Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Anna Karenina" SUMMING UP


I started out posting my lecture notes on Anna Karenina with an introductory posting on this blog on Dec. 6, 2014. Now we're already pushing into the end of 2015. Counting this final posting, I have put up a total of 32 bits and pieces on the novel, plus, in the middle of this, I have written a long review article on the latest translation into English, by Marian Schwartz.

We could go on indefinitely discussing "AK," since a novel this long and this great presents opportunities for almost endless discussion. A few things we haven't got around to: the meaning of the Biblical epigraph--"Vengeance is mine; I will repay" (the critic Boris Eikhenbaum, in his Tolstoy in the Seventies, devotes a whole chapter to the epigraph); the art theme (revolving around the painter in Italy, Mikhailov); the way that the two Alexeis (Karenin and Vronsky) have a lot in common; Tolstoy's use of irony and sarcasm; the theme of death (especially prominent in the passages describing the slow death of Lyovin's brother, Nikolay); humor and comedy in the novel; the ending of the novel.

About the ending. You sometimes think that Tolstoy might have done better to end the book with Anna's suicide. The final part (Part Eight) of AK meanders along, moralizing, philosophizing, describing, perhaps, as much Tolstoy's own personal problems as those of his alter ego Lyovin. A passage in Ch. 8--the last sentence in that chapter--describes Lyovin's dilemma but is also exactly descriptive of Tolstoy's own personal dilemma: "He was miserably at odds with his very self, and he strained all his spiritual resources to escape from that condition." The whole book is about reasoning one's way through to an acceptance of non-reasoning, but the round and round of this process in Part Eight gets tedious. Tolstoy was stricken with bouts of depression throughout the writing of this novel, but that situation is reflected most obviously in the last part.

Other things worthy of discussion: great prose often develops out of great poetry, and "AK" would not be what it is if not for the influence on Tolstoy of the poetry of Tyutchev and Fet; the three Annas--why are there three--Anna herself, her maid Annushka, and her daughter Annie--and to what extent are the lesser Annas (the maid and daughter) spectral counter-images of the main character? What else? The homosexual officers who make a brief appearance in Part Two, Ch. 19 (what is their role in the novel?); gestures and kinesics and facial expressions (why does Anna habitually narrow her eyes?).

Back when I was teaching Anna Karenina to students at Miami University I used to conclude my lectures with the following:

Anna Karenina is probably the greatest novel ever written. It is certainly the best ever written on the subject of marriage and family life. It reverberated through all of Russian literature during the remainder of the nineteen century and then all through the twentieth and now into the twenty-first. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (not counting his own--but even such a consummate egoist as Nabokov was knew deep in his soul that he would never write anything as great as "AK.").

Chekhov's stories are full of subtle pokes at the Great Master, airings out of Tolstoy's marriage-family theme in new ways. Emerging out of Tolstoy as well, Bunin presented a fresh treatment of the love-death theme. In Nabokov's novel Pnin, we have characters reading and discussing "AK," interpreting it. There are even grounds for asserting that Nabokov's treatment of kinesics and the language of gesture in Pnin has its origins in the extensive attention paid to kinesics and gesture in "AK."

The list can go on and on. We find touches of "AK" in Sologub's Petty Demon, in Solzhenitsyn's One Day, in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Etc. Etc. Few pieces of Russian prose written after "AK" escape unblemished. The book has influenced almost all Russian writers.

In a word, it's a great novel. I love it and never get tired of reading it. Over and over. Each time I read it a find marvelous new things. Great art is inexhaustible. But some of you sitting out there in my audience today don't like the book. Others have never got around to reading it. My spies at the video stores downtown have provided me the names and photographs (taken with a hidden camera) of those of you who went to these stores in search of a tape of "AK," a movie.

For shame. We'll be posting those photographs out in the hallways of Irvin Hall, Mother Miami, in a sort of "gallery of shame." This is right in the Russian-Soviet tradition of self-criticism and shaming as a means of promoting moral rectitude.

But what about those of you who made the effort, who read and studied this long novel, who mulled over its many themes and characters and STILL DON'T LIKE THE NOVEL? Well, at this point it's time for me to stop trying to promote the book and give up. People have all different tastes, and although it's difficult for me to acknowledge the intelligence of anyone who does not appreciate "AK," I must, at least grudgingly, say, Okay, maybe even some intelligent people don't like Tolstoy.

In conclusion, let me quote from a great writer, and a man who, like some of you readers, worked over "AK," studied its themes and characters, deeply cogitating on anything and everything concerning the novel, and, in the end, found the book sorely lacking in redeeming social qualities.

"Concerning Karenina, I assure you that for me that abomination does not even exist, and it only annoys me to think there are people who place any value on the novel."

Of course, anyone who knows much about the ups and downs and changing of minds over the long lifetime of Lev Tolstoy can easily guess who is responsible for that quotation. It comes from a letter Tolstoy wrote late in his life (cited in Eichenbaum, Tolstoy in the Seventies, p. 162).

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