Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why, if the world could write, it would have written Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877)

Originally Written in 2010

Only the greatest authors of all time leave lasting impacts and phrases in society. The word ‘Shakespearian’ denotes theatrical characters delivering eloquent speeches in memorable settings. To say something is ‘Dickensian’ one implies that it has strong social awareness, is peppered with grotesque caricatures, and has a somewhat over-complex narrative. But ‘Tolstoyan’ can mean so very much more than that. ‘Tolstoyan’ may as well be a substitute for the words ‘real life’.
Dickens and Austen and many others before him had written realism. David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice feature wonderfully real characters and solid stories to boot. Tolstoy, however, embraces all sides of the unique world we live in in almost everything he wrote.
His short stories – some of them are fables, while others wear their morals less obviously on their sleeves – are all believable. It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t happen, at some point. They seem almost inevitably real. And this should really be terribly boring, because we read stories to find out about people and places we don’t know, and to find out about events which never happened. But actually, because no other story – indeed, maybe no other outlook on life – has really held up the mirror to human nature quite so brilliantly as Tolstoy’s, these stories are a treasure trove. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is a towering literary achievement in a frightfully short page count. It’s harrowing, satirical, and emotional all at once.
As to his novels, Tolstoy wrote three: War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. The last is perhaps unjustly disregarded, due to its more overtly Christian nature, whilst his first two are often cited as the greatest novels of all time. War and Peace is a true masterwork, full of unforgettable moments like Andrei gazing up into the lofty sky, or Natasha's first ball, or the soldiers looking at each other across the lines at Austerlitz. But an article on War and Peace can wait.
Anna Karenina is 900 pages long, but it took me far longer to read than, say, Bleak House, which is roughly the same length. It’s because it is so realistic that I simply couldn’t read through it too fast. I deliberately restrained myself to an embarrassingly exact 47 pages a day – but found, half-way through, that I genuinely didn’t want to read any more there and then. It was simply enough to sit down and spend 5 or 10 minutes thinking about every single event that had happened to the characters in only 47 pages.
From first to last Anna Karenina defies categorisation, defies tone and style and causality. It’s a slice of life, and as Tolstoy knows, life is a bit weird. In life, things do not always happen in the most narratively dramatic order. In life, characters do not always react quite as we expect them to. In life, there is far more to everything than one can place in a novel. It is, within each 47 pages, joyful, awkward, terrifying, dull, emotional, embarrassing, exhilarating, beautiful, lyrical, heart-breaking, funny, and brutally real.
Tolstoy makes Stiva Oblonsky memorable not because he’s grotesque and exaggerated. He’s a person in the reader’s life. As do the other characters in the book, we smile when he turns up in a St Petersburg casino, because he lifts the spirit. Tolstoy makes the courtship and marriage of Kitty and Levin the most realistic yet endearing in the world, let alone fiction.
One cannot mention Anna Karenina, however, without thinking of the titular character and the agonising love triangle between her, her lover Vronsky and her husband Karenin. Somewhat unfortunately, love triangles have become the staple diet of cheap and trashy rom-coms, but Tolstoy got there first and so this is the original. And it is so very very intense.
None of the three characters are the same all the way through – Vronsky becomes humble and embarrassed, when normally he is proud and distinguished; Karenin becomes overcome with forgiveness when earlier we see him as a heartless, cold man; and to see Anna, with her breathless exhilaration and almost fierce vitality, descending into emotional ruin and trauma, is nigh-on painful. Her eventual death shocks and almost frightens, simply because she is as real to the reader as if she were someone they knew.
Tolstoy knows well that life does not end for everybody just because the “main character” has died, though, and so the story goes on, ending on a wonderfully uplifting note as Levin finally finds happiness in his married life. It’s a powerful reminder that, for some people, the loss of someone will not affect them forever, and however central Anna is, she is not the point of life.
To finish, I’d like to point to Tolstoy’s description of Anna when she is in love with Vronsky, filled with guilt at betraying her husband, and enraptured by the whirl of society. He paints a picture of her coming into her husband’s room, her face shining with “a vivid glow, but it was not a joyous glow – it resembled the terrible glow of a conflagration on a dark night”. At once, even as the reader moves onto the next sentence and leaves this behind, you can picture her face exactly. You can see the black hill, the cloudy night sky, the billowing fire and smoke written all over her face. You can see her keen, passionate, potential eyes, the guilt in her tightened jaw and cheek, the vivid smile.
When it comes to Tolstoy – who of course was writing in Russian, and so this is only a translation I’ve read out here – I have never read such wonderful prose. His portrayal of human nature is second to none, his plots mastery, his depiction of timeless themes the very finest. If the world could write what it observed in humans over millennia, it would have written Anna Karenina, and that is the highest praise one could offer to a novel indeed.

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