeply as he can into these reasons. But whereas in War and Peace the characters’ behaviour and perceptions are always conditioned by reason, in Anna Karenina, they are not.

It’s not so much that we can always understand the reasons behind human behaviour. In trying to establish the chains of causality that make the characters behave as they do, there comes inevitably a point where even Tolstoy concedes that he can go no further. This is not because causality fails to hold: rather, it is because, as Tolstoy argues in the often-skipped second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, the causes underpinning any effect are often seemingly infinite in number, and each infinitely small. It is not that the chains of causality do not exist, but, rather, the human brain is simply not capable either of collecting or of processing the data required to establish these chains. This of course implies that humans can have no freedom of action; Tolstoy, at the end of War and Peace, accepts this. We may have the illusion of freedom, he says, because we are incapable of analysing all the causal factors; but it is an illusion only: in reality, we do not have any freedom.

I can’t help feeling that even as Tolstoy was writing this, he was not satisfied with it. Amongst other things, this would imply that no person can be held morally responsible for anything; and this Tolstoy could not accept. When he started Anna Karenina, only a few years after finishing War and Peace, his ideas about why and how humans perceive and behave as they do had changed considerably. Once again, he tries to delve as deeply as he can into the roots of human action; but now, over and over again, he comes to a point where no explanation of human behaviour is possible. It isn’t that we are not capable of understanding all the causes: it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where, all too frequently, there aren’t any causes to begin with. We are in a world where attempts to explain human behaviour all too frequently run up against the tautology “People act as they do because they do”.

Compare, for instance, the passage in War and Peace where Lise Bolkonskaya dies in childbirth to the passage in Anna Karenina where Anna nearly dies in childbirth. They are both passages of tremendous intensity, and of profound psychological intricacy. But in War and Peace, no matter how complex the psychologies of the characters, they are amenable to rational analysis; in Anna Karenina, they aren’t. Here, the characters behave as they do because they do: it is not that their reasons for doing so are difficult to understand – but, rather, there is no reason, and any attempt to understand the roots of human motivation ends merely in tautology. Human behaviour is not a purely rational thing.

This takes Tolstoy’s fictional world closer to Dostoyevsky’s. Dostoyevsky insisted that all his characters have complete freedom, and as a consequence, all his characters, at all points, act as if utterly unhinged and demented. It is an extreme fictional world, admittedly, and, frankly, not entirely sane: it is not something all readers can respond to. (And even those, like myself, who do respond to it, often find themselves harbouring grave doubts, and feeling deeply uneasy about it all.) But I do find it quite astonishing that the rational author of War and Peace should, within only a few years, come even within touching distance of the insanity of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world.

And it is this, I think – this picture of humans as precariously placed, driven as they are by forces susceptible neither to reason nor to understanding – that imparts to Anna Karenina so profound a sense of darkness, and, indeed, of terror.

Dostoyevsky himself, despite the resentment and envy with which he viewed Tolstoy’s literary reputation, described Anna Karenina as “a perfect work of art”; and one can only imagine how much pain it must have cost Dostoyevsky to concede this. But perhaps it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky should have reacted in such a way to this novel, which comes closer to the ethos of his own masterpieces than is generally, I think, accepted.

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

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, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

On joy: a scene from “Anna Karenina”

When Levin had gone to Moscow to propose to Kitty, he had met her at the ice rink. He had tried “not to look at her for too long at a time, as one avoids looking at the sun”. But, as with the sun, “he saw her without looking at her”.

But Levin was rejected. Returning to his farm, he had tried to forget about her by throwing himself into his work. And he thinks he has succeeded. A simple life of toil on the land. Perhaps he might even marry a peasant woman. And the hurt he had received would be forgotten. But even as he thinks about such things, after a night spent out in the open, in the early hours of the morning, a carriage passes by. And inside the carriage is her.

Bright and thoughtful, filled with a refined and complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she was looking beyond him at the glowing dawn.

Just as the vision was about to disappear, her truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him, and a look of surprise and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other such eyes in the world. There was no other being in the world able to focus for him the whole world and the meaning of life.

