Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Anna Karenina". KONSTANTIN LYOVIN: OYSTERS, LONG FINGERNAILS, LOW-CUT DRESSES






Tolstoy House Museum in Moscow




(5) Tolstoy's Alter Ego Lyovin. Fascination with Physical Details


Konstantin Lyovin is the character in "Anna Karenina" who most resembles Tolstoy himself. Stiva Oblonsky is his old friend, and he enjoys watching Stiva eat oysters, but his staid, almost puritanical nature will not allow him to really enjoy oysters himself. Tolstoy the puritan frowns upon sensuality and would refute Stiva's idea that the aim of civilization is "to make everything a source of enjoyment" (p.40). Lyovin agrees with Tolstoy.

Lyovin represents Tolstoy's belief in good hard work in a rural environment, duty to wife and children, and condemnation of pleasure for its own sake. He prefers cabbage soup (schchi) and buckwheat kasha to oysters and is offended by what he sees as extravagance in the pampering of the body. He likes to get out and dirty his hands with the hard labor of agricultural work (as we shall see later when we treat the famous mowing scene).

Tolstoy, who is not known for writing comic scenes, is, for all that, quite good at describing the comic side of Lyovin. We get a good idea of this rather awkward country squire's personality at his first appearance in the book, when he gazes in horrified fascination at the long fingers of the effete Grinevich:

"Lyovin was silent, looking at the unknown faces of Oblonsky's two companions, and especially at the hand of the elegant Grinevich, which had such long white fingers, such long yellow nails curving at the ends, and such huge shining cuff links that apparently they absorbed his attention completely, leaving him no freedom of thought. Oblonsky noticed this at once, and smiled."

[Next Oblonsky introduces Lyovin to his friends]:

"I have the honor of knowing your brother, Sergei Ivanovich," said Grinevich, holding out his slender hand with its long nails.
Lyovin frowned, shook hands coldly, and at once turned to Oblonsky."

[a page later, still speaking to Oblonsky]:

"'Yes, later, but I wanted to see you,' said Lyovin, looking with hatred at Grinevich's hand. Stepan Arkadyevich gave a scarcely perceptible smile."
(p. 21-22)

Later in the novel (much later--p. 597) Lyovin is faced with another pampered aristocrat, the young dandy Vasenka Veslovsky, who comes to visit his estate. This time Lyovin is disconcerted by Vasenka's fat leg:

"'Please, let's go,' said Veslovsky, moving to another chair, where he sat down sideways, with one fat leg tucked under him.
'I shall be delighted, we will go. And have you had any shooting yet this year?' said Lyovin to Veslovsky, looking intently at his leg, but speaking with that forced amiability that Kitty knew so well in him. . . "

This scene goes on for some time, and, flustered over that leg, and over what he sees as Veslovsky's undue attention to his wife Kitty, Lyovin ends up throwing poor Vasenka off the estate.

As is one side of Tolstoy himself, Lyovin is embarrassed by the very physical nature of the human body. Throughout his whole life Tolstoy (his puritanical side) railed against human physicality and sensuality. As if to say, "Why do we human beings have to be such animals?" A special problem for him was sexuality. Late in life it became an obsession.

In another highly comic scene poor Lyovin gets himself into a real state when visiting the Sviazhsky family. Sviazhsky's sister-in-law is of marriageable age, and she comes out wearing a low-cut dress. Embarrassed and confused, Lyovin imagines that the decolletage has been effected precisely for his benefit, and he, "in an agony of embarrassment," cannot keep the conversation going (p.347-48).

With his fascination (and sometimes revulsion) for the human body, Tolstoy is especially good at describing physical details and characterizing people by repeatedly mentioning such details. As we have already seen, Stiva Oblonsky is always described jutting out his chest and smiling. Lyovin's brother Nikolai twitches his shoulder all the time. Already in his first work of fiction, "Childhood," Tolstoy was using this device. The prototype of Veslovsky's fat leg is already there in the German tutor, and the father of the story has the twitching shoulder.

And then, of course, the stodgy Karenin has the EARS.



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