Revisiting: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I’m not done yet with writing about War & Peace, but I needed a bit of a break—and one is required in any case, because this weekend is all about The Savage Detectives (no, I’m not done yet; yes, I will be all over this readalong by Sunday at the latest).

So I thought to reinvigorate my Fridays Revisitings a little bit—with Tolstoy! I have re-read the very short first chapter of Anna Karenina, the first Tolstoy I read (long ago, in high school). I remember a few plot elements, a few characters, and liking the novel overall, which at the time at least I took basically as a Victorian novel.

Revisiting has not led me to change that opinion at all, because two or so pages is hardly enough to do that, but it does show a bit how much my own mindset and prior experience with the author affect what I notice when I read. Anna Karenina opens, as is well known, with the line about the happy and unhappy families, but by the third sentence we know why the Oblonskys in particular are unhappy (and soon after, in what manner): “The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess.”*

Prince Steven Arkadyevich Oblonsky wakes up, shortly after this explanation, on a couch in his study, to which he’s been relegated since his wife caught him out. He automatically reaches out for his robe, realizing as he comes to that it is not in fact there—because he’s not in his bedroom, because he’s been kicked out, because…

‘Oh dear, dear, dear!’ he groaned recalling what had happened. And the details of his quarrel with his wife, his inextricable position, and, worst of all, his guilt, rose up in his imagination.


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“All their assaults and attacks on each other caused almost no harm; the harm, death, and mutilation were caused by the cannonballs and bullets that flew everywhere through that space in which these men were rushing about.”

I’m not sure it would be right to say that my coverage of War & Peace has really been “building” to anything, but let’s see what I can do with day four, bringing things out more to the “point” of the novel, which, as Greg Zimmerman noted back in December, “inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel,” amounts to something like this:

The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force.*

Tolstoy accomplishes a few things with the war portions of the novel, including developing the story of Borodino as a turning point in the Napoleonic wars, and I think these are the most interesting and compelling sections of the novel in many ways (though they kind of break the idea of “novel” a little bit)**. His interest is big: in explaining the causes of the war, or, as he often describes it quite to my liking, the great movement of people across Europe from west to east followed by a great movement of people across Europe from east to west.

I also like that he’s a bit of a wrecker. The war sections are more anti-authoritarian than the peace ones (except where the peace sections touch on diplomacy), and Tolstoy is actively antagonistic toward received interpretations of historical events. “They were wrong in 1812, they were wrong a generation later, and they’re wrong now!” he insists, and successfully—he is grappling with some pretty standard issues of historiography, and he is right to reject the idea that we

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Sonya and Princess Marya give until it hurts—but which one will give some more?

Yesterday, in telling the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, I mentioned his sister Princess Marya. Marya is a bit unfortunate: she is dull and plain-looking, gets flustered easily, lives in worshipful fear of her father, and is bullied by her own companion, Mlle Bourienne. Marya is also extremely religious and devoted to the holy fools who regularly show up at her door (at the back door, that is, in secret from Prince Nikolai, who would make fun of them). She’s also an extremely nice and kind person—far too nice and too kind, if you ask me. I mentioned she was a spinster; Prince Anatole Kuragin does come knocking at her door, at the behest of his father (Princess Marya is a very wealthy heiress), but her face turns red and blotchy and there is simply no chance.

She has something of a counterpart in Sonya, a poor relation of the Rostovs (it’s unclear whether she shares their surname). As Princess Marya lives to serve her father, brother, sister-in-law, and later nephew, Sonya is constantly behind the scenes in the Rostov household making sure everything is moving along as it should. She helps Natasha, the old Count and Countess, little Petya—she’s a real “angel in the house” type. And she’s in love with the elder Rostov son, Nikolai, who shares her affections and promises, when he leaves for the hussars, to marry her one day.

Sonya is the perfect picture of constancy. Natasha, so often her companion, can’t understand how easily Sonya takes it all. And when one of Nikolai’s leaves ends in their falling still further in love, she only becomes more certain, more sure, more able to wait. Well, if Sonya refuses to suffer, surely Tolstoy will find a way to make her do so.

First, there is the

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“[I]t made no difference to him, and it made no difference because something else, more important, had been revealed to him.”

One of the better things about reading War and Peace is that it gave me the chance to exercise my plot-analysis muscles—that is, to try to dig down past the surface and see how Tolstoy’s gears were grinding away, trying to do whatever he was trying to do in the novel. He’s not, how shall I put it, terribly subtle about these things (though not unsubtle either), so it works well as a bit of an exercise piece, I think. Well, we can see about that at the end of this post!

