What’s a book review week without the Russians? Nothing, is what! Time to wheel out the big guns, in fact, the biggest gun of all, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the best novel ever written, according to William Faulkner and me. This review I wrote some time ago is in two parts: the first, while I was reading it, the second, after I finished. Here it is, the best of the best …
I’m re-reading Anna Karenina. It’s the Penguin edition by the fêted translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and it says on the flyleaf:
William Faulkner, it’s said, was once asked to name the three best novels ever. He replied: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”
I don’t know if it’s the translation or that I’ve grown up since, but it scarcely feels like a book now; it’s more like an animal. It’s so lithe and fresh and vigorous, with long effortless sentences and smoothness without perfection.
I’ve just finished Part One. The stage has all been set. The train, the accident at the station, the recounting of the short history of the Shcherbatsky sisters. Stiva has blotted his marital copybook, and Levin has brought to town his painful honour. Anna, wearing black not lilac, has looked down the staircase at Vronsky. Kitty has missed the mazurka, and seen the answer to her question — “Who is it? … All or one?” — on Vronsky’s face.
And we’ve just had the masterpiece scene on the train at the halt between Moscow and Petersburg. The scene in which Anna, probing her conscience and congratulating herself on her rigour, lives out the greatest joy she will ever have of Vronsky, the high point of their affair, alone in the train carriage, before it has even begun.
She went through all her Moscow memories. They were all good, pleasant. She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his enamoured, obedient face, remembered all her relations with him: nothing was shameful. But just there, at that very place in her memories, the feeling of shame became more intense, as if precisely then, when she remembered Vronsky, some inner voice were telling her: “Warm, very warm, hot!” … She passed the paper-knife over the glass, then put its smooth and cold surface to her cheek and nearly laughed aloud from the joy that suddenly came over her for no reason. She felt her nerves tighten more and more, like strings on winding pegs. She felt her eyes open wider and wider, her fingers and toes move nervously …
The vividness of the whole scene is remarkable. I could hear the voice of the “bundled-up and snow-covered man” shouting something in her ear, and the wind, “as if only waiting for her,” whistling “joyfully.” I could feel the “cold post” she grasps, as “holding her dress down,” she steps out of the carriage. And when Vronsky materialises on the platform I felt, like Anna, the same sense of almost tiresome inevitability.
For Tolstoy understands, like Flaubert too — who somewhere in his notebooks describes the greatest erotic event of his life as the planning of a visit to a brothel that never eventuated — that two thirds of love consists in anticipation, not consummation.
For the same reason, it’s almost a shame to keep reading.
I finished Anna Karenina last week. Was shattered and moved. By Anna crouching next to the train, red bag discarded, waiting for the “midpoint between the two wheels” to come even with her; by the glimpse of Vronsky after her death, “his face, aged and full of suffering”; and, most of all, by the revelation of what the book has been about: the question of how to live.
Levin is the character explicitly shown to be seeking an answer to this question, but Anna too is preoccupied by it. She’s the hither side of Levin, the side that fails to find a satisfactory, good enough answer to the question, who takes her life as a consequence. Levin also contemplates not living without an answer. Tolstoy has him remark, shockingly casually, even after the longed-for marriage to Kitty and the birth of their son:
And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself.
But, unlike Anna, Levin “went on living” and, by accident, he comes on his answer in the wonderful scene with the peasant in the barn:
“Mityukha makes it pay right enough, Konstantin Dmitrich! He pushes till he gets his own. He takes no pity on a peasant. But Uncle Fokanych … he won’t skin a man. He lends to you, he lets you off. So he comes out short. He’s a man, too.”
“But why should he let anyone off?”
“Well, that’s how it is – people are different. One man just lives for his own needs, take Mityukha even, just stuffs his belly, but Fokanych – he’s an upright old man. He lives for the soul. He remembers God.”
“How’s that? Remembers God? Lives for the soul?” Levin almost shouted.
“Everybody knows how – by the truth, by God’s way. People are different. Now, take you even, you wouldn’t offend anybody either …”
“Yes, yes, goodbye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and, turning, he took his stick and quickly walked off towards home.
A new, joyful feeling came over him. At the muzhik’s words about Fokanych living for the soul, by the truth, by God’s way, it was as if a host of vague but important thoughts burst from some locked-up place and, all rushing towards the same goal, whirled through his head, blinding him with their light.
Tolstoy captures the experience of revelation with effortless accuracy: the slightness of what’s said, Levin’s instant recognition of what he calls the “hint”, the quick work of elaboration and incorporation and, indeed, the conventionality of the answer when it comes.
These final chapters are majestic. As the translators note, the stream of consciousness in which Tolstoy narrates Anna’s last hours,
… gives us what are surely the most remarkable pages in the novel, and some of the most remarkable ever written.
She has woken in the morning from the nightmare Vronsky himself has had much earlier, the nightmare that has prefigured her death throughout:
In the morning a dreadful nightmare, which had come to her repeatedly even before her liaison with Vronsky, came to her again and woke her up. A little old muzhik with a dishevelled beard was doing something, bent over some iron, muttering meaningless French words, and, as always in this nightmare (here lay its terror), she felt that this little muzhik paid no attention to her, but was doing this dreadful thing with iron over her, was doing something dreadful over her. And she awoke in a cold sweat.
The muzhik appears again just before her death, and just after it, playing out the nightmare scene:
A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron. And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.
Tolstoy gets the nightmare image so right and I feel the horror of it alongside Anna.
But what does he mean by the reference to the book she’s been reading of evil? That she deserves her death because of the adultery? In the Introduction, the translators suggest this is the main idea of the novel, “the one he struggled with most bitterly and never could resolve,” that her suicide “was the punishment for her adultery.”
I disagree that this is the main idea of the novel. If it were the meaning of the recurring goblin figure and the idea of a “book”, it will have been the first time Tolstoy has failed in a masterpiece of 800 pages. And I do not think he failed.
He saw the danger of the conclusion, yes, but he trusted Anna herself to overcome it. And so she does. It’s not her culpability that leads to her death, it’s her fidelity.
Reading the translators’ Introduction I was thrilled to discover I’d noted something about Tolstoy’s style that my hero, Vladimir Nabokov, also noted. The translators cite the example of the incident at the railway station early in the novel when the watchman is killed:
… several men with frightened faces suddenly ran past. The stationmaster, in a peaked cap of an extraordinary colour, also ran past. Evidently something extraordinary had happened.
Vladimir Nabokov says of this passage: “There is of course no actual connection between the two [uses of ‘extraordinary’], but the repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy’s style with its rejection of false elegancies and its readiness to admit any robust awkwardness if that is the shortest way to sense.”
This “rejection of false elegancies” is brilliant. Both in Tolstoy and its description, and more elegant than my “smoothness without perfection.”
The fact I can notice and respond to this vigour in Tolstoy’s prose as well as a native Russian speaker like Nabokov is testament to the translators’ decision to retain such passages rather than tone them down, as in other English translations.
If you’re going to read this marvel of a book make sure it’s the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They’ve been rightly awarded the highest honours for their translation.
Image: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina