Posts Tagged ‘Anna Karenina’

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.