Monday, August 31, 2015

anna karenina

There's a scene in one of my favorite novels, The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, when Helen the daughter of a grocer suggests to Frank-a clerk and her sweetheart-- that he read a number of novels. One is Anna Karenina. 

This reference to Anna Karenina was not the first time I had heard of the novel. It had been identified as a must read and a beautiful book by some teacher or teachers.   Had a girlfriend once who nodded her head solemnly when I asked if it was worth reading. I have a vague recollection of questions pertaining to the book appearing on sample statewide high school English examinations.

The Russian novelists are not easy. I had been told to read Crime and Punishment forever.  Like Anna Karenina it had often been mentioned to me reverentially.  In my late twenties I read the book and I was not sold.

I feel differently about Anna Karenina. I saw a copy at a used book sale a while back, plucked it off my shelf a few weeks ago, and just completed it. I am sold, sort of, but do have some reservations.

The book is too long. I know it is the style of the Russian novelists, but contemporary readers do not need that level of detail and can't believe readers ever did. In one scene a superfluous doctor--completely peripheral to the plot--visits Levin (a key character). He comes because Levin's housekeeper has fallen. We find out the housekeeper's name, where she fell, and what she was carrying when she fell. "A jar of mushrooms which she had just pickled." Neither the doctor, the housekeeper, the fall (we find that she sprained her wrist), where she fell, or the mushrooms--pickled or not--have anything to do with anything.

Aside from the detail, the novel is a tough book to follow. Each of the characters has a formal name, a given name, and in a number of cases a nickname.  Stepan Arkadyevich is also called Oblonsky and occasionally is referred to by his nickname, Stiva.  Try to keep track of who is who for 853 pages and you will work up a sweat.

Also, while the book has a main theme, there are a number of other ones and the connections between the themes are thin. The book is about social class systems, religion, societal mores, and most importantly the power of love.  The digressions into philosophy regarding the (1) peasants and less so (2) religion are really unnecessary and lengthy.  A long scene, maybe twenty pages involves Levin using a scythe to "mow" the lawn with the peasants.

All this is the bad news.

The good news is that the characters are so well drawn. Oblonsky is my favorite--not in terms of his character--but how completely he is depicted. I feel as if I know the guy. Anna, Kitty, Levin, Karenin are similarly well described.

The translator deserves some credit, but the language is remarkable. It is amazing to me that someone could have conceived of this book and written it without a computer. The book was written in the 1870s.

I was impressed early on with how some of the story and the emotions of the characters could be relevant today. Not the parts that deal with the class system, or societal norms, but the parts about relationships.

So, two questions.

(a) what is the book about centrally?
(b) is it worth slogging though? Is it worth the hoo hah endorsements?

The short answer to the first question:  The book is about the overwhelming power of love and how if one does not get or respect the power of love, they are ruined.  Also, how love--if suppressed--can be ruining.  Think of love like a beach ball you take into a pool.  If you sit on the ball you can suppress it. But once you release the ball it is going to spring to the surface. That is the essence of the book.

The longer answer to what the book is about:

  • Oblonsky has had an affair.  His wife, Dolly, is understandably upset when she finds out and is threatening to leave. Oblonsky, although not really repentant, does not want Dolly to leave.  He asks his sister, Anna Karenina, to take a train to Moscow so that she can speak to Dolly and try to convince her not to leave.  
  • Dolly has a sister named Kitty.  Kitty has two suitors. One, Levin, is madly in love with Kitty and comes to Moscow from the country to propose. Unfortunately for Levin there is another suitor, Vronsky, and Kitty is more in love with him. Kitty rejects Levin's proposal because she loves Vronsky.  
  • Vronsky intends to ask Kitty to marry him, but wants to talk to his mother first. The mother coincidentally, is--like Anna-- travelling to Moscow and they are on the same train.  
  • When Anna steps off the train she sees Vronsky there to pick up his mother. They see each other and are smitten.  
  • Anna is married and feels horribly confused by her reaction to Vronsky.  She does continue to her brother's and consoles Dolly. But then she figures she better get out of Dodge because of the feelings she has for Vronsky. 
  • So Anna leaves early, but Vronsky tracks her down and expresses his love. Anna tries to suppress the love. But she is smitten.
  • Kaboom we have a problem that involves Anna's husband, and Kitty, and Levin. and of course Vronsky and Anna Karenina.

Is the book worth reading?  Well, I am glad I read it, but I'm not sure I can recommend it.  It is very powerful and in parts startlingly well written. Some characters especially Oblonsky are tattooed to my head. But the book is really too long.

In the Assistant, Frank does read Anna Karenina because he is so in love with Helen and Helen asks him to. It is tough to believe that Frank, a drifter, reads the book.  I'm not any better than Frank Alpine because I read this book. Just saying that Frank would not.

Malamud must have known that too. But he wanted to make a point.

In  the Assistant Helen breaks up with Frank. Frank tries to get her to relent; to embrace their love   When Helen does not relent, Frank says to her:

"That book you told me to read.  Did you understand it yourself."

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