Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

I feel that I am flying headlong over some precipice but must not even try to save myself. And I can’t…I have no wishes at all. . . except that everything were at an end.

 

annak.jpegOne of my biggest accomplishments this year is reading my first Russian novel. I am not sure what I feared all of these years, but it was unfounded. At over 800 pages Anna Karenina is full of unforgettable characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy. Though there were parts that felt a little tedious, especially the politically philosophical sections discussing the responsibility of land-owning aristocracy over the peasants, I was so engrossed I don’t think I skipped one word. That one of my favorite characters was part of these conversations, I plowed through.

While the action centers on three couples and includes the rites of courting, marriage and infidelity, the book is also about other kinds of relationships. The elite of the novel divide themselves into the city elite and country elite with high passions defending the perspective of each. There is the relationship some have with the Church and some who are disbelievers.  And in each character whether rich or poor, man or woman, government official or country land owner, they are fighting the relationship with the inner demons of their personal truth.

The action takes place during the 1870s and centers around the extramarital affair annak1between Anna Karenina and a young cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky that scandalizes the community of Saint Petersburg when Anna makes the decision to make public this liaison by leaving her husband. The pair to flee to Italy and try in vain to live a normal life. Happiness eludes them and they return to Russia, where everything gets worse.

There are several parallel and revolving stories including Anna’s brother Prince Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly who themselves are dealing with an extramarital affair, his. Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is of marriageable age and is being courted by Konstantin Lëvin, a wealthy country landowner. Kitty has to work through her attraction to Vronsky, before she is able to accept Levin’s marriage proposal. Levin has issues with the management of his estate, because he is caught between the traditional feudalistic aspect of the landowner/peasant relationship and the new reforms that see workers as autonomous beings. He is also plagued by his struggle to accept Christianity, a necessity in order to marry.

There is so much going on in this novel that held my interest whether it was watching a character’s journey or enjoying the details of daily life; even the descriptions detailing the bureaucracy of the system of government at that time kept my attention.

In my edition, the front matter includes a three-page character list, with Russian names that are themselves long! I found that extremely intimidating wondering how I would keep everyone straight, but due to Tolstoy’s very well drawn characterizations and the themes that make up this book I needn’t have worried. And the struggles the characters go through hold interest in their universality: love and marriage; infidelity that is expected for men, but scandalous for women; the power of the Church in matters of relationships, raising of children and divorce; the issues of peasants rights at a time when a feudal society is changing.

I did not like Anna at first, because she had no guilt about her feelings toward Vronsky and how this affected her husband or child, especially after their affair came to light. But in a system that gives only the wronged party the power to divorce when feelings change in a relationship, leaving with your lover may be the only recourse. And as the pair try to live a normal life as a couple, it is clear they will never be free to do so, because her status makes her a pariah within the Russian expat communities in which they socialize.

Vronsky is able to move more freely through society. He considers Anna his wife and wants her to be treated as such. But in a society where female agency is not recognized, the act of leaving a husband and living with another man is shameful and their peers react accordingly. Vronksky sees their kind of relationship as a modern construction and believes in the sifting progress of “public opinion” regarding such relationships.

But he very soon noticed that though the great world was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. As in the game of cat and mouse, the arms that were raised to allow him to get inside the circle were at once lowered to prevent Anna from entering.

Anna’s inability to move freely causes her great mental and spiritual pain, in part because her forced seclusion keeps them from forming a social life as a couple. Vronksy spends time with his friends and she fears he will tire of her, something his mother would like to see. As the months in this liminal state drag on, Anna’s anxiety over Vronsky’s willingness to stay with her reach a breaking point. After a heated argument, Anna is convinced he will leave her and as her mental state breaks down further thinks of suicide as her only relief. As one of the world’s classic novels and as the subject of many films Anna’s fate is well-known, but her end is still shocking.

Tolstoy illustrates his themes against a backdrop of a changing Russian sensibility in all areas of life. Levin, the land owner, is caught up in the new land reforms developing throughout Europe and there is a considerable amount of discussion over whether these reforms would work in Russia. Levin wants to understand the people who work his land and some poignant scenes include his working alongside them, experiencing the celebratory effects of physical labor and working communally. How different is his life compared to his friends in the city.

Levin: You can’t imagine how strange it all seems to me who live in the country…We try to get our hands into a state convenient to work with,…but here people purposely let their nails grow until they begin to curl,…we try to get over our meals as quickly as we can, so as to be able to get on with our work, here you and I try to make our meal last as long as possible….

Oblonsky: Of course, the aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.

annak2Levin is my favorite character, especially as he wrestles with his questions about the existence of God, a disbelief which concerns Kitty. The other characters seem to take the Church for granted whether they believe or not participating in its rites because ‘that’s just what one does.’ Levin is an agnostic struggling honestly with his disbelief. After a lightning storm catches Kitty and their son when they are outdoors their safe deliverance causes in him a change of heart in that he understands that he does believe at least in the goodness of God even though he will always have questions and may never feel as righteous as others. He understands that his belief cannot be reasoned out, but “I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”

My Thoughts

There is no adequate way to write a blog post about this novel. From all the details of daily life–there is a lot of eating and different kinds of food in this book which I particularly enjoyed!–that show the corruption of those in government jobs, to the differences in the way city people live against those in the country who work the land, to the role of established Christianity in major life-cycle events and with those who struggle to believe.

It is easy to invest yourself in the outcome of each character’s story, because their struggles feel very present; they transcend time and place. Tolstoy manages to show the major issues that plague the personal, the political and spiritual are really universal and concern 21st century folk as they did in the 19th.