Levin looks up at the sky which, that last night he had spent in the open, had seemed to him somehow sympathetic to his thoughts. But now, it seems different:

There, in that inaccessible height, a mysterious change had by now taken place … Over half the sky was spread a carpet of fleecy clouds growing gradually smaller and smaller. The sky turned pale blue, became brighter and answered his questioning glance always with the same tenderness and the same remoteness.

And Levin realises that living a simple life of toil, married to a peasant woman, however good and virtuous, is not for him: it is she he loves.


Of the many passages of Anna Karenina that have haunted my mind since my most recent reading, this one particularly haunts me. What I think particularly strikes me about it is that the sight of Kitty awakens in Levin a sense of joy, and also, at the same time, re-opens his wound, sharpens the pain.

And the two emotions do not, I think, contradict each other. We tend to think of joy nowadays as but as an excess of pleasure; we think the difference between the two is but a difference in degree, and label both with that banal and vapid coinage “feelgood”. But joy, true joy, is, as Tolstoy reminds us, something quite different: it is something that can strike us even as it causes pain. After all, one of the most heartfelt expressions of grief in the English language opens with the words “Surprised by joy”.

For Wordsworth too knew of the complexities of joy:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

A joy can bring pain, and it can also disturb. Not much of the “feelgood” here. And it can take us also by surprise. In his sonnet “Surprised by joy”, Wordsworth does not tell us what had occasioned his joy – merely that he was “surprised” by it. And when he had turned instinctively to share his joy with his daughter, he remembered what he had known all along: the joy could not be shared with her, for she was dead. It is not her he had forgotten: far from it – she had been continually present in his mind. What he had momentarily forgotten was her absence from the real world.

Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his most famous poems, also meditates on this: if one is absent from this world, but present in one’s mind, then in what sense, if any, does she, can she, exist?

You are not before the eye,
You have made your home in the midst of the eye itself.
[Translated with startling inadequacy by myself]

And from here to the closing lines, the poem soars with a sense of ecstasy – with a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused. (And this I will not attempt to translate: the sounds and rhythms Tagore uses to communicate this ecstasy are not available in English, and to fall short would, to my mind, be to misrepresent it.) The joy that is depicted in the closing section of this poem does not wipe out the pain, nor even mitigate it: but it is a joy nonetheless. And similarly with Wordsworth’s sonnet: it is significant that this almost unbearably poignant expression of grief and pain is introduced with an evocation not of gloom or of despair, but of joy.

In our modern times, we tend not to believe in the concept of transcendence: if the material word is the only world there is, then there can be nothing to transcend to, and all feelings, all emotions, are either merely “feelbad” or “feelgood”: “feelgood” is what we should all strive for, as this, after all, is the sole purpose of living; and “feelbad” is what you take anti-depressants to ward off. This is perhaps why I come away from so many modern novels with the sense that I have witnessed merely small, insignificant people experiencing small, insignificant feelings. But with Tolstoy, I feel I am in a much bigger world. No other writer, I think, has depicted the physical surfaces of our lives so meticulously; but Tolstoy depicts also a sense of transcendence, even though we can but vaguely know what those regions may be that we are transcending to. He depicts that sense sublime of something that is more deeply interfused – something that refuses to be pinned down, but which we cannot ignore without diminishing ourselves. It is in that sense of joy we feel even as we grieve, even as we feel pain – even as we are disturbed. It is certainly what Levin feels when he unexpectedly catches sight of Kitty in the carriage.

[All passages quoted from Anna Karenina are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, published by Oneworld classics]

The conclusion of “Anna Karenina”

What, will this line of Anna Karenina posts stretch out till the crack of doom? One more, and this the last, I promise. It’s hard to stop thinking about this novel.

The conclusion of Anna Karenina continues to puzzle. After all Tolstoy has taken us through, Levin discovers God. And that, more or less, is it. Many have considered this a most lame and impotent conclusion. I too have not understood in my past readings – nor even, perhaps, in this one – why Tolstoy should choose to end this stupendous work in such a manner. However, it is unlikely that a writer who could scale such extraordinary heights would at the very end make so elementary a blunder; so it is best to try to understand.

