Culture / Fiction

150 Years On, Tolstoy is Still Magical

One of the books that first comes to mind when you hear Leo Tolstoy’s name––and I’m here thinking of Anna Karenina––seems rather imposing. Anna Karenina. It’s a weighty book, for sure, just in terms of sheer size––you might even make a doorstop out of it. (I, for one, have never tried.) And weighty, too, in the subject matter that it addresses: love, betrayal, marriage, infidelity, religion, social propriety, the falseness of the Russian aristocracy, agricultural reforms, and so on. These are big topics, weighty topics. Of course, then there’s also the fact that Anna Karenina has as its main characters rather superfluous aristocrats who seem to serve no discernible purpose apart from gossiping about or cheating on one another. In other words, there’s a strange, paradoxical mix in Anna Karenina of gravity and frivolity, and at first glance it is far from a welcome combination. The question, then, is this: why would one read Anna Karenina? Or, better yet: why would one even consider reading that book? Couldn’t one’s time be better spent elsewhere, like being with friends and family or taking several hours to decide what to watch on Netflix?

For a long time, I have been a Tolstoy skeptic. It wasn’t that I found him uninteresting or unimportant––I knew that War and Peace and Anna Karenina could be counted among the highest achievements in literature, had far-ranging influence, and so on. I was simply unsure whether I would want to spend so much time reading one book. Of course, I could always start and see as I read whether I wanted to keep going, but I worried about falling victim to the sunken cost fallacy––that is, that the book would start off really well then tail off, so I would be compelled to drag myself along for 800 pages just to see if it would ever recover itself. (A bit like Anna’s relationship with Vronsky, actually.) But, then again, I have known for the longest time that Anna Karenina was consistently rated as one of the greatest novels written, period, and that made me want to read the book. I found myself stuck in an aporia of sorts: I wanted to read Tolstoy, but I also didn’t.

My chance finally came when I saw that the Bowdoin Russian Department was offering a course on Tolstoy’s (taught, of course, in English––I do not admit to knowing Russian). For once, I would not have to decide. I would have to work through Tolstoy, even if I find him unreadable. If I could not force myself to read him, then the course would.

Then I actually began to read Anna Karenina (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation), and my doubts largely vanished. Here’s the thing: as easy as it is to be skeptical about what are considered classics, the fact remains that classics are, well, classics, and they often have pretty good reason for being considered as such. My point here is this: Anna Karenina is rightfully considered a classic, and it is still most definitely worth reading today. Here are a few reasons why.

Reason 1: Leo Tolstoy is a really, really skilled writer. (And he’s entertaining, too.)

Read the following passage:

The terrible snowstorm tore and whistled between the wheels of the carriages, over the posts and around the corner of the station. Carriages, posts, people, everything visible was covered with snow on one side and getting covered more and more. … She breathed in once more, to get her fill of air, and had already taken her hand from her muff to grasp the post and go into the carriage, when near her another man, in a military greatcoat, screened her from the wavering light of the lantern. She turned and in the same moment recognized the face of Vronsky.

Time––time itself––seems to have stopped here.

We first see that there is a magical quality to the snowstorm at the train station. It is, in a word, captivating. But it is only briefly so. The magic seems to wear off. Anna, who has been standing on the platform and watching the snowstorm for quite some time, is about to head back onto the train. She is ready to move on. Nothing is keeping her where she is. But it is in this final, transitory moment, when Anna is between one thing and another (that is, the platform and the train) that she is suddenly stopped in her tracks––by Vronsky. She is stopped in her tracks despite herself. She isn’t paying attention, but Vronsky catches her attention anyway. He stands out against the world––he seems to be something beyond the world, the only thing that can catch Anna’s attention. And when the two of them start talking, it is as if the world has simply disappeared or melted away and the two of them are all that is left. Talk about romantic. And all this happens in the span of a single paragraph––a real testament to the depth and subtlety of Tolstoy’s craft.

Another closely related technique that Tolstoy often deploys: the private conversation in a public occasion. How do you show two characters to be intimate without having either of them make clumsy overt proclamations? Here is how Tolstoy does it: you start with a some gathering, some loud, lively public occasion, such as a party. What this does is that it establishes other possibilities and, with that, choice––the characters can wander around, chat with other people, have drinks, play cards, and so on. This means that, when the characters do choose to be with each other, they have chosen to forego all the other possibilities. Once again, the sense of intimacy is achieved through a contrast with the greater world:

When they got up from the table, Levin wanted to follow Kitty into the drawing room, but he was afraid that she might be displeased by such all-too-obvious courtship of her on his part. He remained in the men’s circle, taking part in the general conversation, but, without looking at Kitty, sensed her movements, her glances, and the place where she was in the drawing room.

