Sunday, September 13, 2009

Anna Karenina

Is it possible for a book that has been roundly canonized to possibly live up to the hype? Of course it is, but it's not an easy task. When one opens a book expecting sheer brilliance, any missteps will doom the book, even if it remains excellent, solely because it makes the expected perfection unattainable. Fair? No, absolutely not. But this is just how it goes, living under the crushing weight of expectations. Perhaps this is why Tolstoy made all his novels 1,000,000 pages long. Some things are harder to crush than others.

So let's get this out of the way at the beginning: I have now read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and at this point I feel safe concluding that I am a Dostoevsky man. Each of his novels seems to be sculpted to address a single topic, an extended musing on philosophical and cosmological minutiae told through half-crazed Russians who seem to passionately exclaim about 2/3 of everything they think. Tolstoy, on the other hand, moves at a glacial pace, seemingly attempting to show life in his novels, without any overt statements on the, or possibly even a, subject (The exceptions seem to be any time a character has a religious epiphany, at which times Tolstoy can be overly preachy). This novel took me a long time to wade through (And there were multiple detours into other books in the middle), as what Tolstoy does seems to be specifically designed to not grab one's attention. The cast is an ensemble, some of whom will likely appeal to everyone out there, while likely everyone will also be left cold by a character or two. Unfortunately for me, one of these doubles as the title.

I have nothing against Anna especially, but just have no sympathy for her. See, when she makes the decision to leave her husband (By the way, she leaves her husband for her lover) she knows exactly what this means for her. She knows how society will view her actions, and what their response will be. She knows she will not be allowed to keep her child. Yet she does it. The fact that later she struggles with the consequences does not excuse her from guilt, as she knew what would happen when she made her choice. The events that lead to her death (She dies too) are caused solely by herself flipping out completely. She essentially loses her mind with jealousy (Despite the fact that there is no evidence he is cheating on her. In one memorable scene she yells at him because he smiled at a delivery girl bringing him a package from a relative. She is nuts), and does everything she can to drive away the man most dear to her. When she kills herself, it's a relief. While I'm sure it's supposed to be a sad moment, I'm just left glad I don't have to deal with the crazy woman anymore. She chose everything that happens to her. Just because she couldn't take it doesn't make her sympathetic.

One thing I will give Tolstoy is that he does wonderful death scenes. Normally I don't care for these all that much in the mediums I feel traditionally revere them (Film and theater). I generally find myself wishing someone would hit the dying individual over the head with whichever blunt object is nearest so that they will finally die and we can move on. But Tolstoy does these well. Anna's death is wonderfully written, and the only chapter in the book with a title ('Death,' occurring much earlier) is also well done, if not quite as brief or powerful. This gibes with War and Peace, in which the death of Prince Andrey is one of the most memorable images I have ever read (It involves a dream and a door). It is in moments such as the spiritual revelation of Levin that Tolstoy struggles to express himself without getting on a soapbox (See: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"), and that moment mars the end of Anna Karenina significantly. It is as bad as all this may make it seem? Absolutely not. But Tolstoy's love of a glacially-plotted affair leaves me a bit cold, wishing I could hear a little less about the formal rules of Russian societal interactions and a little more about, well, pretty much anything else (Except English societal affairs, thank you very much Jane Austen). Tolstoy's novels are almost ridiculously ambitious and overstuffed, yet nothing really happens. He lays out a great mass of humanity, but never answers the question of why. In the end, I find myself left with some questions and the feeling that I spent my time well solely due to tackling a classic, even if I didn't enjoy all of it, but I would be hard-pressed to tell another that the book is worth the time it takes to read it. In my memories, it is similar to Thomas Pynchon (Oddly enough), in that I don't have much of an image of a whole picture, but rather some minor scenes that have stuck with me. Which is enough for me to make it an enjoyable read, but not what I had hoped for before I began, or what the general acclaim would lead one to expect.

6 comments:

Cindi Lynn said...

I have not read this yet (thanks for the spoilers!), but your review does not deter me...still on the list. While I am definitely a Dostyoevsky fan, I do LOVE War and Peace, and have to agree that the death of Prince Andrey is among the best deaths ever written (right up there with Rober in For Whom the Bell Tolls...whose actual death is left to our imaginations, but well...I won't be a dick like you and spoil things for people!).

Now I want to read Anna K even more, just in hopes that it gives us something to argue about.

Cindi Lynn said...

Robert of course has a t on the end...

your mom said...

"I'm just left glad I don't have to deal with the crazy woman anymore" - This is my fault. You would have more sympathy for Anna if you hadn't been raised by a crazy woman!
I was going to call you to see how the job search is going, but I think I already got my answer on this blog! I hope all the activity here doesn't bode equally poorly for the classes...

HOLLA(R) said...

Considering the back of my copy of the book openly states that "it (The book) ends sadly", I didn't think it was that much of a spoiler. Deal with it. And if we're in the same place when we argue about the book, I have your copy of The Fountainhead, and would love to trade it in for Atlas Shrugged.

And My Mom, the job search is not going well, but the classes are easy. They don't take too much time. I am surrounded by underclassmen, who must get stupider every year. When I was a freshman I can't possibly have been that dumb, right?

UncleRick said...

Mike, surely you must know your uncle has the Ayn Rand library. I'd be happy to lend you one of my several copies of any of her novels. I am still waiting for your MLB playoff predictions but would also be satisfied with any random Shakespeare review you might deign to undertake.

your mom said...

You have never been dumb in your life, Mike! But we are all ignorant at times, so have patience with the poor little things.