The eighth and last part of the novel is much shorter than the other seven, and is, in effect, an epilogue. The aftermath of Anna’s tragedy is dealt with in a few superb pages. (Contrary to popular perception, Tolstoy’s art was actually very concise: his major novels were long not as a consequence of unwanted prolixity, but because he had much to convey.) The last words on Anna are delivered by the Vronsky’s mother, an unintelligent, insensitive, and somewhat spiteful woman. She describes, without betraying the slightest understanding of nature of the trauma her son was going through, how Vronsky had responded to Anna’s death:

For six weeks he didn’t speak to anyone and only ate when I begged him to. And he couldn’t be left alone for a single minute. We took away everything he could have killed himself with…

…and so on. Although she doesn’t understand it, we can: Vronsky had, after all, identified the body, had seen the mangled corpse of the woman he had loved. But to his mother, Anna was merely a “bad woman”, and that’s all there was to it. “And why such desperate passions?” she asks. Why indeed.

Then, we see Vronsky himself. He is suffering from toothache. On one level, this is a marvellous Flaubertian touch: even when one’s soul has been ripped out, one is still subject to such everyday distractions as toothache. On another level, we remember that Vronsky had been described throughout this novel as possessing fine, white, regular teeth: that had become, as it were, his leitmotif, the label attached to him. The symbolic implications of his now having toothache hardly need emphasising. And Tolstoy doesn’t emphasise: he merely mentions it, and moves on.

Vronsky is going to the wars. He might as well: there’s nothing for him to live on for. We see him on a railway platform, gazing on the wheels of a passing train.

And all at once an entirely different feeling – not of pain, but of a general, agonizing inner discomfort – made him forget his toothache for an instant.

The memory of seeing her mangled corpse suddenly floods back into his head. He remembers also the first meeting he had with her, also at a railway station. He tries to remember also their best times, “but those moments had been poisoned for ever”. His toothache now forgotten, his face is now “distorted by sobs”. This picture of Vronsky only takes up a few paragraphs, but one wonders whether mental agony has ever been depicted with such vividness and immediacy. Anna, after all, is not the only tragic protagonist of this novel.

These remarkable chapters now done, we turn once again to Levin and to Kitty. Guests are arriving at their estate – just as guests had arrived at the estate of Nikolai and Maria at the conclusion of War and Peace.

In these closing chapters, Levin, a man who, despite his happiness, is still searching for some meaning, has a moment of revelation – an epiphany, as Joyce might have called it. A peasant speaks of someone living “for his soul’s sake”, and these simple words set off in Levin’s mind a train of thought. All that he understands about what is good and what isn’t, about what is kind and what is cruel, he reflects, he has not learnt through exercise of reason: this sense has come to him by some other means. But how could this be? What possible means of comprehension can there be other than that of reason? He reaches the conclusion that those things which matter most enter our consciousness through some means other than that of reason. This is not to discard reason, but to accept that there are other important aspects to our being.

All this may seem hopelessly naïve to the modern reader, used as we are to scoffing at anything that we may suspect to be sentimental. But Levin’s spiritual crisis is real enough, and this possibility – for it is no more – this possibility that dawns on him that there may be a way out is similarly real. It is not an instant transformation: Levin realises full well that he will go on living more or less as he does now, and that he will continue, as before, to lose his temper at minor things. But the possibility of a new approach to life has dawned on him: and on this note – a note not by any means of certainty – the novel ends.

We may take this to be a false dawn: we are entitled to do so. It is indeed possible that nothing at all will come of this, and that Levin will go on searching. But it is equally possible that this is the first step towards a moral and spiritual regeneration. We cannot tell. But this ending, problematic though it is, is not, I think, quite as simplistic as is often made out.

There is one final surprise before the final page. Kitty is in the midst of her domestic bliss: she is bathing her baby. And after bathing him, she “put[s] back on her slender fingers the rings she had taken off”.

Now, slender fingers bejewelled with rings had been a leitmotif associated throughout this novel with Anna: and suddenly, and quite shockingly, it is applied to Kitty, who in the very midst of her domestic happiness. This is not to suggest that Kitty is another Anna in waiting: such an interpretation would be crude, and quite contrary to the nature of Tolstoy’s art. But it is, I think, to suggest that the shadows cast by Anna’s tragedy do not depart so easily; that the forces that had driven Anna to her destruction are with us all, even in our earthly happiness.


[All excerpts quoted are from the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

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.

On re-reading “Anna Karenina”

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.]