Anna Karenina, Books, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, Lean Dunham, November Elections, Telegraph Avenue, The Yellow Birds, Voting
It was my first time to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not in a Lena Dunham sort of way.
Today, having no polling stations to visit or curtains to pull back, I’ll cast a small line in the sand on top of a new ground rule: Rather than playing loose and twisting facts into saucy vote-catching soundbites — that spin so out-of-control during hunting seasons for offices where the buck rarely stops anywhere any more — how about some good old-fashioned honesty?
For when it comes to sharing thoughts about anything important — Anna Karenina, included — nothing else will do. So here it is: I was just like one of those non-voting but imaginary Girls in the political endorsement ad that merited Ms. Dunham’s raised eyebrows. Yes, upon finishing the book last week, I knew which way I wanted to vote. But I couldn’t justify the reasons for it. I wasn’t feeling it. “No, I wasn’t ready.”
When words wouldn’t come last Thursday, I decided to first put some literary distance between me and Anna Karenina. In short order, I consumed two contemporary novels: First up was Kevin Powers highly acclaimed and National Book Award nominee, The Yellow Birds; the lesser second was Emma Staub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Both possessed nice form and stylish uses of language. But neither moved me. The stories felt manufactured. The characters, unfortunates souls that they were, felt flat and far removed from their own story lines. In the end, the novels held no meaning for me, in spite of their glowing endorsements.
Anna Karenina, on the other hand, offered words that made time fly and other commitments negotiable. I can’t count how often I nodded to thoughts expressed over one hundred and thirty years ago. How well Tolstoy shadowed the messy human condition with his pen. To be sure, the structure and the language were not the highlights, but instead, the invisible seams that held everything together. Why for an old girl, this story still moved well, on and off the page.
But still — what was it about this old, not so unusual tale, that made it feel so alive and fresh? That made me care about the characters, even when they were being terrible and so humanly self-centered? I wish I knew. But after reading the two books above and a third — Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue — in the same space of time that I read Anna Karenina, I know that whatever Tolstoy possessed cannot be taught, even in the most prestigious of MFA programs.
All of this is not to say that Count Tolstoy didn’t write beautiful passages. There are a number I could pluck from the text, to offer as souvenirs of reading pleasures. I enjoyed the hunting scene where the point-of-view takes us into the mind of Levin’s conflict-ridden dog, who sensed the fowl before his human owner knew it was afoot. (Chapter XII, Part Six). And then there was that lovely contrast drawn between Levin’s two social calls during a single day in Moscow. The obligatory first felt like hours, though counted in minutes by the clock; the second, its mirror image, revealed how sharing good company makes time pass as fast as life itself. (Chapters VI and X, Part Seven)
These I resist, and others too, for one that seems most appropriate in the closing days before elections are held:
“‘One vote could decide the whole thing, and you must be serious and consistent if you want to serve the common cause,’ Sergei Ivanovich concluded.
But Levin had forgotten that, and it was painful for him to see these good people, whom he respected, in such unpleasant, angry agitation. To rid himself of that painful feeling, he went to the other room without waiting for the end of the debate. No one was there except the servants at the buffet. Seeing the servants busily wiping platters and setting out plates and glasses, seeing their calm, animated faces, Levin experienced a sudden feeling of relief, as if he had gone from a stinking room into the fresh air.” (Chapter XXVIII, Part Six)
Oh, the truth of it! Why it’s almost too good to be true. And for that reason alone, I can’t imagine this first reading of Anna Karenina will be my last. Nor, I trust, will voting in the upcoming election be less satisfying than my first. But I wonder: Are first times at doing anything really as good as some promote them to be?
In the tale end of things, it’s your vote. It does count, but not in a Leo Tolstoy sort of way.
Much thanks to Arti for hosting this read-along. For more reviews and reactions, visit Ripple Effects.
This is just so interesting, that you juxtapose the U.S. election with your reading of Anna K. As I’m living north of the 49th parallel, I’m glad I’m spared from having to face the dilemma. As for Anna K., it does offer a unique experience, doesn’t it? And, for a book title as that, I’m quite surprised that Tolstoy has given Levin so much coverage, much more than Anna, just puzzling. And yes, thanks for reminding me about the mind of the dog. Tolstoy is indeed a master storyteller, superb psychoanalyst, and dog whisperer as well.
You know, I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and I just set it aside, having the same feeling as yours, I need to distance myself from it in order to allow myself some clarity. There are so many thoughts, and, so many questions as well. However, I’m just amazed the holding power of a master’s pen, how he can use stories and words to capture your attention and keep you curious and entertained throughout the 800+ pages.
