Random Russian Reading List

Russian reading listLeonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880),  The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)

Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog (1899)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills (2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (1982)

Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas (1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)

Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)

Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin (1996)

Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)

Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)

Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)

Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)

Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry (1859)
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860)
Yuri Trifonov, Time and Place (1981)

Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Case (2001)
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Little Sonya (1995)

Aleksander Veltman, Wanderer (1832)
Aleksander Veltman, The Deathless (1832)
Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1975)

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (1924)

 

Random Interesting Quotes:

Evgeny Grishkovets: “I insist that what I write is literature based not on observation, but on emotional experience.”

Eduard Limonov: “These are reports from a hot spot – my life.”

Victor Pelevin: “Reality is any hallucination you believe in one hundred percent.”

 

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

War and Peace Russian 1By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

War and Peace Russian 2By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

War and Peace: Tips for Reading

War and Peace Russian Poster

I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.

Don’t:

  • Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
  • Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Do:

  • Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
  • Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
  • Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
  • Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
  • Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
  • Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.

Happy Reading!

War and Peace: Reader Preparation

War and Peace 1

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.

War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?

It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?

Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?

Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.

There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:

“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”

In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.

Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!

So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.

And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.

So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?

Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.

The Death of Ivan Ilych

By Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910); @ 46 pages.

The Death of Ivan Ilych describes a death.

The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.

One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.

Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.

Ah, great artists.

One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.

I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.

There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.

The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.

I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.

Ivan Ilych:

“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”

I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.

Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?

At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?

Ivan Ilych:

“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”

A horrible question and then:

“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”

Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.

As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?

I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.

Anna Karenina

Cover of "Anna Karenina (Oprah's Book Clu...
Cover of Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club)

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; @ 2000 by Penguin Classics; First appeared serially from 1875 to 1877; 817 pages.

Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.

Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.

The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).

Leo Tolstoy 1848
Leo Tolstoy 1848 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.

(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.

The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.

The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.

He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.

So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!

It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.

Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:

He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.

I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909
Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:

And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.

And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.

This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.

Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:

In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.

And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:

For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.

Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:

She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.

Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.

He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.

As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.

One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.

At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:

In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.

But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.

If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.

He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.

Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.

…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.

At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.