So here is the primary problem with nineteenth century Russian novelists: they do tend to go on. Back then people didn’t have quite as many things to do besides ride around in sledges and engage in extramarital affairs and read about other people doing the same things. I fear it may take me all of May to finish this book (update: I started this post three weeks ago. I had no idea that it would take me all of May to write a progress report on this book, during which time I have not been reading Anna Karenin(a) at all.) And I lack the ability to multitask in my reading so it’s been all Anna Karenin(a), all the time for me for the past month. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying it. I am. It’s an amazing novel. But I am not too fancy to admit that Charlaine Harris’ last Sookie Stackhouse novel just arrived via Amazon Prime two days ago and it’s calling out my name. Might be nice to leave the deep Russian winter and visit Bon Temps, Louisiana and its perpetual springtime for a few days.
As I see this novel now, it’s the story of two marriages: Levin and Kitty and Anna and Karenin. At the end of part 4, Levin and Kitty have finally reunited and become engaged, and Anna and Karenin have ruptured. Anna has run off to Italy with Vronsky and Karenin has been left in St. Petersburg with his son. This novel with these two parallel couples also has parallel settings: city vs. country, dissolute politicians vs. upstanding agrarians. As I mentioned in my pre-reading post, I found the country and farming sections pretty boring the first time around. And sometimes when Tolstoy spends a long time in the country with Levin talking about ploughing and harvesting, I admit I miss the excitement of the urban settings of the other storyline. But I do find things of value in the country chapters now. Reading about small time farming operations like Levin has compared to big business farming like it is now is really quite interesting and reading about the peasant/landowner relations is fascinating. And the country chapters are full of light and life. The city chapters all seem to take place in the dark, cold, snowy winter night. Sure, the characters are doing things like going to the ballet and having balls and dinner parties. But it all seems artificial somehow. No one is truly happy there. And that realization was huge for me. Maybe that’s why the city storyline appealed to me so much as an angsty teenager.
Bethany brought up an interesting idea when we were reading Madame Bovary: how the translator of a book has a huge hand in a book. She spent a lot of time in grad school trying to find the “perfect” translation that would make the book as enjoyable as possible. I never really thought about it much before then, but have been thinking about it quite a bit while rereading Anna Karenin(a). The translation we read in 1993 was from the 1950s and I have no problem with it at all. But a new translation was released a few years ago, coinciding with Oprah trying to appropriate some of this book’s fame for her own benefit. Wait, what I meant to say was that Oprah introduced a classic to the masses who would otherwise have never have picked it up. Yeah. That’s what I meant. Anyway. I was reading on amazon.com recently about this new translation, and one of the blurbs said that prior translation have “softened the robust, and sometimes shocking, quality of Tolstoy’s writing,” but that this translation was more true to the author’s “powerful voice.” I almost want to get that translation and read the old one and the new one side by side to see how different it really is. But I fear I will never finish with this book if I do that. Doesn’t that sound appealing? More true to Tolstoy’s vision! But how do we know what that was? Did he critique all the translations of his works? It makes me wonder which the more accurate translation would be: the one written right after publication, or the one written a century later. My intuition has always told me that the better translation would be the older one. I did flip through the more recent translation of Madame Bovary, and found that it sounded too modern to me. I expect I’d think the same thing about the new translation of Anna Karenina. I almost bought it today at a used bookstore and didn’t. Now I wish I had, for a couple reasons, not the least of which is that my old copy is getting pretty disheveled with all the travelling it’s been doing recently. Pocketbooks probably weren’t meant for multiple readings decades apart.
As with all my opinions of the put-upon heroines of these classic novels, my opinion of Anna has changed somewhat in the twenty years since I last spent time with her. As a lovelorn girl, besotted by hormones and ennui, I was enraptured by the romance of Vronsky and Anna and was no fan of her unavailable husband. Now I find myself irritated by the lot of them. Anna has a stable life, a loving child, and her husband does love her, even though he has a hard time telling her or acting like it. Obviously Anna isn’t in Karenin’s head. She doesn’t know how he suffers because of her. Knowing Karenin’s thoughts makes Anna’s actions all the more thoughtless. I mean, I know. People deserve to be happy and shouldn’t have to stay in situations where they have no joy and it isn’t like Anna probably had much choice in who she married. If it weren’t for women like her, women like me would probably still be wearing corsets. But I can’t help but feel bad for Karenin because he simply didn’t know how miserable his wife was. Why can’t people just talk to each other???
The same is true for Kitty and Levin, though they do better than most of the other couples in the novel. And Kitty is really young at the beginning of the book. She grows up a lot after Vronsky turns his attention from her to Anna. But even look at how she and Levin finally express their feelings for each other. They can’t do it with actual spoken words. They write, in chalk, on a table, the first letters of the words they want to say to each other, rather than having an actual conversation. And yes, it is adorable that each figured out what the other was trying to say, and how blissful that they have finally gotten together, and maybe now Levin will stop trying to revolutionize the way the peasants do things, but come on, people, just say what you are thinking.
There is one final aspect of the novel that I want to address here: Tolstoy spends a lot of time involving his characters in discussion of “current events,” including the political reforms that were occurring in Russia at the time of the novel’s publication, the purpose of the peasant class, education, the position of women. Of course these are far from current events now, but they are interesting to read about in the context of Anna Karenin(a); it makes for a more well-rounded portrait of the world the characters are inhabiting, a Russia long gone from this world. I’m pretty sure all this nonsense bored me to tears in 1993, but not now. I do (as do we all) get so caught up in the here and now and my own personal daily dramas and stresses that I forget how important history is, and how nothing today would be possible without everything that came before. And for as much as has changed, there is so much that hasn’t. Love still comes and goes, babies are still born, people still argue about the best way to plough a field. It’s comforting, don’t you think?