Here I’d like to examine the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the (many) principal figures in the novel, who figures heavily in both the “war” and “peace” sections. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Prince Andrei married to “the little princess,” a pretty woman he doesn’t seem to much care for and who soon dies in childbirth, leaving him a son, the little Prince Nikolai (as opposed to the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father). At the time, Andrei is out fighting in the first Russian campaign against Napoleon, at Austerlitz. On his return home with a wound, Andrei assumes an estate of his own, leaves his son largely in the care of his spinster sister Princess Marya (and employees), and drifts about, improving his estate but without much of a raison d’être.

A few years later, Prince Andrei meets the young Countess Natasha Rostov at a ball, and it’s clear the two of them will soon be engaged. It also seems clear that their engagement is ill-fated. With the old Prince Nikolai disapproving (the Rostovs are broke, if respectable), Andrei agrees to tour Europe for a year before the wedding. Everything is going swimmingly—Natasha might not be exactly happy about their separation,

Continue reading “[I]t made no difference to him, and it made no difference because something else, more important, had been revealed to him.”

A Tolstoyan “Christmas Carol”

War and Peace is, you may have heard, quite a long book—and one about which, clearly, many things could be written. It encompasses multitudes: the daily lives of families like the Count Rostovs; the soldierly lives of Nikolai, Denisov and their comrades; the aristocratic lives of the circle of Countess Hélène Bezukhov; nearly a decade of the Napoleonic wars; and much more besides. It is also, clearly, a Great Work: it is epic (it encompasses multitudes), it is Tolstoy’s chance to teach us not only about these families but about the Russian people, and not only about the Russian people but its history, and not only its history but all of history, the science and study of history. That is to say, in addition to being a novel, War and Peace is a treatise on historiography—and on military science, for that matter, and on diplomacy, and probably plenty else besides.*

In other words, as I say, there is a lot to write about War and Peace, and I will write only a small part of it this week. I plan, or at least want, to write about Sonya and Princess Marya; about the death of Anatole Kuragin and the subsequent death of Prince Andrei; and about some language and translation issues. Aside from today, which is about clearing aside more personal business, that should easily wrap a week and I won’t have gotten to the smallest bit of what even I could say about this book.

But first, for that personal business. Twitter followers and readers of this earlier post on the novel are aware that this book was not the most fun of reads for me. Several friends, including David, have suggested having a look at other translations, and I wouldn’t say that the Pevear and Volokhonsky

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War & Peace: a plea

So nicole is reading War & Peace—but y’all already knew that. You probably also knew that I’m struggling with it, but only in part because of its length. I’m struggling not to hate Tolstoy reflexively, to take the novel on its own terms, and to evaluate it in some sense fairly. And to that end, I thought I’d do a bit of a check-in post for some advice now that I’m just shy of page 700.*

Now, there is a lot I don’t like about Tolstoy (see here, for starters), but I don’t want to get into anything about his personal philosophy or hatefulness just yet, because with nearly half the book remaining I don’t feel like I can really say anything definitive about this yet. Who knows who will get his comeuppance in the next 500 pages? Not me, at least (though I suspect it won’t be who I think it should).

What I didn’t realize before is that I think I don’t like him stylistically. I have memories of reading Anna Karenina in high school and putting it squarely in the Victorian novel category, which I’ve always loved: lots of characters, lots of plot, lots to bite into. I wasn’t a very good reader back then, and who knows what I would find it I opened AK up again—because I expected to find something similar in War & Peace, but this thing seems almost premodern.

That’s one theory, at least, put forward by the consumption partner last night when I was explaining my issues with the book (which apparently were almost identical with the issues he remembers his brother complaining about when he read W&P way back in his freshman year of college). Tolstoy just cannot shut up. He has to tell you everything. And then he

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“[T]he only happiness in this world is to observe, to spy, to watch, to scrutinize oneself and others, to be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye.”

If I haven’t already given away the “reveal” of The Eye, and you feel strongly about such things, please don’t read on. I would caution you that the reveal is hardly anything of the sort, and not terribly important in itself. But all the same.

In the opening of the novella, the narrator is attacked by a mystery man. At the end, the identity of the mystery man is revealed in a very nice tight way along with the identity of the narrator himself:

I walked leisurely along the very edge of the sidewalk and, half-closing my eyes, imagined that I was moving along the rim of a precipice, when a voice suddenly hailed me from behind.

“Gospodin Smurov,” it said ina a loud but hesitant tone. I turned at the sound of my name, involuntarily stepping off the sidewalk with one foot. It was Kashmarin, Matilda’s husband, and he was pulling off a yellow glove, in a terrific hurry to proffer me his hand. He was without the famous cane….