Levin is here, with the other men, but he does not want to be here. He wants to be with Kitty, who stands apart from the crowd, the generality. He is here without being here––his mind is elsewhere. And she is, in being that elsewhere, special, drawing him away from where he is presently. It is this sort of push-pull dynamic between the characters that make reading about them so interesting, so entertaining. When the two do end up spending time together, the result is one of the most romantic scenes I think I have ever read. But I won’t spoil that here.

Reason 2: Anna Karenina is not just about an unfaithful wife––it is also a vivid portrait of life in imperial Russia

As a title, Anna Karenina sells itself rather short, because Anna Karenina is not just about Anna Karenina. There is, firstly, a whole other plot revolving around Dmitri Levin and the development of his worldview and self. But, really, that still sells the novel short, because Anna Karenina is also about just about every other aspect of life in the Russian Empire of mid-nineteenth century––at least for the aristocracy. Characters, in passing conversations, discuss war between the Empires Russian and Ottoman, new works of philosophy, various religious and social movements––and they gossip, too. It resembles a whole lot the kind of things we talk about today, in day-to-day conversation, and the level of detail is often astounding.

Here’s an excerpt––and a short one––from a chapters-long description of an Orthodox wedding:

When the rite of betrothal was finished, a verger spread a piece of pink silk in front of the lectern in the middle of the church, the choir began singing an artful and elaborate psalm in which bass and tenor echoed each other, and the priest, turning, motioned the betrothed to the spread-our piece of pink cloth. Often and much as they had both heard about the belief that whoever is first to step on the rug will be the head in the family, neither Levin nor Kitty could recall it as they made those few steps. Nor did they hear the loud remarks and disputes that, in the observation of some, he had been the first, or, in the opinion of others, they had stepped on it together.

But why does it matter? Why should Tolstoy write about such things, so mundane, so every-day, so insignificant? Why all the fuss? A simple answer––and simple answers always run the risk of being reductive––is that Tolstoy is committed to such realism and such level of detail because he loves his characters. This is, at the very least, the sense that I get when I read Anna Karenina. By including such mundane moments in his novel, thereby elevating them to the status of ‘art’, Tolstoy is saying that these rather banal things are, in fact, significant. And the fact is that they are significant. Levin and Kitty in the passage above are getting married––this is a momentous occasion in their lives. And, even in less apparently important situations, we still see characters take themselves seriously. They are always trying to connect, to communicate, to understand one another, and there is often a sense of injury or hurt when they fail to do so––just like any person would. Take the following passage when Anna waits in torment for Vronsky to come see her:

‘But where is he? Why does he leave me alone with my sufferings?’ she suddenly thought, with a feeling of reproach, forgetting that she herself had concealed from him everything to do with her son. She sent for to him asking him to come to her at once; with a sinking heart she waited for him, thinking up the words in which she would tell him everything, and the expressions of love with which he would comfort her. The messenger came back with the reply that he had a visitor but would come presently, and with the question whether she could receive him with Prince Yashvin, who had come to Petersburg. ‘He won’t come alone, and yet he hasn’t seen me since yesterday,’ she thought. ‘He won’t come so that I can tell him everything, but will come with Yashvin.’ And suddenly a strange thought occurred to her: what if he had stopped loving her?

That final thought occurs as if the ground beneath her feet has suddenly fallen away. It is a real shock: what if? And what if indeed––Tolstoy captures the torment, the doubt brought about by that thought. It is the possibility––the distinct possibility––that what one has lived for is not, after all, worth it, that what one has constructed one’s own life around is a falsehood, an illusion, a hoax. It is a powerful realization, a painful one, and it is what makes Tolstoy’s work so powerful: even when the character in question is a member of the Russian aristocracy, living a life of leisure and decadence, her emotions are no less real, no less direct. And Tolstoy achieves his realism through his attention to detail.

And I want to insist upon this point: Tolstoy’s commitment to realism is motivated by his love for his characters. Tolstoy loves his characters, he loves the world that they live in, and this is why he takes so much care to include so much detail––he genuinely believes that the world and the people in it deserve his and our attention. Contained here is a sort of ethics, a way of interacting with the world, that I really admire in Tolstoy (another discussion for another day, perhaps). In any case, it is this ethics, I think, that makes Tolstoy’s work so enduring. He remains magical to this day. Read him.