Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Anna Karenina

In the last several weeks I've launched an assault on Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina. So far, I'm only 200 or so pages in.  I last read the book almost thirty years ago, and consequently remember almost nothing of my experience with the book.  To support my reading, I viewed the Tom Stoppard movie adaption of the book.  Starring Keira Knightly, the movie is competent but seems to suggest that Tolstoy's books don't really belong on the screen.  With apologies to Greto Garbo, who starred in an early version of the book, no screen version can do justice to the internal debates that constitute so much of the novel's style and substance. 

Stoppard's main innovation in this version of Anna Karenina is that he avoids any pretense of realism by relying on an overtly theatrical mise en scene. While there's nothing wrong with converting the book into a play, it often seems as if this technique is primarily employed to avoid the cost of staging large-scale scenes.  As for the character of Anna Karenina, the new movie version seems to suggest that a lot of her power resides in her physical beauty.  Certainly her lines don't suggest any undue curiosity about the complexity of her life journey.  On the other hand, Jude Law is brilliant as Karnenin. He's dignified, reserved, proud, wounded, and cold--everything Tolstoy seemed to have meant him to be. 

The book itself is going well.  On the negative side, I sometimes wonder what makes the book so beloved.  Unlike the grandeur of the Napoleonic context of War and Peace, Anna Karenina sometimes revolves around an almost intentionally ordinary adultery scandal. On the other hand, Tolstoy does demonstrate an uncanny ability to appreciate both the strengths and the weakness of all of his characters.  As I move further through the novel, the villains seem less and less villainous, and the heroes seem less and less heroic.  That is to say, while Vronsky is somewhat spoiled and immature, he's also capable of behaving with courage and gallantry.  Conversely, while Count Karenin is awkward and off-putting, he exhibits many excellent qualities, including self-control.  But even Kitty's scorned lover, Levin, turns out to be something less than the hero one expects him to be. He's hard-working, loyal, and romantic, but he also lacks many of the wonderful traits of his fun-loving and tactful friend, Prince "Stiva."

To be sure, I'll post again on Anna Karenina as I get deeper into the novel.  But Gary Saul Morson's work of criticism, Anna Karenina in Our Time:  Seeing More Wisely, suggests that my early impressions of the book are not entirely original.  Morson argues that Tolstoy's genius lies in the fact that he often intentionally veers into long descriptions of mundane topics in order to make a philosophical point:  that life isn't made up of a series of meaningful plot points.  Reading 200 pages of Anna Karenina involves one in several narrative dead ends.  For instance, there's no really compelling need for the reader to spend so much time on the details of a hunt, race, or ball. Morson maintains that Tolstoy's decision to spend time on these ostensible plot detours is intentional.  He wants to depict life as it is, as a canvas filled out by as many blank or empty spaces as colorful ones. Of course, Tolstoy has the power to hold our attention even when he's depicting the quotidian details of life.  This is why many people enjoy the society scenes in War and Peace as much as they do the description of the battle of Borodino.   But Morson argues that we become really enthralled with Tolstoy's great works when the blank spots on the canvas convince us that we are finally seeing life "as it really is," with all its highs and lows, and all its detours and dead ends.

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