The cane is our signal that, for sure, it was Kashmarin knocking the narrator—I mean, Smurov—about earlier. Kashmarin is here to apologize, and he hopes to make it up to Smurov by helping him get a new job that pays better than his current one. Smurov has to “restrain a desire to say something nice, something to show how touched I was,” but they part on fairly amicable turns.

This leads to the narrator’s final contemplation:

Kashmarin had borne away yet another image of Smurov. Does it make any difference which? For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist.

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“I am happy that I can gaze at myself, for any man is absorbing—yes, really absorbing!”

As you may have learned from my sonnet on The Eye, relatively early on in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novella The Eye, the narrator attempts to kill himself shortly after losing his position as a tutor. He hasn’t exactly lost his position; someone has come into the house where he is employed and unceremoniously beaten him for undefined crimes. But he leaves the children he’s been teaching as soon as the beating is over, returns to his former residence, and shoots himself.

Shortly afterward, he “dreams” that he is waking up in a hospital, with doctors and nurses explaining what’s gone wrong, that he missed a vital organ. He continues to dream that he goes home, finds a new place to live, and meets a new group of people including Vanya, a young lady who appeals to the narrators fondness for chubby women. Smurov, an unsuccessful suitor of Vanya’s, is also a member of this group, and the narrator develops an obsession with him.

The obsessions that will haunt the narrator later in the novel are set out even before his beating. When he explains who “that Matilda” is, he describes how he would leave their trysts “inspect[ing] my puny little bliss…and feel[ing] despondent and afraid”:

The summit of lovemaking was for me but a bleak knoll with a relentless view. After all, in order to live happily, a man must know now and then a few moments of perfect blankness. Yet I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought of not being able to stop being aware of myself, and envying all those simple people—clerks, revolutionaries, shopkeepers—who, with confidence and concentration, go about their little jobs. I had no

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Reading The Eye: the first line

I will continue to attack Nabokov the only way I can, that is, obliquely, with my second post on The Eye. I know that in later Nabokov there will be any number of first lines I want to talk about (and I’m hardly referring here only to “light of my life, fire of my loins,” which, as any good Nabokovian knows, is far from the first line of Lolita), so let’s start now.

I met that woman, that Matilda, during my first autumn of émigré existence in Berlin, in the early twenties of two spans of time, this century and my foul life.

The “my foul life” makes this, for me, one of the better first lines I’ve read lately. Not only is it about a thousand times less clichéd than the simple “my life,” it’s also just the sort of thing this narrator would say. Or, in terms of this post, immediately gives you a proper picture of the narrator (who must remain nameless). Not that his life is foul, mind (though it may well be), but that he would say it like that, in just that way.

What else have we learned? We know the narrator’s age at the time of the action, though not how much time has passed since then, and we know when the action takes place. We know the narrator is a foreigner in Berlin, and while we don’t know where he’s from it’s not much of a leap, considering, to get right to the point and admit we know he’s Russian. The fact that he specifies “my first autumn” means there were others, so if nothing else we can say the narrator is not telling his story until at least a year after its beginning.

What of “that woman, that Matilda”? We don’t

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The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

In most stories, duels happen outside the law, or perhaps at its margins. People will look the other way if you leave town. You just have to make sure not to attract too much attention. Often sanctioned by the local code of honor, duels are not typically sanctioned by the legal regime in the 19th century or later.

And then you have late Tsarist Russia, where Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel is set. Here, if your honor as an officer is stained, you can actually be sentenced by a court martial to fight a duel to resolve the situation. Let me give you a moment to think about how crazy that is.

Kuprin’s novel—not novella—follows the largely idle life of Yuri Alexeyich Romashov, a sub-lieutenant recently out of cadet school and now stationed at a small town in the far west of the Russian empire. The life of the regiment is circumscribed by regulation as well as necessities financial and geographic. The officers are uniformly brutal and often malicious. The soldiers are an invisible gray mass lacking any definition, suitable only for beating and shouting at. Romashov struggles to understand this world around him, where everyone seems to act from motivations that make no sense, predicated as they are on the absurdities of war and the further absurdities of a standing army.

It’s the only life Romashov has ever thought of, though, having worked since a child to become an officer—not out of any special desire, but because of his family’s poverty and the lack of other options. As the young man’s sense of individuality blossoms, and his artistic and philosophical sides gain hold in his mind, he begins to realize he does not belong here. But Romashov can’t imagine a civilian life. “‘Why would anyone get involved with such

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