Sunday, November 22

Considering Leo Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina”

After my less than excellent experience with The Brothers Karamazov, I turned to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for the redemption of Russian literature. In his small way, Tolstoy is successful. I prefer Karenina, as far as it is possible to compare that novel of manners and society to the ponderous philosophical meditations of Brothers. Things actually happen in it. Affairs are had. Couples are reconciled. Proposals are made. Proposals are refused. And that's all just in the first of Karenina's eight parts. There are still horse races, public snubbings, weddings, births, deaths, failed suicides and one very famous successful suicide. Even when things do not happen, particularly in the case of a certain divorce that never materializes, there is action and energy. Unfortunately, Tolstoy is unable to resist the soapbox of his serial novel (props to Emmett for the historical context) and cannot help himself but to express his opinion on, among other things, the Serbo-Turkish war, psychics and the particular relationship of the Russian peasant to the soil, but even Koznyshov's obsession with reviews of his An Attempt at a Survey of the Foundations and Forms of Government in Europe and in Russia is more interesting than the murder in Brothers.

No doubt, Dostoevsky has little interest in competing with Tolstoy on these grounds, but all this action is not to meant to imply short shrift in Tolstoy's ambition in elucidating the great themes. Karenina is really two stories, that of Levin/Kitty and Anna/Karenin/Vronsky. Except for a few characters who move between both narratives, the two have nothing really to do with one another, but their parallel structures go far in developing his thoughts on love, happiness and society.

Yet for all this praise, I could not help thinking the entire time I was with Karenina, “Why am I not reading Vanity Fair? They do so much the same, and Thackeray comes up the better in most every instance.”

Passionate heroines who don't quite conform to the standards of society? Thackeray. When the last vestiges of society depart from Anna, she takes a train. Becky revels in everything life offers her, no matter whom she's with, no matter if her ambitions are thwarted.

Cads who destroy the women they are with? Thackeray. Except for his willingness to destroy his military career and relationship with his family for Anna's sake, I cannot see the appeal of Vronsky. He's kind of a selfish pig. At least, George has his moments. I can understand why Amelia would fall for him.

Decent women who fall for the cad first? Tolstoy takes this one. Kitty is able to get over Vronsky by the second part. Amelia pines for George for over half the novel and tortures poor Dobbin the entire time.

Likable heroes? Thackeray all the way. Unlike Tolstoy's straight-up mouthpiece, Levin, Dobbin is sympathetic and interesting, a near impossible feat with such a decent, kind character. Under all but the most careful pens, they always come off as boring.

Proposal scene? I put particular emphasis on this one. It's a staple of the society novel, from Fair to Karenina to Pride and Prejudice, and I'm a sucker for the things. For my money, none of them do it better than Thackeray with Dobbin's arrival on the docks in the rain. It may give in to more melodramatic flourishes than the quiet intensity of Levin and Kitty's letter game, but my hands were steady then. I think I literally dropped the book when I got to Fair's proposal.

So I'm left still searching for a Russian writer deserving of the fame, and my eyes turn toward Anton Chekov. I plan on ordering a collection of his short stories this afternoon. I have high hopes. Tobias Wolff is a fan.

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