Friday, December 7, 2012

Anna Karenina

Alternate title: Terrible, Indecisive Rich People on Trains and the Peasants Who Serve Them

Finished Anna Karenina, which was an interesting journey. I only knew Anna's basic plot line (married woman who has an affair, ending tragically) going in, so I was pretty surprised at how it actually unfolded. For one, the title character herself is probably in less that half of the novel. The other half is dedicated to Konstantin Levin, a character you could possibly call a foil of Anna's, or at least a mirror to her character and the trials she faces. Anna is an official's wife pursuing a scandalous affair, and Levin a country gentleman hoping to marry the love of his life and find existential meaning.

The structure of the novel is genius, going back and forth between Anna and Levin's plotlines, with the climaxes in each story counterbalancing a slow build in the other. At the highpoint of Anna's story, when she is blissfully happy, Levin is in a deep depression. When things start looking up for him, Anna's world falls apart.

Anna Karenina addresses nearly every theme of human life that could possibly be addressed -- love, family, faith, communism, responsibility, passion, death, marriage, land, women's rights, train safety... -- but I like what translator Rosemary Edmonds cited as its key message, that "no one may build their happiness on another's pain." That's a pretty apt statement.

But damn, if Tolstoy isn't a wordy bastard. He puts Dickens to shame. And yet if you look at any "Best Novels of All Time" list, Anna Karenina is sure to be on it. If not at the very top. I'm not so sure I agree. Overall the stories and the novel's structure are masterful. The actual style of the writing is harder to judge, seeing as how it's translated from the original Russian. My biggest complaint is that the book just didn't need to be as long as it was. It was originally published in serial format, as all gigantic Victorian-age novels were, contributing to its massive length. At some points Tolstoy has his characters go off into tangents to discuss political issues that were obviously important at the time -- topics that someone picking up a periodical in 1873 would want to read about (anyone up for reading about 19th century Russian agrarian politics and peasant reform? Anyone? Bueller?)

But beyond his topical rants he also enjoys introducing seemingly random characters and plot lines that are never finished. What about that grumpy Italian artist? What was he about? Why was there an entire section dedicated to Kitty volunteering at a hospital? And the ill married dude falling in love with her? And what about when Levin's brother takes forever to decide whether or not he wants to propose to a girl, only to back out of it, and then we never hear from either of them ever again? Sure, these moments (moments meaning 50 page chunks) may tie-in mildly to the message and themes of the book. But after 1182 pages, we kinda already got the message, guy.

I'm still glad I read it, though. Even if it's just for bragging rights.

Here are some passages:

Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society--owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity--to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat.

In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and, above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one's children, earn one's bread, and pay one's debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.

Sounds like a party.

And these fragmentary musical expressions, though sometimes beautiful, were disagreeable, because they were utterly unexpected and not led up to by anything. Gaiety and grief and despair and tenderness and triumph followed one another without any connection, like the emotions of a madman.

 Otherwise known as real life. "though sometimes beautiful."

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.

Also videogames.

He said that one must live for one's own wants, that is, that one must not live for what we understand, what we are attracted by, what we desire, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can understand nor even define. ... And not only I, but everyone, the whole world understands nothing fully but this, and about this only they have no doubt and are always agreed.

And I looked out for miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle which would convince me. A material miracle would have persuaded me. And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it! ... Fyodor says that one mustn't live for one's belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him! And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now--peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned, who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing--we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by the reason--it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects.

This is Levin's realization near the end of the novel, and the answer to his existential dilemma and lack of faith. I really like his conclusion, though I don't agree with it 100%. He goes on for several pages about his realization, and my interpretation is he's saying that humanity as a whole works toward the better good, for the community and others and not for "one's own belly," even though doing so is irrational. I do believe it's one of the greatest miracles of humankind that we do this -- help others when it does not serve ourselves directly. And I believe "God" can be found inside of that urge. But it's far from being irrational. It's for the survival of our own kind, and under the knowledge that we're all connected and inseparable.

Recalling a book I read last year, Sex at Dawn, it's theorized that even in prehistoric times humans were incredibly communal. And far from self-sacrificing, the idea of community and doing good for others was profoundly self-serving. Our biological makeup requires us to work together to clothe, house and feed ourselves. In a prehistoric community if you failed to carry your share of work, stole another's food, or killed someone, you would be kicked out, left to fend for yourself. And there are scary sabretooth tigers out there. It's a bit different from Patton Oswalt's theory of "sky cake," (where he argues weak cave people created religion to keep larger cave people from pillaging them), but it does place the purposeful origin of religion in the right place. The philosophies behind various religions are for the most part decidedly rational. "Do good. Don't do bad." And maybe we can continue to share this tiny planet for a little while longer.

So how does this tie in with Anna Karenina's insistence that no one "build their happiness on another's pain?" I guess by showing readers exactly what happens when we do. Anna builds her happiness by causing pain to her husband, her husband by denying her her son, Oblonsky by cheating on his wife, Vronksy by tempting Anna, Levin (and everyone else) by using/abusing peasants and servants, etc. (like I mentioned in the alternate title joke, they're basically all terrible people). The only difference being that in this post-pre-historic society only one of the characters is cast out to the sabretooth tigers: Anna.

Yet Anna's the same character who pleas, "I merely want to live, to do no one harm but myself. I have the right to do that, haven't I?" Intentional or not, Anna's actions do cause harm to others, as do every other character's actions. So perhaps a better statement would be: "Don't build your happiness on another's pain. If you can help it. And if you live in a perfect, non-judgmental liberated society. Good luck."

Whatever the moral or point, if there even is one, Anna Karenina can't be tied up nicely with a big, red bow. It's complicated and nasty, like the human experience. And I guess that's why it's so darn popular.

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