‘a delightful amateur sleuth novel with a well balanced mix of domestic and academic life and a strong sense of place.’ [Stage Fright]


Anna Karenina

Posted on Apr 1, 2011 in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy | No Comments

I’d intended to spread reading this over several months, but in the event it took a lot less. I was just enjoying it so much that I wanted to keep on reading, though maybe at some points enjoyment isn’t the word, cathartic may be better.
One of the fascinating things about rereading a great work of literature is that it is in a sense revisiting one’s own past. At this point, look away now if you don’t want to know exactly what happens!
Some of the passages I was struck by then still seem to be as wonderful as I thought them, though of course I didn’t read them with the sense of surprise that I did first time round. Among these are Levin’s second proposal to Kitty and the early days of their marriage, particularly their first quarrel and Levin’s realisation that ‘he no longer knew where she ended and he began . . . in the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realises that he had accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with . . .’
Another part of the novel that amazed me and that I still think wonderful is the reaction of Karenin, Anna’s cuckolded husband, when his wife nearly dies giving birth to Vronsky’s baby, and he experiences an outpouring of tenderness for her and the baby.
And what still remains for me as a stroke of breath-taking brilliance is our last glimpse of Vronsky after the death of Anna, as he paces a railway platform, on his way to fight in Serbia, not caring whether he lives or dies. It’s not just that their first meeting and Anna’s death are recalled by the setting, but Vronsky also has toothache. ‘The nagging pain in the strong tooth, filling his mouth with saliva, prevented him from speaking . . . And suddenly a quite different feeling, not pain, but a general tormenting, inner discomfort, made him forget his toohache for a moment.’ He recalls running to the station after Anna’s suicide and the sight of her head body. ‘He tried to remember his best moments with her, but those moments were forever poisioned . . . he ceased to feel the toothache, sobs distorted his face.’ This seems to me to encapsulate what separates Tolstoy from other writers. The interplay between the physical and the emotional brings home the depth of Vronsky’s grief in a way that nothing else could and I can’t imagine any other writer doing it in quite this way.
This seems a good point at which to end today, but I’ll be blogging more about ANNA KARENINA.

Lost in Translation

Posted on Feb 28, 2011 in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy | One Comment

‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ This, the opening sentence of ANNA KARENINA, is one of the most famous in literature. But would it be better like this: ‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? I’ve decided that it would, which is why I am reading the recent highly acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Penguin Classics instead of Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation in my old Penguin edition.
I read the novel when I was a very young woman and re-read it, too. I agreed with William Faulkner. When he was asked to name the three best novels ever, he replied, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA.’ Mind you, I hadn’t read Proust then.
I’ve been meaning to reread ANNA KARENINA for a while. But at well over 800 pages it is a commitment. I suggested it to my reading group and we decided to have it an optional extra which we could spread over a year.
When I picked it up a fortnight ago I put it down after a few pages. It seemed a bit stiff and old-fashioned. I wondered if the translation was to blame. This was a question that never occurred to me when I first read it. Maybe I am more sensitive to language and more detached than I was when I first read it, devouring it for the story, living almost every moment, not knowing what would happen next.
I ordered the new translation, and now I am completely gripped. What a daring writer Tolstoy is. What writer nowadays would delay the entrance of the main characte until page sixty? And yet how important those introductory chapters are, how well they establish the themes of the novel, how absorbing they are.
I am well over half way through and it is as brilliant as I remembered (though some of Levin’s thoughts and discussions on Russian politics and agricultural economy are as dull as I remembered, too).
That’s for now. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it.