October 8, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina (1877)
By Leo Tolstoy
Book #49 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
One of the novels to cement Russia's reputation for thousand-page epic family sagas, Leo Tolstoy's 1877 Anna Karenina (originally published serially in the three years previous) centers around a series of generally liberal upper-classers living in the aristocratic outskirts of St. Petersburg: there is the couple who start our story, for example, roguish fratboy and charming lothario Stepan "Stiva" Oblonsky and his wife Darya (or "Dolly"), infuriated by his constant flirting but not willing to give up her upper-middle-class lifestyle; then there is Stiva's sister Anna, a married "bohemian bourgeoisie" living in the big city, and Dolly's sister Kitty, bubbly-headed and just out of school, who happen to both form new romantic relationships at the same time -- in Kitty's case, a traditional on-and-off courtship with family friend and "gentleman farmer" Kostya Levin, while in Anna's case, a torrid affair with haughty intellectual Alexi Vronsky, which they both admit is wrong but go ahead with anyway, because of the popularity at the time among their Romantic-Era friends for passionate, wrong-headed affairs in the name of "true love at first sight."

The rest of this enormous book, then, is essentially a look at how all these situations pan out -- how for example Kitty and Levin's relationship has its ups and downs but generally proceeds in a traditional and forward fashion, while the act of betrayal that marked the beginning of Anna and Vronsky's relationship eventually casts more and more of a pall, the two eventually shunned by their circle of friends and even finally turning on each other, and with Anna eventually becoming one of those bitter martini-drinking housewives zonked out by lunchtime every day on Valium (well, okay, morphine in her case), leading to this novel's infamously tragic ending. Meanwhile, there are grand European tours to be organized, obsessions to be formed over trendy spiritual advisers, obscure wars to be fought in Serbia, and much intellectual hand-wringing to be done among these upper-class liberals over the future of Russian peasantry, agriculture, and regional political systems, delivering by the end a nearly perfect example of what today we would call a "prestige television series," much like watching the entire complex run of a show like Mad Men or The Sopranos.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, it's not for nothing that, after a downturn in popularity during the 20th century, there are more and more people in the 2000s now proclaiming Anna Karenina to be not only great but literally The Greatest Novel In Human History; and that's because, they argue, along with such other 19th-century proto-Realist pioneers like Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, Tolstoy virtually wrote the rules by which nearly every modern long-form narrative tale now adheres -- the third-person omniscient narration, the equal concentration on character and plot, the habit of using small incidents from real life in a long series of short installments to tell by the end a grand and memorable saga ironically about everyday people, the literal blueprint from which nearly every television drama in history has been based. (In fact, despite being named after her, this book is actually about a lot more than just Anna herself; and much like his other epic masterpiece War and Peace, this domestic version might be better described with a more grandiose title as well, like Love and Hate or Babies and Funerals.)

And he does this, his fans say, using a remarkably light and playful prose style as well, which let's not forget was done right during the height of popularity for the flowery, overblown Victorian/Genteel style of writing, a style that had fallen completely out of favor not even 50 years later but with Tolstoy's naturalistic style still the industry standard even in the 21st century. And then there's the nice formalistic elements that Tolstoy brings to this -- for example, the symmetrical way that the book starts with an introductory chapter followed by a death at a train station, while ending with another train-station death and a chapter of denouement -- plus the precursory version of experimental stream-of-consciousness he inserts into bits and pieces of this manuscript, a self-confessed big influence among such Modernist masters as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf (in fact, Woolf once called Tolstoy the greatest novelist of all time) -- which when added together makes you easily understand why the argument is so strong for Anna Karenina being one of those fabled "books to read before you die."

The argument against:
There seems to be two main arguments among this book's critics: that it is way, way too long (a fact that even most of its fans will admit is true, and a common problem among serial publishing projects of the 1800s); and that its characters are simply too reprehensible to care about, an unending collection of cold, stupid, uppity rich douchebags who spend all their time whining about pointless self-imposed false crises (which interestingly enough I have a response for -- but more on this in a bit). Other than this, the main complaint about Anna Karenina seems to be the same general one made about all these barn-burning epics of the Victorian Age -- that although it's a decent enough book for those who want to commit the extra time and patience to read it, it certainly shouldn't be considered a classic that everyone should read.

