Thursday, August 06, 2009

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (a novel)

Анна Каренина (RU 1878). Finnish translation by Eino Kalima / WSOY (1910), fourth edition 1948.

This translation still seems to be very good at least in this edition. - The copy I read was from the library of my childhood home. - Anna Karenina was the novel of novels for my father, an avid reader, and in this I share his opinion. - This was only the second time I had read Anna Karenina, and the last time was 40 years ago. I was a schoolboy then, now, a grown-up man. The book was completely different. - This is one of the few books where I can say that the book read me as much as I read it. - It is impossible to read Anna Karenina fast, it is so full of thought. - Some comments from this reading:

1. Leo Tolstoy is considered to be a master of sober, objective realism, but one can understand Dostoyevsky in his admiration of Anna Karenina: in it, Tolstoy has also a profound understanding of the irrational forces of life. Anna and Vronsky are both sober, noble people, yet unable to prevent the disaster that faces them both.

2. The chapters leading to Anna's suicide are already examples of a stream of consciousness, not at all like Molly Bloom's inner monologue in James Joyce's Ulysses, but clearly already expressions of a vision leading to the 20th century novel.

3. Anna's predicament is relevant to feminism, and this aspect is both profoundly felt and explicitly discussed in the salon discussion scenes. Certainly Anna Karenina has a place in the literary line leading to Virginia Woolf, also because there is a strong British dimension in the novel. The world has changed, and one could not make a modern Anna Karenina in Russia or the Western world (but probably in many other countries the situation is topically relevant).

4. Anna Karenina is one of the novels which can be called cinematic. The train motif, so central to the cinema, is also essential for Anna. There is also a dream dimension: Anna's nightmare, which is finally realized. Tolstoy is a master of combining interiority and action. No novel takes more pleasure in physical action (skating, riding, hunting, harvesting...).

5. All of the many film adaptations of Anna Karenina are redundant. They bring nothing new to the subject. Many are quality productions, but seen with the novel in fresh memory they pale to insignificance. There are, however, good aspects in them, such as Nikolai Gritsenko's Karenin in Alexander Zarhi's film adaptation. There is nothing superfluous in Tolstoy's novel. If one would film it all, one would need a 20-hour tv series.

6. The painting was for me the most impressive motif this time. I had completely forgotten it. In Italy, Vronsky paints Anna Karenina's portrait in an excellent, professional, academic style. After him, a real artist paints Anna's portrait fast but with inspiration, and he captures the unique look in Anna's eyes, which had failed Vronsky not only in his painting but also otherwise. After this, Vronsky always sees Anna with the eyes opened by the artist's painting.

7. The mystery. One can understand Anna. She is a healthy, red-blooded, grown-up woman trapped in a marriage without love, and all her love she has been focusing on her beloved son. Along comes Vronsky, and nature takes her course. What a contemporary novelist would depict in several hot pages, Tolstoy skips over with ---. Many times Anna and Vronsky are determined to act soberly. A ménage would be possible, and Karenin would look the other way. There would be alternatives to handle the delicate situation. Anna and Vronsky are very capable to keep things in control, but there is something there that overwhelms them. - There is a riddle there, something inexplicable.

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