And I’ve enjoyed your sharing. Janell, please do repost this come Nov. 15 when we wrap up the Read-Along, adding more updates of your views, because by then, we’ll know the results of the election. And, you might have the chance to see the film adaptation coming out in limited release the next day. Another post on the movie? I’d love to read your review!
We share that question about why Tolstoy chose Anna’s name to grace his title rather than Levin’s. I pondered it for most of the book. And while I finally came up with something, who knows what the truth of it is. I’ll share my thoughts on this later, as a comment to your own review, should it respond in any way to the thoughts you’ll express in two weeks time.
But, in the meantime, here’s a different thought that’s just occurred to me, in thinking of Lena Dunham’s endorsement video and her intended audience: Do you think Tolstoy was courting a female audience with his novel’s title, who perhaps had more leisure and interest in reading novels?
With you, I look forward to the movie.
oh good… I look forward to more discussions. You’ll never know, you just might come up with more ideas to share that by Nov. 15, you’ll have another post on Anna K. 😉 As for me, I think I’ll dwell on two points (plus others maybe, but these would be the main ones I think) they are: Anna’s choice and responsibility, Levin’s conversion and my response to one reader’s comment (‘benrdevries’) on my first post that he’s a bit disappointed with Tolstoy because he thinks T. is proselytizing. I await your view on that too come Nov. 15.
I will only say, for now, that Part VIII felt rushed and a little too tidy. But, no, more words are required — so let me add that conversions of any sort, in my experience, happen just as Tolstoy describes — in a light switch sort of way. Something is said or done by another (or even one’s self) and dots connect. Of course, it’s all better experienced than expressed into words (by me), though the Count does a fine job of getting the joy of it all in words.
Speaking of the Count, I’m off to my youngest granddaughter’s Halloween party — her guests are all wearing T-shirts of a favorite Sesame Street Character. SS is tops in her world right now, and she will soon be canvassing the streets dressed in a red furry Elmo costume. My husband is Super Grover for the evening, my sons are Bert and Ernie and since I’m a CPA by training, I’m the Count. But I think all the big names will be represented. I can’t imagine how Reese will react — one big cartoon show we will be!
Happy Trick or Treat!
I have no idea who Lena Dunham might be, why she’s doing an ad for Obama or why we’re supposed to care about her endorsement, but I found the video offensive and contemptible. I suppose that’s unbearably judgmental of me, but it seems to degrade political discourse in the same way many contemporary articles, postings, books and poems degrade the very concept of “writing”. Everything needn’t be (certainly can’t be!) of quality, but still….
I don’t remember the exchange Arti mentions, nor her reader’s comment that he’s somehow disappointed in Tolstoy because he thinks he’s proselytizing. I’ll have to click over there and read the actual exchange, but my thought is that it’s not any author’s task to do what we readers want. Tolstoy writes, and we read, and what takes place in the interaction is what it is. As Stendhal puts it in Life of Henri Brulard, ““A novel is like a violin bow; the box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader.”
I confess that your comment has left me feeling much like Levin did, in that excerpt included above, when worried about the political agitation upsetting those he admired and respected. Please, if I’m the cause of your agitation, in any way, I wish to apologize.
But I do agree with your quote from Bruland — it sounds a lot like the teaching of Carl Jung. And the response to Lena Denham’s endorsement video underlines Brulard’s point quite well.
Uploaded last week by BarackObamadotnet, the ad continues to spark a lot of agitated and passionate responses in those who’ve taken time to make their votes known, whether with simple YouTube “likes” and “dislikes” or full-blown essays and news articles. I’m not sure it’s achieved the hoped-for response — but it must be achieving some objective, since its been left on YouTube.
It’s rare for six-day old news to have such staying power.
I’ve interpreted your lead off questions as rhetorical ones. 🙂
Oh! You may not have realized that I’ve been on the road for over a week, completely disconnected from everything! A blessed reprieve from everything political probably gave the video a little added “oomph” it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I made a trip up to KCMO to visit my aunt, then went over the Kansas and messed around there for a few days. I just now got home, and the only real question facing me now is how long it will take Angry Cat to come out from under the bed. 😉
So, no – you didn’t agitate me at all. Besides, I’ve been introduced now to Michael Moore’s ad featuring foul-mouthed senior citizens in a nursing home – it’s maybe worse than the Dunham ad. I can’t quite decide. 😉
You did tell me you’d be away for your birthday. I hope it was all good — trip, visit with your aunt and your birthday. And glad the political ad didn’t negate the good feelings of the trip. Hope Dixie has forgiven you by now!
