Sunday, April 19, 2009

Anna Karenina

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I read that opening sentence of Anna Karenina almost exactly nine months ago and I read the last sentence a few days ago.

Tolstoy begins his story by introducing us to Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, the oldest of the three Scherbatsky sisters (Dolly, Natalie and Kitty). The Oblonsky's are having marital difficulties because Dolly has discovered Stiva's "indiscretions" and Dolly is considering leaving Stiva. Within the first twenty pages we meet Stiva Oblonsky's friend Levin who is in love with Dolly's eighteen year old sister Kitty but who has not yet declared himself. It is apparent from the first that Levin is considered a little odd because he prefers country life to life in Moscow. Kitty is, in fact, in love with Levin but she does not yet know that and is, instead, enamored of a rather dashing military officer named Count Vronsky. The Scherbatsky's expect the engagement between Kitty and Vronsky to happen at any moment. Vronsky himself seems to have no idea that this is expected of him.

It is not until page 61 that we meet Anna, the sister of Stiva Oblonsky, and we first see her through the eyes of Vronsky, who meets her at the train station where he is picking up his mother and Anna is being picked up by Stiva. Anna is married to Alexei Karenin, a wealthy government bureaucrat, and she has one son whom she calls Seryosha. Anna has come to Moscow to convince Dolly that she mustn't leave Stiva and should continue in her marriage. As Stiva and Anna make their way out of the station they are hindered because an incident has occurred in which someone has been run over by a train. Anna thinks that may be a bad omen. And from that point, the story is off and rolls along for the next almost 700 pages.

I don't think it has ever taken me this long to finish a novel although when I decided to begin Anna I did intend to read it slowly, over the winter, pausing to read other books along the way. I assumed that the other books would be relatively small but almost immediately one of my reading groups chose The Fountainhead and I had to put Anna aside. That began of pattern of starting and stopping that went on for nine months.

For a long time I wondered why I was constantly putting the novel down and "taking a rest" from it. It isn't a complicated story, the story could be made into a daytime soap opera very easily, and I found myself caught up with the characters. It also isn't written in a structurally difficult way. Tolstoy wrote it in short chapters that are easy to get through. But after a while I realized that I found the characters simply exhausting and sometimes after reading a short chapter I just needed to put it down. This is due to Tolstoy's decision to tell us every single thought that goes through the mind of whichever character he is focusing on.

Although the novel is written in the third person, Tolstoy shifts the point of view around between the characters so that we know what they are thinking. And, with the exception of Levin, they aren't thinking deep thoughts but are thinking through the days of their lives the way that ordinary people do. And since I am an ordinary person thinking my way through my own life, I found having their thought processes in my head to be utterly exhausting. To read six pages of a character going through the painful thought process of deciding something about his or her life only to have a letter delivered that makes him or her have to start rethinking the decision (or not rethink it but just change his or her mind at that moment) was too much like reality for me to go on with for long periods of time. This is not a complaint but a tribute to how well Tolstoy used this effect. The end of Part Seven of the novel in which Tolstoy creates a stream of conscious chapter entirely in the mind of the confused, morphine addled mind of Anna, culminating in her suicide, is a tour de force and worth the entire novel.

Reading the Introduction after I finished the novel (I always save it for last) I learned that many readers are confused and put off by the many chapters Tolstoy devotes to Levin's thoughts about agrarian reform. I welcomed them. I found them a respite from all the other thoughts I was reading and after a couple of chapters of agrarian reform I was more ready to go back into the emotional ups and downs of human relationships and the insecurities that all persons harbor within themselves (except apparently Stiva Oblonsky). Spending a couple of chapter on agrarian reform and related matters was was almost like spending a month in the country. My only wish was that I knew more about Russian history so I could have appreciated those chapters more.

Although the Oblonskys are the keystone of the novel, providing the hub out of which all the characters are somehow related (to mix metaphors), the principal characters are of course Anna and also, somewhat surprisingly, Levin. Also somewhat surprisingly Anna and Levin meet only once and the meeting occurs late in the novel and is not any kind of turning point in the novel for either character. And as I mentioned above, we don't meet Anna until page 61 and she disappears from the novel with almost fifty pages still remaining. And she is barely mentioned in those fifty pages despite her horrible death. Tolstoy seems to be saying that life goes on, especially life in a family. Anna left her family and her life was destroyed; Levin began a family and he eventually finds meaning in life.

Yes, this novel is full of double standards. And Tolstoy consciously and approvingly creates the the double standards. The brother and sister, Stiva and Anna, are both unfaithful spouses and yet Stiva's life always seems to work out for him and Anna's life is a tragedy. Of course the happiest marriage is Levin and Kitty - Levin being the completely faithful husband who is jealous of any man who speaks to Kitty even when she is very pregnant.

Levin and Anna both have trouble connecting to a child. Anna never loves the child she has with Vronsky but reserves all love for her son Seryosha, but loves Vronsky more. Levin has trouble connecting with his newborn child but he gets straightened out in that matter when Tolstoy creates a dangerous storm that threatens the child and makes Levin realize his love. Tolstoy also creates a world in which "the country" is better for people than "the city". Levin is somewhat corrupted in the months he spends in Moscow while Kitty is awaiting childbirth. He spends beyond his means and is lured into enjoying himself at his club. Anna, on the other hand, seems the happiest when she is living in the country with Vronsky and it is returning to Moscow where she is shunned and is a virtual prisoner in her home that drives her over the edge.

Most importantly, both Anna and Levin wonder what is the purpose of life and contemplate suicide but Levin, a wholly upright man, is brought through his dark time by finding religion and the unrepentant Anna is destroyed.

And yet ... by creating such a beautifully drawn and fascinating character as Tolstoy created in Anna, he also creates ambiguity. Because no matter how much I understand that Levin is the character who ends correctly, I was a bit bored by Levin and all the extended family who are under his roof in the pure countryside at the end and I missed the drama that was Anna's story.

As in the operas of Puccini and others, where the composer makes the female character suffer far more than the male characters but also gives her the best arias, Tolstoy destroys Anna but gives her the wherewithal to live on in our minds long after we have finished the novel.