Monday, April 20, 2015

"Anna Karenina" THE DREAMS (1)

(21) The Dreams

The novel begins by introducing the reader to Stiva Oblonsky through a dream that he has, and this introduction of a dream in the first pages foreshadows the importance that dreams are to play throughout the book. Of course, Stiva's dream, light and airy as it is, so in tune with his frivolous character, is in direct contrast to the ominous dreams of Anna and Vronsky that are to come.

Immediately after she begins her affair with Vronsky Anna begins having a recurrent dream. "One dream haunted her almost every night. She dreamed that both were her husbands at once, that both [Aleksey Karenin and Aleksey Vronsky] were lavishing caresses on her. Aleksey Aleksandrovich was weeping, kissing her hands and saying, 'How good it is now!' Aleksey Vronsky was there too, and he too was her husband. And she was amazed that it had once seemed impossible to her, she was explaining to them, laughing, that this was so much simpler, and that now both of them were happy and contented. But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she awoke from it in terror" (Part II, Ch. 11, p. 159-60).

Of course, this is dreaming as wish fulfillment, a working through of the problem, but it also has a lot to say about how the two men (both named Aleksey) are somehow equated deep in her psyche. Note also that in this dream her husband is weeping, kissing her hands, saying how good it all is now. Only much farther along in the book do we realize that this has been a kind of prevision, Anna's muddled reconstruction in reverse time order of the bedside "dying" scene that is to come hundreds of pages later (Part IV, Ch. 17). During that scene, when Anna is thought to be dying in childbirth, Karenin weeps, forgives her, and comes to a condition of spiritual bliss. She recovers instead of dying, and although Karenin feeds off that spiritual bliss for some time, it is not really very good for him. In fact, he feels a sense of disappointment when she does not die (p. 432).

This early dream is a premonition of what is to come much later: the even more uncanny and ominous twin nightmares dreamed by both Anna and Vronsky. The dreams are described midway in the book (p. 375 and 381), but Tolstoy masterfully connects them to events and details much earlier. In addition, they anticipate events much later. In particular, they prepare the reader for Anna's suicide.

There is a strong element of predestination in "Anna Karenina." From the very moment that she first meets Vronsky at the train station, Anna seems doomed; the dreams only prepare her for the inevitable: her death beneath a train. In the early scene, as the train bearing Anna and Vronsky's mother pulls into the station Tolstoy describes the engine, "with the lever of the middle wheel rhythmically moving up and down, and the stooped, muffled figure of the engine driver covered with frost [my emphasis URB]. Then who gets off the train when it stops? "an officer of the guards, holding himself erect and looking severely about him; a nimble little merchant with a satchel, smiling gaily; a peasant with a sack over his shoulder" (p.66 [my emphasis]).

So here, for the first time, that peasant who is later to so torment Anna in her dreams walks into the novel. You can only assume that Anna absentmindedly takes note of that figure (if not the muffled engine driver). Later on it is as if her mind has stored up certain significant detail from the time of an important, even fateful meeting in her life (her first introduction to Vronsky). The dream producers in her mind later use this detail repeatedly in her nightmares. We keep getting the muffled figures and we keep getting disheveled peasants in those nightmares.

Most ominous of all at this first fateful meeting is the episode of the guard, "either drunk or too muffled up in the bitter frost," who is crushed by the backing train. Oblonsky and Vronsky both see the mutilated corpse, just as Vronsky is to see the corpse of Anna at the train station 700 pages later. This episode, once again, sets the tone for the whole rest of Anna's life. "It's an evil omen," she says to her brother Stiva, and it certainly is that.

To return to the ominous dream theme, we next get these leitmotifs (muffled figures and peasants) as Anna is back on the same train, returning to Petersburg--after she has fallen in love with Vronsky at the ball. At this time she is in a semi-delirium that is indicative of the incredibly swift and utter change in her life. On the train she goes into a kind of half dream that combines her recollection of the events of the station where she first met Vronsky with an eerie anticipation of her own death:

"That peasant with the long waist seemed to be gnawing at something on the wall, the old lady began stretching her legs the whole length of the carriage and filling it like a black cloud; then there was a fearful shrieking and banging, as though someone was being torn to pieces; then there was a blinding dazzle of red fire before her eyes and a wall seemed to rise up and hide everything. Anna felt as if she were collapsing downward. But it was not terrible; it was blissful. The voice of a man muffled up and covered with snow shouted something in her ear" [and she wakes up] (p. 108).

Note the detail about the bliss. It is as if she takes a feral kind of joy in committing herself (by falling in love with Vronksy) to her self-destruction. This scene, one of the most famous in the novel, continues when the train stops at a station, Anna steps out into a snowstorm, meets Vronsky, who has followed her, and seals her fate. Their affair is inevitable, and as "the hoarse whistle of the engine roared. . . . plaintively and gloomily, all the horror of the storm seemed to her still more splendid now" (109).

And once again, as Anna stands out in the storm, almost as if waiting for the inevitable appearance of Vronsky, "muffled figures covered with snow" run by. And "the bent shadow of a man flashed by at her feet, and she heard sounds of a hammer upon iron" (109).

Now, in an accumulation of incidental detail gathered subconsciously during her two fateful meetings with Vronsky at railway stations, Anna has all the ingredients for her recurrent dreams later on, in particular the muffled figure of a peasant beating with a hammer on iron. This is all extremely well done, but giving Vronsky essentially the same nightmare too (much later in the book) seems almost too much in the way of predestination.

The dream producers, of course, have taken slightly different details and situations from the waking lives of the characters as ingredients for their dreams. But, most importantly, the disheveled peasant, stooping down and muttering in French appears in both dreams (p.375, 381). Vronsky cannot make out what he is saying, but Anna hears the words, which begin with part of a French proverb and end with pounding and beating. The entire proverb (mangled in the dream) says, "Il faut battre le fer, tandis qu'il est chaud," which is common to most European languages. In Russian: Куй железо пока горячо. In English: Strike while the iron is hot.

The passage in the novel goes like this: "Il faut le battre, le fer, le broyer, le petrir" (381), "It must be beaten, the iron, must be pounded, molded." Anna also dreams that one of the servants, Korney, interprets this dream as an omen of her death in childbirth (382). As it turns out she does not die in childbirth, but the French words conjure up a muddled image (fire and iron) of the train that she throws herself under.

This coincidental double nightmare shared by Anna and Vronsky, what Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, calls "this monogrammatic interconnection of two individual brain patterns," is an analogue of the telepathic experience of Kitty and Lyovin--as they read each others' thoughts in the marriage-proposal scene (Nabokov again, p. 175). But what a difference in mood and in future implications in these two scenes!

From this point one can trace the patterns in Anna's recurrent nightmares throughout the rest of the novel.


Sunday, April 19, 2015


From an interview with Kennan in "The New York Review of Books," 1999

But consider their situation. Since the Thirty Years’ War, no people, I think, have been more profoundly injured and diminished than the Russian people have been by the successive waves of violence brought to them by this past brutal century. There were: the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905; the fearful manpower losses brought about by Russia’s participation in the First World War; the cruelties and the fighting that were a part of the consolidation of Communist power in the immediate aftermath of that First World War; then, the immense manpower losses of World War II; and finally, extending over some seven decades and penetrating and in part dominating all these other disasters, there were the immense damages, social, spiritual, even genetic, inflicted upon the Russian people by the Communist regime itself. In this vast process of destruction, all the normal pillars on which any reasonably successful modern society has to rest—faith, hope, national self-confidence, balance of age groups, family structure, and a number of others—have been destroyed. The process took place over most of an entire century. It embraced three generations of Russian people. Such enormous losses and abuses are not to be put to rights in a single decade, perhaps not even in a single generation.

George Kennan on American "Culture"

From an interview with George Kennan in 1999:

R.U.: It isn’t only our military power that makes us number one. For better or worse, our cultural impact is equally profound. The world flocks to American popular culture.
G.K.: This, alas, appears to be true. We export to anyone who can buy it or steal it the cheapest, silliest, and most disreputable manifestations of our “culture.” No wonder that these effusions become the laughingstock of intelligent and sensitive people the world over. But so long as we find it proper to let millions of our living rooms be filled with this trash every evening, and this largely to the edification of the schoolchildren, I can see that we would cut a poor figure trying to deny it to others beyond our borders. Nor would we be successful. In a computer age, it is available, anyway, for whoever wants to push the button and receive it. And so we must expect, I suppose, to appear to many abroad, despite our military superiority, as the world’s intellectual and spiritual dunce, until we can change the image of ourselves we purvey to others.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A DETAIL IN DOSTOEVSKY'S "NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND" "An artist, for example, has painted a picture of Ге"

I've been puzzling over this for years, wondering why I'm the only one who has noticed it. Maybe somebody else has, but I've never seen it in print. Or maybe I'm completely wrong?

To get the thing in context, here is the Underground Man (narrator of "Notes from the Underground") in his usual sarcastic, raving mode. He professes his love for everything "beautiful and sublime," then goes off into the following rift:

"I would have found myself a suitable activity--namely, drinking to everything beautiful and sublime. Then I would have turned everything into the beautiful and sublime; I would have sought out the beautiful and sublime in the nastiest, most indisputable trash. I would have become as weepy as a wet sponge. An artist, for example, has painted a picture of Ge. At once I drink to the artist who painted that picture of Ge because I love everything beautiful and sublime. An author has written the words, "Just as you please," so I drink to "as you please," because I love everything 'beautiful and sublime.'"

Knowing that Dostoevsky, at the time he wrote this novella, was heavily engaged in current events and in disputes with other journalists and critics, translators give us footnotes explaining, e.g., that M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, one of Dostoevsky's main antagonists, had written "Kak komu ugodno (Just As You Please)" and had also published a sympathetic review of the artist N.N.Ge's rather controversial painting "The Last Supper."

But was Dostoevsky even speaking about the painter Ge at all? Or is he giving us a diversionary move, punning on the name of the painter but having something entirely different in mind? One translator, Ralph Matlaw, puzzled by the way the sentence ("An artist has painted a picture of Ge") refers not to Ge's painting, but to some other painting, writes in a footnote:

"The sentence makes no grammatical sense and may refer to Shchedrin's article on the painting [by Ge], wherein its meaning is further distorted so that, in a sense, 'a new picture' is created."

That footnote is even more confusing than the original sentence.

Here's the passage in Russian ("An artist has painted a picture of Ge...etc.):

"Художник, например, написал картину Ге. Тотчас же пью за здоровье художника, написавшего картину Ге..."

Here's what I've been thinking for ages: that the perverse and caustic Underground Man is playing with the similarity between the name of the artist and the letter G. The letter G is the first letter in an unprintable Russian word for excrement.

So, the inference: "An artist, for example, has painted a picture of S (shit). At once I drink to the health of the artist who has painted a picture of S (shit), because I love all that is beautiful and sublime."

Sunday, April 12, 2015


(20) Why Does Anna Have to Die?

Readers and critics have been debating this question ever since the novel was written, and will continue to debate it for as long as great literature lasts. Early on in their relationship Vronsky says to Anna, "There's a way out of every situation" (p. 200), but it seems there is no way out for Anna. The very artistic structure of the book has her doomed from the moment she first meets Vronsky.

Many readers and critics blame Tolstoy for Anna's relentless and inexorable path to perdition.The old man's fear and hatred of women (so they say), and, especially, of human sexuality is to blame. As one critic. Edward Wasiolek, has written, "Tolstoy sees sex as a massive intrusion on a person's being and a ruthless obliteration of the sanctity of personhood." Tolstoy's "views on sex were already extreme at the time he wrote "Anna Karenina;" they are bizarre today" (Wasiolek, Tolstoy, p. 154-55).

Among those shouting most vociferously in condemnation of Tolstoy's conservative morals was another Anna, the poet Anna Akhmatova: "Why should Anna have to be killed? As soon as she leaves Karenin. . . .  she suddenly becomes a fallen woman in Tolstoy's eyes, a traviata, a prostitute. Of course, there are pages of genius, but the basic morality is disgusting. . . .  Tolstoy is lying: he knew better than that. The morality of "Anna Karenina" is the morality of Tolstoy's wife, of his Moscow aunts" (cited in Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions, Viking Press, 1980).

I guess the big question here is whether the author's sense of aesthetics is hijacked in the writing of this novel by his moralistic impulses. In other words, is the novel ruined artistically by Tolstoy's insistence that Anna must die? Does Tolstoy prod her on to her death, or is her death motivated by the artistic logic of the composition. I think the latter.

It is made clear, time and again, that Anna's spirit is broken when she is ostracized by the corrupt society to which she belongs. She is stuck in a kind of limbo; her situation is undefined, and she is forced to live in this in-between for years. She is guilty over leaving her son Seryozha, she judges herself harshly, as "an immoral worthless woman."

Furthermore, in contrasting the Kitty-Lyovin relationship throughout the book to that of Anna-Vronsky, Tolstoy's main point seems to be that a marriage based almost solely on passionate physical attraction must inevitably self-destruct over time. World literature from time out of mind has dealt with the eros-thanatos business, the way that sexual ecstasy and death are boon companions. Suicide has been associated with romantic passionate love ever since passionate love has existed. So insisting that "Anna does not have to die" strikes me as somewhat ingenuous.

I believe that a good place to begin, for anyone setting out to read Tolstoy's greatest novel "Anna Karenina," is with a quotation from Rebecca West's masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.This passage could even serve as an epigraph to Tolstoy's novel:

"Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us.The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations."

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Theophany Convent (Богоявленский монастырь, Кострома), May, 2003

Recently Rob Burdock @RobAroundBooks retweeted from Apostrophe Books a list of 46 Best Short Novels that you can read in a day.

These include "The Great Gatsby," which probably should be savored for its prose, not read in one day.

Other greats are Marquez's "Memories of My Melancholy Whores." Probably a better choice for a short Marquez novel would be the wonderful, "Chronicle of A Death Foretold."

Then there is Kosinsky's "Being There," a rare example of a situation in which the movie (with Peter Sellers) is better than the book.

There are no Russian novellas in this list, so here are my choices for best Russian short novels (or long stories, if you want to look at it that way), listed in no particular order of merit:

Ivan Turgenev, "First Love"

Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat"

Lev Tolstoy, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Notes from the Rat Hole"

Ivan Bunin, "Drydale"

Vladimir Nabokov, "The Eye"

Anton Chekhov, "The Duel"

Yury Olesha, "Envy"

                                Front Cover, Russian Translation of "The Great Gatsby"