I haven’t given up on Paradise Lost – really I haven’t. For the last several weeks I’ve been preparing for the workshop I took this week, and now I have a deadline this Friday. After that, though, I want to devote some time to good old Milton. I’m motivated by two things: 1) by the fact that the faster I work through it, the sooner I’ll be done, and b) by the possibility that there might be some lines in it that are unintentionally dirty. Not necessarily in that order.
But Anna Karenina: that’s a different story. I really want to read Anna Karenina, but for some reason I couldn’t get through it back in April (you know, like, almost a year ago) when we had it scheduled. I love Anna Karenina. It’s the only book that I know for sure I read from cover to cover in A.P. English. Then I read it a second time in a Zen meditation garden when I had a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2000, and then I read it again a few months later for one of my grad school classes. When I read it in high school, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. I remember being shocked that it wasn’t hard. Tolstoy exuded an aura of difficulty for me back then, and maybe on some level he still does.
So I remember quite a lot about Anna Karenina. I remember all the main characters: Anna and Karenin and Vronksy and Kitty and Dolly and Levin and Frou-Frou the horse (more on Frou-Frou later). I remember that Tolstoy liked to renounce his aristocratic life every so often in order to live and work with the peasants. I remember that he didn’t believe in sex but had thirteen children. I remember that there was sort of a cult of personality surrounding Tolstoy in his own times, and that his religious beliefs were both passionate and unconventional. I remember that early in the novel there’s a reference to a woman who “turned twenty-two and lost her looks.” I remember that only one chapter in the entire novel is titled, and that its title is DEATH. I remember the famous first sentence, and I also remember thinking that as good as the novel is, it doesn’t quite live up to the wisdom promised on its first page.
And then there’s Frou-Frou the horse. Here’s the story: we were assigned Anna Karenina for summer reading before A.P. English began. Jill and I spent a lot of time together that summer. I worked at a preschool in the mornings, and Jill took an art class at a nearby school (not the one we went to) so she could get her art requirement out of the way and take more A.P. classes (that was the sort of thing we did back then; I sang in the mixed chorus my junior year, enduring the chorus director’s insistence that I possessed a “rare learning disability” related to singing, for the same reason). We were both free in the afternoons, and I picked her up quite often. We spent our afternoons doing things like going to movies and half-heartedly working out (we called it “frolicking”) in the park. We also made fun of Jill’s art class, for which she was assigned to create an “autobiographical photo montage.” We were not kind to teachers who underestimated us. Or even to teachers who pretty much had us pegged.
At some point that summer we got together with our friend Rosanna. I remember asking her how far she had gotten in Anna Karenina. She rolled her eyes and said, “There’s a horse named Frou-Frou in it.” The disgust in her voice was all I needed to hear. On some level, even after I came to love this novel, I hear her voice every time anyone, anywhere, mentions Anna Karenina: there’s a horse named Frou-Frou in it.
And Frou-Frou dies. I’m thinking maybe he gets beaten to death. Or is that in Crime and Punishment? Maybe it’s in both. Maybe on some level all Russian novels have horses getting beaten to death in them, even if only metaphorically.
In my own inner ranking system that keeps track of these things, Frou-Frou held the title of Most Appalling Animal Name in an 800-page 19th-Century Novel for almost two decades. Unfortunately, though, Frou-Frou lost this title in the fall of 2012, when I discovered “Fag the Sheepdog” in Middlemarch. Still – it was a good run, Frou-Frou. Good run.
So these are the things that are on mind as I prepare to read Anna Karenina again. But I’m also thinking about one more thing. As I hold my old battered high school copy of this novel in my hands, I have a visceral memory of how proud I was of myself for finishing the novel back in 1993, and I’m thinking about the connections between ego and reading. Most kids who like to read get constant positive reinforcement from adults. A kid reading in public is a little-old-lady magnet. Over time, we start to internalize all this praise and think on some level that we are actually better than other people, people who don’t read. I’ve had librarians and bookstore clerks compliment me – Aren’t you GOOD? – when I take home classics – even now, at 38! I would imagine that non-readers are affected by this whole phenomenon as well: they hear others praised for reading literature while they stand awkwardly in line with their latte and their half-priced 2014 cat calendar, and they feel on some subtle level like second-class citizens. All of this is ridiculous. Reading is a value-neutral act. There should be no reason to stoke one’s ego by listing off all the books one has read. I am not a better person now than I was before I read The Portrait of a Lady, but on some level I feel as if I am.
That’s it, really. I don’t have a lot to say about this feeling, except that I don’t want reading to be a moral activity, I don’t think reading is a moral activity, but my gut reactions when I hold the books I’ve read and look into their eyes belies what I want and believe. My ego is fully engaged in my reading, even though I don’t want it to be.
More on Anna Karenina – and also on Paradise Lost – coming soon!