tolstoy

ANNA KARENINA BY LEO TOLSTOY

It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:

Leo_Tolstoy_in_uniform

Just look at the glorious fucker.

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THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO BY JOSE MARIA DE ECA DE QUEIROZ

Cards on the table: I’m a bit of a hipster. Yeah, I know that’s hardly news; my picture in my about me feature speaks volumes. But it doesn’t end with my appearance, because I’m one of those really annoying people who will tell you Mullholland Drive and not Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s best movie; I will not listen to Otis Redding records, but instead prefer Jerry Butler; I follow German football; I date DJ’s and artists. And so on. See, I like obscure things, things a little off the beaten track, and that attitude extends to my reading. I love [at least the idea of] so-called neglected or forgotten books. Want a tip? Go find a copy of How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic or The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. Both are excellent and not often enough given their due.

So, anyway, I was speaking to someone the other day about why certain novels never capture public attention. Why is it, I asked, that some books continue to resonate with readers hundreds of years after their publication, despite describing ways of living and attitudes that are no longer applicable to our own, and some do not? Why is it, for example, that Anna Karenina is hugely popular, and well-known, and something like the book under review here, The Crime of Father Amaro, isn’t? Both are critically acclaimed [I’ve never seen a negative review of either], both are, we’re told in those reviews, well written, and yet Father Amaro has never been anything more than a footnote.

Perhaps the most persuasive, or certainly the most appealing, answer would be that books like Anna Karenina deal with universal ideas and themes and the other books, the forgotten or neglected books, books like Father Amaro, do not. While it is the case that certain attitudes present in Anna Karenina ,and certain kinds of behaviour, etc, seem outdated to us now, there is still plenty in the book that relates to our experience of the world, such as marriage and adultery and the treatment of women. Father Amaro, on the other hand, is about Catholic priests, and corruption within the church; the scope of the novel seems so small as to potentially alienate non-religious believers or people from countries that are not still under the influence of the church.

However, it is my opinion that all books house universal ideas and themes, because they are, as far as I am aware, all written by human beings. Father Amaro’s subject might appear to have narrow appeal, but, putting aside priests and Catholicism for a moment, the themes at the heart of the novel are hypocrisy, and abuse of power, and failure of duty; and these are things that we all understand and can relate to. The priests preach tolerance, forgiveness, moderation, etc, and yet they are shown to be gluttonous, lascivious liars. Indeed, it is amazing to me that the novel was not at the time of publication [and even now] more controversial. I might be wrong, but I would think that anything showing priests in such a relentlessly bad light would really get some knickers in a twist; these priests sleep around, they conspire against each other and the town’s inhabitants, they blaspheme [one speaks about the confessional as only being useful so as to find stuff out or direct people for your own benefit] and so on.

Of course, we are an increasingly secular world, and so perhaps any mention of religion is likely to put people off. That would certainly be the case for many British readers, because the irreligious British, generally speaking, don’t like to engage with any religious sentiment or discussion at all. However, I would say that the religion in Father Amaro is far more palatable to a modern, secular, audience than that in Anna Karenina, where a religious conversion takes place. Father Amaro is a satire, it is poking fun at the clergy, while Tolstoy was absolutely in earnest about the power of Christianity.

So, if it isn’t the case that Anna Karenina has more universal appeal, could its popularity, its status, be put down to timing and exposure? Tolstoy was, of course, Russian, and Russian literature, even at the time of publication, was held in high regard. Russia was a vanguard country, in terms of literature. Being a fine Russian author, then, will mean greater exposure, more interest in your work. Eca de Queiroz, however, was Portuguese, which, to this day, has no great literary heritage. Indeed, Eca de Queiroz himself wrote about what he saw as an artless society [Portugal’s] in his book The Maias; in fact, he describes the country as one that has no culture of its own, as one that imports everything. You could say then that Tolstoy rode the zeitgeist, was fortunate to have been Russian and writing at a point when people were more likely to be interested in his work, but I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. Certainly, being Portuguese didn’t stop Jose Saramago winning the Nobel Prize.

As a true hipster it pains me to say that the real reason that The Crime of Father Amaro isn’t more popular and more widely read is because the book aint actually that good. This is not to say that it is poor, that it isn’t readable, or even worth reading; there are, in fact, some lovely touches; the first 100 pages, in particular, which deal with Amaro’s upbringing and arrival in Leira were very enjoyable. My favourite part of the book is when it is explained how the sensitive Amaro comes to train as a priest, or why he is in favour of doing so, which is not out of religious feeling but from a desire to be close to women; young Amaro is a sensualist, rather than a ladies man, or sleaze; he is shown to enjoy female company, to like their attention and being fussed over by them. I thought that was great stuff. The central love story is refreshingly lacking in melodrama too.

So, I am by no means saying that Father Amaro is bad, merely that it is average. His characters are fine, without ever being particularly memorable; the book lacks any real psychological or philosophical weight; the prose is steady but never outstanding, although it is occasionally funny; the story is engaging enough and yet at no point are you compelled to switch your phone off, tell your girlfriend you’re ill and can’t accept visitors, and hunker down for a few days to whip through the book at a mad pace.

LIFE AND FATE BY VASILY GROSSMAN

There are a number of reasons for closing a book, and a number of ways of closing it. Sometimes I’ll slam one shut in anger and frustration, usually because the writing is bad or the work is brimming with cliched phrases and run-of-the-mill imagery [flames that dance; wind that moans. GTFO]; sometimes I’ll close a book tiredly, slowly and softly bringing the two halves together, perhaps because I have been mentally exhausted by it [I’m looking at you Phenomenology of Spirit]; sometimes I’ll snap a book shut eagerly, because, oh I don’t know, maybe there’s some football on TV that is about to kick off or I’ve realised I’ve misjudged the time and I’m in danger of being late for something exciting; most often I’ll close a book unwillingly, with a heavy heart, because it’s past my bedtime and I’ve got to go to sleep or my break is over and I’m due back at work. Once, only once, I closed a book quickly, out of fear, a fear of what I might be subjected to next, with my heart beating faster than normal, my mouth hanging open, my throat and lips dry. That book is Life & Fate.