See – no memory these days. Pretty soon I’ll be like my mom, able to reduce my library to one book. She used to say she needed only one, because by the time she got to the end, she’d forgotten the beginning. AK would be a perfect old-age book in that respect!
I love your mother’s sense of humor. But I don’t love the memory loss that you and I share. But I agree — AK would be a perfect book to re-read over and over since the end is so far from the beginning — all those pages would certainly help ensure memory loss. And you know what else? Many, many reading experiences that will all seem like first-times! But not in a Lena you-know sort of way. 🙂
What a glorious post. I am still considering the above question you pose about first times. I liked your way of tying the U.S. election and Anna Karenina in a post. I finished on Monday and also feel the need to create a distance. I have not picked up another book all week.
I am looking forward to part two of Arti’s read-along.
I’m reading another oldie but goodie right now; perhaps you know it: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer? Though I’m only half-way through, I’m already making plans to re-read it! The back cover contains an interesting reference to Russian literature, which may explain why Tolstoy’s words still live within me….though I continue to read one novel after another…
“When The Moviegoer was first published in 1961, it won the National Book Award and established Walker Percy as one of the supplest and most deftly modulated new voices in Southern literature. In his portrait of a boyish New Orleans stockbroker wavering between ennui and the longing for redemption, Percy managed to combine Bourbon Street elegance with the spiritual urgency of a Russian novel.”[emphasis added.]
I found this interesting, in part, since the three contemporary novels I read concurrent with AK were devoid of spiritual themes, even though all featured the death of a significant character. It makes me wonder whether Tolstoy’s interest in tackling the mysteries, is in part, what makes the story timeless and precious.
I, too, look forward to reading upcoming reviews and reactions.
Vanessa, thanks for your kind words regarding the post — and for stopping by and leaving a comment. Thank God the political elections are behind us!
No; I do not know ‘The Moviegoer’ but it sounds like I should. I will look for it at my library. I do like books with that spiritual element to them. Thank you.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about the story if you’re able to read it. Like Tolstoy’s AK, Percy manages to preserve the attitudes and culture of those who were his contemporaries — in this case, the nineteen sixties South as experienced by people of money and higher educations.
In reading both these works of art, I wonder what other jewels I’ve missed along the way…
Good morning Janell. I should be able to get a good start on the book this week. This is why I love the blog world–we meet great people and find gems that probably would not have been on our radar any other way.
I finished reading The Moviegoer yesterday morning. But it’s not finished with me, — the story still lives in my mind as I ponder its meaning in my life — both writing and the everyday. It took longer than a 200-plus page novel ought and I’ve been searching for reasons behind my slow approach and finish. I confess it was a difficult work to read in the grayness of the weekend, weighed down as I was, by the gravity of Walker Percy’s words. I want to say so much about it and the redemption of which he hints at with character actions rather than words. But I will hold my fingers until you’ve had your chance to read it, too. I don’t know whether I’ll do a blog post on it or not. We’ll see what the week brings. Next time I hope to read it in the backdrop of sunshine and a cozy fire.
Today is sunny and a crisp cold outside. A good omen, you think?
Thanks for letting me know. I’m interested in reading about your experience in Percy’s world. And what you say about keeping community with other readers (or gardeners or cooks) is so true. It enlarges my world.
Oh yes—the sun was most welcome yesterday and totally brightened my day. I arrived to the office this morning (I work in the library field) and my requested copy of ‘The Moviegoer’ lay on my desk beckoning to be opened. I’m looking forward to your take on the novel (if you want to blog about it I will refrain from looking until I finish the book.) Have a wonderful Tuesday, Janell.
It has been a wonderful Tuesday, Vanessa. The sun still shines and Sunday’s rain has cleared the air. Thanks for the well-wishes.
In between visits outside, where I’ve madly decided to paint the back exterior of my home in November! — I’m fifty pages into Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I loved the movie, the way the three stories set years apart conversed with one another — and the novel is proving just as good. But if the sun continues to reign, I’ll pick up Walker Percy again next. Since the workday is over, maybe you’ve already met Binx Bolling — Percy’s first person narrator. I confess I fell in love with the colorful cadence of his voice before finishing the first page.
