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.