Part of me is hesitant to talk about my reaction to this book because I believe that it could reflect negatively on the book itself. You people reading this are perhaps now wondering if Life & Fate is some melodramatic monster, cynically designed to extract extreme emotional responses, like The Lovely Bones. It isn’t. Or maybe you think that I’m a massive drama queen, someone who would start blubbing if you showed him a youtube video of a limping cat. Well, in all honesty, I probably would blub at that, but generally speaking I am most often criticized, by the people who know me, for being hard-faced, detached, unsympathetic and unemotional. And yet this book got to me. Not once, either, but multiple times throughout the 900 pages. It was page 530 though, in my Vintage copy, that had me clapping the book shut as though a large aggressive spider had just crawled across the page. I thought I knew prior to commencing my reading what I was getting myself into. No one picks up a heavy Russian book about WW2 expecting a gentle romantic comedy [their eyes met over the rubble and the dead bodies – no it’s not going to work]. I knew that Life & Fate had been praised for its realism, and Grossman for his unflinching honesty, I knew the work dealt with the extermination of Jews, I even knew specifically about page 530, but nothing could have prepared me for reading what I read.

You all now want to know what happens on/around page 530, of course. Well, it isn’t even half as pornographic or gory as you’re probably expecting [some of you, no doubt, hoping]. There’s a scene in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, an unnecessarily long, relentless, excruciatingly detailed scene where a man is skinned alive. I consider that particular passage to be disgustingly voyeuristic; others will disagree, of course, but I believe that it serves no purpose other than as a kind of fairground titillation. Well, there’s nothing like that in Life & Fate, not at the point that I am referring to now, or at any other point. What we get are a bunch of ordinary people who are loaded onto trucks; and we all know where these people are going, but Grossman doesn’t stop there. We follow their journey, and continue through the gates, into the showers, and finally into the chamber. We aren’t spared here either, because the author stays with these people while they kick their life out and draw their last breaths. I don’t know what to say about that; I’d prefer to say nothing, and in that way I’m a coward, but what I want to avoid is making asinine self-important comments about how awful the ritual murder of millions of people is, as though you don’t know that already.

“Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed – while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Life & Fate is solely about the plight of Jews during WW2. It isn’t. In fact, what was so impressive for me was its panoramic quality. The book is often compared to War & Peace, but I don’t see it. Superficially, yes, in that it is a big Russian text about a famous war, featuring an old aristocratic family, but Tolstoy’s novel is much more controlled, more finely crafted, more, well, elegantly novelistic. Despite its length and reputation War & Peace hangs together very well, has a coherent narrative; Life & Fate, to my mind, is much closer to [a more serious] Gravity’s Rainbow or Catch 22 or, if you like, Dos Passos’ USA, crossed with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. You could even argue that structurally it’s a bit of a mess, the characters largely one dimensional, but what it does provide as it jumps around from one situation, and one extravagantly named character, to another are snippets, scenes, fragments of the lives of hundreds of people during wartime conditions. Indeed, I actually found this more interesting and ultimately more moving than a traditional approach, because, by not focusing on one group of people, Grossman illustrates something that we all know but don’t often fully grasp: the sheer scale of the tragedy of war. Some chapters are barely a page long, some chapters entirely given over to philosophical musings by the invisible narrator. That the characters are mostly one dimensional is not a criticism either, by the way, but more of a virtue; by not getting to know them beyond their desire to remain alive, to eat, to have sex, to wash, they are given a universal, everyman quality that highlights, by contrast, the insanity of their situation and how out-of-the-ordinary it is.

“He sensed Death with a depth and clarity of which only small children or great philosophers are capable, philosophers who are themselves almost childlike in the power and simplicity of their thinking.”

The most rounded character in the novel is Victor, a Jewish scientist. As someone engaged in an activity that is defined by freedom, both freedom of expression and thought and a more practical freedom, Victor is most affected by what we popularly see as, in turn, the defining aspects of communism under Stalin: paranoia, denunciations, and a fear of saying the wrong thing. Grossman is, obviously, making the point that this discipline, science, is incompatible with the atmosphere created by the political ideology. He was himself a journalist, if I remember correctly, so one can understand why he would be interested in this tension. Victor finds that his work is criticized, comes under suspicion, as does his character. If there is a hero in the novel, beyond the notion of the suffering hero [a notion I don’t agree with, by the way; despite what TV, and certain charities, would have you believe, someone doesn’t become a hero purely by virtue of having suffered], it is him.

I’d like to say a few words, before concluding, about Grossman as a writer. I have seen it written in numerous reviews that his style is flat, that his work has a journalistic feel, that it lacks poetry. I understand where this opinion comes from, because Grossman doesn’t sugar his pill, he doesn’t [either because he couldn’t or wished not to] embellish and polish his writing with flowery imagery and rapturous description. Yet, my response would be: what about the poetry of a beautiful heart? Grossman’s novel is soulful, it felt while I was reading it like the work of a wonderful man. Look, maybe he was a dick – who knows? – but his work is full of soul.

As for rating this book, I don’t award stars. But if I did I’d follow the lead of a number of characters in it and raise my eyes to the sky:

Image

Count them. Double it. Ah, maybe then you’d be close.