I haven’t finished everything Nabokov has to say of Anna Karenina, but of what I’ve read so far, this stands out:

Essential truth, istina, is one of the few words in the Russian language that cannot be rhymed. It has no verbal mate, no verbal associations, it stands alone and aloof, with only a vague suggestion of the root “to stand” in the dark brilliancy of its immemorial rock. Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties. To Pushkin it was of marble under a noble sun; Dostoevski, a much inferior artist, saw it as a thing of blood and tears and hysterical and topical politics and sweat; and Chekhov kept a quizzical eye upon it, while seemingly engrossed in the hazy scenery all around. Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched, and found the place where the cross had once stood, or found – the image of his own self.

The truth that Nabokov speaks of here, the truth he says Tolstoy searches for in his work, is not everyday truth, but immortal truth. If Anna Karenina is centered around this one truth, then to me, it’s also about the fracturing of this truth; the different sects that have broken away but also exist in their own right. The crux of the matter is contracted perfectly in a single remark within the novel: “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” Anna’s brother lazily accept truths to excuse his behaviour, Levin struggles in the quest to understand truth and meaning within his life, and Anna is destroyed by her desire to be truthful in a hypocritical society.

The first time I read this book was around the time I read Vanity Fair, and I liked the latter a lot more at that point. Before rereading Anna Karenina this year, all I could piece together from memory was that there was a dippy love affair, Vronsky was a cad, and Tolstoy the preacher of long sermons, literally threw Anna under the morality train for her transgression. There’s still the obnoxious kid in me that will jokingly refer to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as ‘housewife regret’. This image of the unhappy partner looking to the world outside whilst doing the dishes, all teary, thinking about The One Who Got Away (or for an easy definition: Adele’s discography).

I’ve come to appreciate the book a lot more on a second reading. Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero”, but now I find that Anna Karenina is more deserving of that title. Not that Tolstoy has purposefully set out to provide us with flawed characters on the verge of becoming caricatures; Tolstoy’s characters here become well-bodied for their failings. There is more to Anna’s husband and Vronsky than what sketch is presented initially, and as events unfolded, the reader’s opinion of them change as well.

For the struggle within oneself which Levin represented (I loved this), I can’t say I liked Levin all too much as a person, though. Levin represents Tolstoy himself, which might be why. Charles Dickens castrated himself to become a character in David Copperfield; Lev Tolstoy seems to have added the inches in moralising sermons within Levin passages. It provoked many a despairing sigh, especially the views Levin had regarding women. However, the last few pages which centered on Levin redeemed most of the previous passages. That last section really is a thing of beauty, up there with Steinbeck’s timshel passage in East of Eden in how it touches the soul. Another triumph is when Tolstoy provides Anna’s thought in a stream-of-consciousness manner. It was exhilarating to read given it jars so much with the omniscient third narration employed otherwise.

The more I dwell on this novel, the more I come to appreciate it. Not so much for the parallel love stories which makes this book accessible and popular across audiences.  I appreciate this search for istina; the desperate need to live honestly, to be governed by love and truth. This struggle which is embodied in both Levin and Anna. We all identify with that. I can forgive Tolstoy the boring passages about farming and rural politics because of this search for truth, how well he writes his characters in pursuit of it.

However, I cannot and will not forgive Tolstoy for actually writing the thoughts of a dog as part of the narrative. 3.5 stars.


About SZ

Like dice in mid-air.
This entry was posted in Books, Review, Russian literature for the non-Russian mother and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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