Saturday, October 29, 2011

Anna Karenina: Part Two: As the World Turns

So this update is now weeks late. All apologies, as usual.

So I like this book so far. But, as I noted on the Twitter feed, from early on, there was something about the plot and the characterizations that felt a bit soap-operaish. Part Two really just confirmed that feeling. Can any of us say we were surprised by anything that happened in Part Two? Was the entire horse race not clearly going to end with Vronksy having some type of horrible accident -- but surviving? All of the major plot points in Part Two felt obvious and too clearly preordained.

It may not be the book's fault. This was a novel from a long time ago; perhaps some of the tropes we come across in the novel feel overly familiar only because they've become so in the many years since the book was written.

Honestly, beyond that, I didn't have much more of a reaction to Part Two. I felt unsurprised by the section. And I couldn't figure out why I should care about what was happening with Kitty and the weirdness with Varenka. It all felt like a pointless and boring digression.

Don't get me wrong: I am enjoying the book. I'm just looking forward to the Great Moments in Literature parts -- which I hope are coming. I'm sure they are.

Your thoughts on the book so far?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Anna Karenina: Part One

Another season, another Great Work of Literature. Apologies for the delay in coming out with our first ANNA KARENINA post. And further apologies for the delays in getting up a final post on BEING AND TIME. I'm actually still struggling with BEING AND TIME -- and may be for a while. You know, "the world worlds."

Once I was able to sit down with AK, I was amazed at how quickly I was sucked in. We'll have lots to say about Anna, Kitty, Levin, Vronsky, Oblonsky, et al. as we get further through the book, but I wanted to note in this first post how heavily Tolstoy seems to rely on images of ice and fire in Part One. Over and over, he describes frosty scenes, ice skating, blizzards, etc., and every now and then, at a climactic moment, the stillness and ice is punctuated with a blast of fire and smoke. The main scene I'm thinking of is the scene where Anna is riding in the train on the way back to Saint Petersburg:
She went through all her Moscow memories. They were all good, pleasant. She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his enamoured, obedient face, remembered all her relations with him: nothing was shameful. But just there, at that very place in her memories, the feeling of shame became more intense, as if precisely then, when she remembered Vronsky, some inner voice were telling her: 'Warm, very warm, hot!' . . . . For a moment she recovered and realized that the skinny muzhik coming in, wearing a long nankeen coat with a missing button, was the stoker, that he was looking at the thermometer, that wind and snow had burst in with him through the doorway; but then everything became confused again . . . This muzhik with the long waist began to gnaw at something on the wall; the old woman began to stretch her legs out the whole length of the carriage and filled it with a black cloud; then something screeched and banged terribly, as if someone was being torn to pieces; then a red fire blinded her eyes, and then everything was hidden by a wall. Anna felt as if she was falling through the floor. But all this was not frightening but exhilarating. The voice of a bundled-up and snow-covered man shouted something into her ear. She stood up and came to her senses, realizing that they had arrived at a station and the man was the conductor.
(pp. 100-01.)

The imagery here is a little heavy handed, but effective. It's surely no accident that the book opens in the Russian winter, with everything frosty, frozen, and shrouded in ice and snow. It's in this winter that the train -- the novel seems to be driven and propelled by trains -- bursts through, driven by fire, spewing ash, smoke, and flame. It's not hard to put it together: Anna's heart and passion have been frozen in her loveless, respectable marriage -- her own long, personal winter of the soul. Her encounter with Vronsky is a terrible but spectacular disaster, unleashing shame, desire -- heat and a "red fire" -- but "all this [is] not frightening but exhilarating" to Anna. And of course, after she wakes up from her heavily symbolic dream, she steps out into a blizzard at the station (which, of course, she also finds "exhilarating") and runs into Vronsky, who's following her back to St. Petersburg.

The style of the book, so far, is quite straight forward and simple. Thankfully, unlike WAR AND PEACE, it doesn't look like there will be any long digressions on the meaning or practice of history or warfare from Tolstoy -- although, who knows? Tolstoy's digressions (and endless epilogues) came on heavier and heavier as we progressed through WAR AND PEACE. It seems unlikely that we'll see the same thing happen here.

The other bit I was going to mention was the part where Tolstoy spends a lot of time describing Anna reading an English novel, her attention drifting in and out of the novel. "Anna ... read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She wanted too much to live herself. . . . But there was nothing to do, and so, fingering the smooth knife with her small hands, she forced herself to read." (p. 100.) This bit reminded me for a moment of some of the themes we addressed in our reading of DON QUIXOTE, where characters were constantly reading, or referring to, or acting upon things they had read, and where the main character in fact found himself becoming a character in another book. This little scene here wasn't quite at that hall-of-mirrors level, but it did seem peculiarly modern and knowing. To describe the act of reading a novel in a novel is something, it seems, that can only be done once novels themselves have reached a certain point of maturity, or self-awareness. ANNA KARENINA was certainly a novel well aware of other novels, including English novels like the one Anna is reading on the train. (Indeed, Oblonsky makes reference to Dickens's OUR MUTUAL FRIEND on page 41.)

I'll plan to post thought on Parts Two and Three this week. As always, please let me know if you'd like to post your thoughts.