My verdict:
So after decades of having it drilled into my head that 19th-century Russian literature is some kind of obtuse monster, full of comically tragic scenes of gaunt peasants dying in blood-soaked snowy fields, it was a pleasant shock to read Anna Karenina and realize just how everyday and relatable it actually is, and how in fact it's still incredibly easy to this day to transpose the cultural details of the story into modern-day vernacular without losing any of Tolstoy's original gist. (In my case, for example, I kept picturing this taking place among the upper-class liberals of Chicago's contemporary far northern suburbs, who instead of the opera and horse races all maintain their social circle through an endless series of green-issue fundraisers and cancer runs, with Stiva for example being the head of a wealthy but earnest NGO instead of a government official, and with Levin one of those "trust-fund activists" who decides to build a self-sustaining eco-house and organic farm on his own semi-rural Wilmette property, and who writes one of those nerdy self-righteous blogs about the experience then is surprised when he can't get anyone to read it.) And that, I've come to realize, is the big thing that's been forgotten about Tolstoy in the 135 years since this was first written -- that the whole reason he became so beloved in the first place is because he was such a magically astute observer and recorder of the human condition, able to weave together the complexly inconsistent behavior of most people in a way so that we understand why some others might despise them for it and yet others love them for the same reason.

That's why, for example, the facile nature of these characters doesn't bother me nearly as much as others; because yes, although the elaborate code of inherently hypocritical etiquette that the upper class have been imposing on themselves for centuries now is certainly silly and pointless, it's fascinating nonetheless, and in the right person's hands it can be riveting to see how such made-up issues can affect the very real emotions and life decisions of the people involved. And when it comes to this, by the way, please know that Tolstoy had a very specific agenda in mind: after all, this was written right at the beginning of the author's later phase in life as an ultra-radical liberal activist, anarchy pioneer, and born-again Christian, pushed in this direction in late middle-age among other reasons because of his growing disgust over the tolerance and outright encouragement among the bored upper-class for moral relativity and bad behavior, and with the highly autobiographical "real-world romance" of Kitty and Levin clearly meant to be a better choice than the "screw you, we're in love!" histrionics of Anna and Vronsky. And it works, too, which is the real genius of Tolstoy, and why he's still so surprisingly relevant even two centuries later; just to cite one of dozens of examples I could mention, just look at that whole section in the middle where Levin's drug-addicted bohemian brother ends up messily dying of consumption in a squalid hovel deep in the city's artistic district, of how it brings out this fearless, surprisingly headstrong side of Kitty that Levin never knew she had, an understanding of and tolerance for the dark side of life that he never realized she was capable of, and of how this single week-long event profoundly and permanently changes and deepens the formerly surface-level "put her on a pedestal" attraction he has for her. If this isn't one of the most brilliant looks at the random, unexpected ways that intimate relationships mature and grow over time in the real world, I don't know what is.

Ultimately I found myself agreeing with what another reviewer at Goodreads.com had to say about this overlong but highly worthwhile novel, how it's much like visiting Paris for the first time: that despite probably having heard a lot already about the city before going, and even recognizing most of the major landmarks during the train ride in, you never truly experience Paris until the first time you actually take a walk in one of its neighborhoods, turning a random corner at dusk just to stumble accidentally into a forgotten millennium-old sun-kissed plaza full of ball-playing kids and seniors sipping coffee. And that's why it's ultimately still worth reading Anna Karenina, even if you do have my official permission to skip straight over any section that starts debating the relative modern worth of the feudal serf system as a legitimate economic model; because it is literally one of those proverbial "great books to get lost in," one of the novels that helped inspire that term in the first place, an exquisite if not quiet pleasure that you will never experience simply by reading a plot recap and character list. It's a chore to be sure, but I found this to be a fine example of a traditional literary classic, a book still well worth your time whether you're eighteen and new to the world of complex adult emotions, or eighty and a weary veteran of them. It comes highly recommended today, despite admittedly having some problems.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer

Read even more about Anna Karenina: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:00 PM, October 8, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |