Friday, May 8, 2015

"Anna Karenina" TOLSTOY'S VOICE



Tolstoy, 1909



(23) Tolstoy's Voice in "Anna Karenina"


Somebody once said that you've can't even write your name without revealing a vast amount of information about yourself. This, of course, is true of professional writers, even those who follow religiously the rule of self-effacement in their art.

Tolstoy was not a self-effacer. He had strong opinions and expressed them incessantly and (for the most part) consistently in his works. He, of course, is also a marvelous creator of characters; his literary personages are some of the most believable, most rounded of all characters in world literature. These characters speak with their own voices, but underlying all the action is the voice of the omniscient, third-person narrator--that preaching, moralizing voice that is the author's. Or is it?

One of the most important things determining whether you, as a reader, like and enjoy "Anna Karenina" is how you respond to the moralizing voice behind it all. Some readers, who are vehemently opposed to the "message" of the novel--and the message, make no mistake, is highly conservative, especially by modern Western standards--react with revulsion to certain passages.

Here are examples of the narrator's voice:

(1) In sentences dripping with irony, Tolstoy describes a foreign prince visiting in Russia. This prince had been everywhere. In Spain he had "made friends with a Spanish girl who played the mandolin." In England "he had galloped in a red coat over hedges and killed two hundred pheasants on a bet." In Turkey he had got into a harem. Now, in Russia, he is out to experience all the quintessentially Russian pleasures of life: races and Russian pancakes, and bear hunts and troikas, gypsies and drinking parties, with the Russian accompaniment of broken crockery. But of all the Russian entertainments "the prince liked best French actresses and ballet dancers and white-seal champagne" (374, Part IV, Ch. 1).

Is Tolstoy's opinion that of the narrator here? From what we know of Tolstoy, probably yes. Would most readers agree with his implicit condemnation of the prince and his idle life? Probably yes.

(2) Lyovin, right after the passage where he meets Anna for the only time in the novel. "There are no conditions to which a man cannot become accustomed, especially if he sees that all those around him are living in the same way. Lyovin could not have believed three months before that he could have gone quietly to sleep in the condition in which he was that day, that leading an aimless, senseless life, living beyond his means, after drinking to excess. . . . . forming inappropriate friendly relations with a man [Vronsky] with whom his wife had once been in love, and a still more inappropriate call upon a woman [Anna] who could only be called a fallen woman, after being fascinated by that woman and causing his wife distress--he cold still go quietly to sleep. But under the influence of fatigue, a sleepless night, and the wine he had drunk, his sleep was sound and untroubled" (735-36, Part VII, Ch. 13).

What a cargo of moral rectitude this paragraph is transporting! Poor Lyovin, whose behavior is not all that reprehensible, is raked over the coals by his own conscience; the prosecuting attorney representing that conscience is the narrator of the novel. Does Tolstoy really believe that Lyovin's friendly attitude toward Vronsky is inappropriate or that Anna "can only be called a fallen woman"? Of course not. The whole book demonstrates his understanding that things are never as simple or easily explained as this. Here the narrator is Tolstoy as puritan and prig, or as Anna Akhmatova put it, these are "the attitudes of his wife and his Moscow aunts." But many readers are insulted by this priggish and hyper-puritanical voice. They attribute such moralizing to Tolstoy himself. This is an oversimplification. The voice is both Tolstoy's and not Tolstoy's simultaneously. His narrator is not always him. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: the narrator here represents only one side of the author, who, in the aggregate, is broad, very broad.

Examples of the narrator's moralizing tone are rife. The book is full of such passages. But Tolstoy the artist does not simply throw in his personal opinions in an inartistic way. Even his moralizing passages usually relate directly to the artistic structure or to the character around whom the moralizing is built.

Tolstoy once described the care he had taken in writing the passage about Lyovin's visit to the priest, to confess his sins before the Orthodox wedding (Part V, Ch. 1). Tolstoy writes that most people would assume that he is on Lyovin's side in this scene, expressing his own views through Lyovin. Not so, says Tolstoy; I was on the priest's side. Although Lyovin is certainly an alter ego of Tolstoy, although his opinions usually express those of his creator, this points up the danger of assuming that Tolstoy IS Lyovin or that Lyovin always expresses the author's ideas.

As for me, I rather enjoy being told the story in the typically Tolstoyan lulling voice of good sense and morality. When the book gets overly preachy I can just disagree and go with the flow. Something about Tolstoy's narrative voice soothes me. I cannot read more than a couple of Dostoevsky's works in a row, and I used to tell my students: don't try reading too much of Dostoevsky at a time. If you are a sensitive person, the almost hysterical tone of the narrative will make you ill.

5 comments:

  1. "As for me, I rather enjoy being told the story in the typically Tolstoyan lulling voice of good sense and morality. When the book gets overly preachy I can just disagree and go with the flow."
    I agree. And it's because the artist in him (almost) always triumphs and takes over.
    How do you feel about the preacher in Gogol?
    "I cannot read more than a couple of Dostoevsky's works in a row, and I used to tell my students: don't try reading too much of Dostoevsky at a time. If you are a sensitive person, the almost hysterical tone of the narrative will make you ill."
    I cannot even read another Dostoyevsky book after finishing one. Have to find something completely different afterwards. His novels drag me underground.

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  2. Sounds like you and I have the same opinion about a lot of things. As for Gogol, his preaching (not in his fiction, thank God) in his letters and moralizing works of nonfiction is simply insufferable. Gogol is perhaps the strangest personality in Russian literature. His great works of art appear to have written themselves, with the man Gogol himself totally unaware of what was going on.

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  3. You replied nearly 2 years later. Hahaha.
    Not preaching but there's a bit of moralising in part 2 of Dead Souls. It's a great work, 1 of my favourite novels in fact, but part 2 annoyed me a bit at times.
    I've never read his nonfiction.
    I like your idea about his great works having written themselves. Did you read Nabokov's lecture on Dead Souls? I thought it's fantastic.

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  4. yeah, well, two years is kind of long, but I'm an old man, and it sometimes takes me time to deal with the digital world. For me Part II of "Dead Souls" does not really exist, as Gogol never published it in his lifetime. He had several burnings of the manuscript, was in the middle of a religious crisis (which, eventually, killed him at age 43). They put together Part II after his death, from fragments that were left. Don't read his nonfiction. DON'T. It's a mess. Years ago I wrote an article on Nabokov's book about Gogol. I have now republished it (somewhere) on my blog: "Nabokov's Influence on Gogol."

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    1. All right. I won't read his nonfiction.

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