 

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Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 806

Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019

Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)

You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can’t separate me from the person you’ve imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it’s being in delusion…I won’t have you do it about me.

 

nightday

If I were to sum up Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day I could easily do it in one sentence: It is about a group of young men and women contemplating marriage, but illusions about love are a stumbling block: if true love does not come is compatibility the better alternative? But the book clocks in at 450 pages, so there must be more to it than that. The difficulty with this review is that though there is a narrative, so much of it is contained in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. And as shall be explained below, they followed a multi-lane winding road.

Katharine Hilbery lives with her parents in the Chelsea area of London where she spends her days assisting her mother with the biography of her grandfather, the well-known poet Richard Alardyce. Katharine is bored with her life, and her impending marriage to William Rodney, himself a writer and poet, does not give her peace. She is not in love with him, but has consented to the marriage and it is understood by all they are a couple, which adds to her discomfort. William has been invited to the apartment of Mary Datchet a suffragette who opens her apartment to young writers to showcase their work. Katharine accompanies William on this particular evening and it is here she sees Ralph Denham, a young lawyer who writes for her father and whom she met recently at a tea given by her mother. Katharine feigns interest in him, but Ralph’s feelings are strong. Mary has known Ralph through her job and is in love with him, but he sees her only as a friend. When Cassandra, Katharine’s younger cousin comes to visit, she and William find themselves in love with each other.

These attachments and attractions to and for each character form the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their inner lives are melodramatic as their thoughts twist and turn. And when they converse they are never honest, speaking of marriage when they are not in love or declaring friendship when they really mean they are in love. They are both false and brutally honest with each other forcing confusion and turmoil into their relationships.

I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong, for I don’t love you William; you’ve noticed it, every one’s noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue.

Indecision impairs each with an uncertainty as to their future. Do you marry for love or friendship? For romance or compatibility? Can Katharine Hilbery marry William Rodney because she loves, but is not in love with him? Should Ralph Denham ask Mary Datchet to marry him because he only likes her very much and should she say yes, even though she is in love with him?

strolling2When not ruminating in their individual heads one of the great features of this novel is the quality of the conversations. In fact, there is a certain irony in the fact that the main characters speak so often to each other about their feelings, yet the words are never honest so there is a continual confusion over where each stands. And even when they have come to a decision and know what they feel, they do the opposite. This is never more startling as when Ralph, who is mad for Katharine, proposes to Mary anyway telling her his relationship with Katharine has been a fantasy he made up in his mind. Mary, however, wants a marriage based on love. Answers Ralph:

But love—don’t we talk a great deal of nonsense about it?…It’s only a story one makes up in one’s mind about another person and one knows all the time it isn’t true. Of course one knows; why, one’s always taking care not to destroy the illusion. One takes care not to see them too often, or to be alone with them for too long together. It’s a pleasant illusion, but if you’re thinking of the risks of marriage, it seems to me that the risk of marrying a person you’re in love with is something colossal.

It is easy to become exasperated with the continual indecision of the characters, but there is a certain humorous quality about a group of well-liked intelligent young people who can’t make up their minds, who are unable to tell anyone the truth of their feelings, to be gossiped about being seen alone with someone they tell people they only ‘like,’ yet everyone can see they are actually in love with them!

The characters do have rich inner worlds that Woolf plumbs and dissects. And there is a plot and a sense of the narrative, but it is wide-ranging and convoluted. If you skip a page or skim a conversation, you will miss something important, because Woolf relishes the intimate details that make up a person. Katharine’s mother, for example, floats in and out of the novel and though is often lost in the world of her father’s biography comes up with gems. Surprising Katharine, who has finally declared to her that she is in love with Ralph Denham and not William Rodney, she tells her, “Do not marry unless you are in love!…Who knows where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love.”

Or in Mary Datchet’s world love is her work. While Katharine and Ralph and William and Cassandra pair up, Mary’s partner will be her work. Mary is a character I wish Woolf gave more attention. She is put-upon by the other characters who treat her like a cross between a Mother Confessor and an ill-used personal assistant. Katharine shows up at her apartment at any time of night or day when her thoughts are too much to handle suff2alone. Ralph, too, depends on Mary to make his fears of commitment to Katharine bearable, yet Mary is in love with Ralph and they both know it. I wanted from Mary more fight, more push against this meanness and sadly Woolf uses her strength to keep her alone, but in love with her work failing, in my opinion, that she can’t have both.

Work…I’ve only found out myself quite lately. But it’s the thing that saves one—I’m sure of that…—Where should I be now if I hadn’t got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing—thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me, Ralph…It’s all turned out splendidly for me. It will for you, too. I’m sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it.

The ending was no surprise and in fact, quite a relief after all the angst and push pull of feelings, rumination and the endless talking; honesty triumphed, decisions were made and proposals accepted.

Conclusion

If I would dare criticize Woolf, I would beg for some heavy editing. But I also have to admit I enjoyed what I am criticizing, because the writing, especially the myriad conversations, are so well done. Still, the repetition…I suppose I just wanted to reach into the book to shake up Katharine and the rest and ask, “don’t you know the definition of insanity is doing (in this case, thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?” Ah well, in a few years I may do a reread after I’ve read more Woolf and maybe I will understand the point of Night and Day a little better.

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Title: Night and Day
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Device: Paperback
Year: 1919
Pages: 442

CCSpin, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

 

WorldsEndDistillery

Welch Ale Brewery, Kings Road, Chelsea. Absolutely irrelevant to this post and sadly, no relation 🙂 But a girl can dream!