I’ve enjoyed your dialogues… such interesting exchanges! Janell, I haven’t heard of Walker Percy, sound like he’s one author I need to explore. Coincidentally, well, maybe not really coincidental, since it’s all Tolstoy that started it all, I’ve also mentioned the spiritual awakening of Levin. My POV is more from our contemporary society’s reaction to such experiences rather than the actual content of his conversion. I’d love to hear what you two have to say about it. I’m eagerly waiting for Nov. 15 when I can read all others’ views and get ready to watch the ripples. I look forward to having you two stop by the pond. 😉 And… I’m eager for another Read-Along some time in 2013. 😉 What about you?
I hadn’t heard of Percy either — until that well-read Iowa instructor chose to enlighten me by adding the novel to my TBR list last July.
I hope I have not built the novel and reading experience into more that what Percy made it, with comparisons to AK and other Russian novelists. But the writing feels old and wise. I could tell that Percy’s words were not just off the top of his head, but that they had lived with him for a while before giving birth to them. One reading was not enough for me to glean the truth living amidst the words. Perhaps The Moviegoer would make an interesting Advent selection — especially since I plan to view many movies during Advent — though I don’t wish to wait till then.
I look forward to reading your review on AK, especially given how you’ve decided to approach it. And to the upcoming movie, too. I’m not planning to re-post on AK. So please, feel no need to link to this post from your direction, since the material is dated.
As for a future read-alongs in 2013, I’m most interested.
O but the material isn’t dated. I’m sure readers would find it interesting reading your views and the dialogues in the comment section. I’ll link this to my blog tomorrow. This is definitely appropriate for the Read-Along wrap up. Thanks for jumping on board.
Thanks for hosting it. I’m not sure when I would have read AK had it not been for your read-along.
Best to you on the painting project. May many sunny days be in the forecast 🙂 I dipped into Binx’s story last night and am enjoying learning about him.
Thanks. Finally, finally, after three failed attempts, I’ve found a paint shade I can live with. Four dips in the color wheel becomes the charm. It’s sunny today. And for this, I’m thankful. As I’ve thought more about Binx and his story, I’ve decided it may be just the sort of story meant for slow reading. There’s more there than meets the eye, I think, so I’m looking forward to taking that second tip myself. Enjoy.
Hello again Janell. I am at the half-way mark in The Moviegoer. I agree with you that Percy’s prose is not quick from head to paper. I love the rhythm of the words. I am not crazy about Binx though. I appreciate his honesty and try to take into account the war and the locale/period but there is something I don’t like about him and cannot lay a finger on what it is. It is higly possible that I am reading too quickly (I tend to do that).
Now that you mention it, none of Percy’s characters are that likable. At first. Perhaps it has something to do with all that despair they lug around, that rises up off the page like the steamy heat that rises out of the earth of coastal regions like New Orleans where the story is set.
Yet — at the same time — they all seem terribly real to me — and therein lies their appeal. All that human messiness is so hard to resist! We find the souls who seek without knowing what it is they are looking for — and some who think they have all the answers — and some who haven’t a clue that there is more to life that what meets the eye and the body. I come across a story like this — this sixties time capsule of attitudes — and hope that maybe we, as a people have grown in some areas — e.g., like greater equality without regard to race or gender — but in matters of the soul, some of us are still seeking, some of us think we have all the answers, and some of us haven’t a clue…..
By the way, my second read has been just as slow. I’ve decided it’s just one of those stories that I can consume only in small bites.
Thanks for sharing. Your words help clarify my own reading experience.
Wow, you posit some excellent questions to think upon – much like Tolstoy. I didn’t feel like he was proselytizing but I do think he managed to state what he believes and endorses while still exploring the issues.
I loved this ‘How well Tolstoy shadowed the messy human condition with his pen.’:)
and, I too, felt the contrast or parallels rather, of reading this – the voting, the concepts of society and class struggles with the current election!
Welcome, Care. And thanks for leaving a note.
We think similarly about the question of whether Tolstoy was writing AK as a way of proselytizing. Though I’ve written some about this over at Arti’s place, I only saw Tolstoy approach each of his diverse characters with respect and without judgment.
There were so many ways to respond to this novel. I look forward to reading yours.
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Janell, I enjoyed your analysis of the election with the reading of Anna Karenina. I read it in my book club several years ago. He was a genius, and while we can learn the fundamentals of writing, we cannot be educated in genius.
I like that expression — being educated in genius — and oh, how I wish I could sign up for such a course.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a trail of kind words behind. Writing comes hard these days, whether here or somewhere else. I don’t know why. I only know my lack makes me appreciate the words of others all the more.