Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Problem with Anna

It was quite exciting to start reading a classic Anna Karenina that is perenially on my list of things to read. I had seen two Garbo film versions (silent and with sound) of the book and thought I new what to expect. Passion, conflict, tragedy. What I got instead was furious.

When I finished Anna, instead of satisfaction I felt deeply offended and completely hoodwinked. Anna Karenina is one long bait and switch. If I could have lifted it, I would have thrown this half-baked, misogynist, egomaniacal religious tract across the room, plaster be damned.

Tolstoy seduces the reader along with the romantic story of Anna and her impossible love, alternating chapters with the story of Levin, a country dweller who falls in love and marries. The reader goes along, entranced by Anna and Vronsky, amused (and confused) by Levin and his endless (and yes, pointless) ruminations on farming, believing there is a point. There must be a connection. It is not until the last pages that the truth becomes clear: The author has as much contempt for Anna as the characters in his book, and offers not one iota of insight or compassion of her plight, but a vicious indictment of her. The point is good vs. evil and Anna is supposed to be the evil. The happy family/unhappy family juxtaposition is obvious but beside the point.

Tolstoy is one of the greatest writers in depicting the subtleties of human emotion, particularly when that emotion involves affairs of the heart. His knowledge of the subtleties of the human heart is deadly accurate, and his depictions of emotional relationships are as brilliant and subtle as I’ve ever seen. His knowledge of the female heart is without parallel, as is his contempt for women.

It is likely that the character of Anna Karenina was created simply so Tolstoy could write about himself (in the form of Levin) and his moralistic message. Richard Pevear’s introduction to this edition bears this out as he states that the character of Anna Karenina is invented, but that Levin and everything in his depiction is taken to the last detail from Tolstoy’s own life (p.xiv).

Pevear states that Tolstoy intended the book as a polemic against the nihilist movement, which was taking hold in Russia at the time, and advocated free love and female emancipation, which of course, Tolstoy was against. His views don’t make him a bad writer, his methods do. He spoon feeds us a love story so we’ll read about political corruption, infidelity (which runs rampant) and farming.

With audacious arrogance, Tolstoy has set himself up as the example of goodness against Anna’s “evil.” Tolstoy’s portrayal of Anna is luminous and enchanting, her emotional life is tenderly and compassionately drawn, her anguish palpable, her despair unbearable. Her death is not even commented upon by the other numerous characters in the book, many of whom are related to her. Except for Vronsky, her lover, who is beyond grief, it’s as if she never existed. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s cruel, a common side effect of fanaticism. Vronsky’s mother, described in the beginning of the book as having had numerous lovers and having deprived Vronsky of a family life, comments of Anna: “Yes, she ended as such a woman should have ended. Even the death she chose was mean and low.” That’s the end of Anna, and then we’re back to the farm and Levin and his crisis of faith. Who cares?!!!

Anna Karenina fails as a classic because more than half of it (the Levin portion) is irrelevant today, because it is out of the context of its time, the Levin portion of the book, is meaningless today. This cannot be said of the books of Wharton or even Dickens, among others. However spectacular the writing is (and it is) if you have to rip out half the book (and I would) because it no longer makes sense, then there’s something seriously wrong. Even as a polemic this is heavy-handed and unsophisticated. Levin never resolves anything, but drives one to drink with his talk of farming. No one has made numerous films about Levin, it is Anna who captivated the public imagination, Anna who grabs your heart and never lets go. The character was his greatest achievement and he used her as a shill.

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