A few years after finishing “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy sank into a spiritual funk or crisis that resulted in his work, “A Confession.” In the latter work, he shares the following recollection from his formative years:
The kind aunt with whom I lived, herself the purest of beings, always told me that there was nothing she so desired for me as that I should have relations with a married woman: “Rien ne forme un jeune homme, comme une liaison avec une femme comme il faut“.* Another happiness she desired for me was that I should become an aide-de-camp, and if possible aide-de-camp to the Emperor. But the greatest happiness of all would be that I should marry a very rich girl and so become possessed of as many serfs as possible.
* Nothing so forms a young man as an intimacy with a woman of good breeding.Maude translation, chapter 2
I couldn’t help thinking of the above passage this week as I’ve started “Anna Karenina.” The high-society members inhabiting this novel are all for the prospect of a man luring a married woman into infidelity, as in the following passage about Anna’s lover, Vronsky:
He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of Betsy or any other fashionable people. He was very well aware that in their eyes the position of an unsuccessful lover of a girl, or of any woman free to marry, might be ridiculous. But the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something fine and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous; and so it was with a proud and gay smile under his mustaches that he lowered the opera-glass . . .Garnett translation, Part 2, chapter 4
Tolstoy later tells us why young men and women are pleased whenever they can see, and gossip about, such an infidelity in their ranks:
It goes without saying that [Vronsky] never spoke with any of his comrades about his love, did not let it slip even during the wildest drinking parties (however, he never got so drunk as to lose control of himself), and stopped the mouths of those of his light-minded comrades who tried to hint at his liaison. But, in spite of that, his love was known to the whole town – everyone had guessed more or less correctly about his relations with Mme Karenina – and the majority of the young men envied him precisely for what was most difficult in his love, for Karenin’s high position and the resulting conspicuousness of this liaison in society.
The majority of young women, envious of Anna and long since weary of her being called righteous, were glad of what they surmised and only waited for the turnabout of public opinion to be confirmed before they fell upon her with the full weight of their scorn. They were already preparing the lumps of mud they would fling at her when the time came. The majority of older and more highly placed people were displeased by this impending social scandal.Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Part 2, chapter 18
Older people, who have established places in society, fear the damage that any scandal might do to them. The young, however, envy Vronsky and despise Mme Karenina. The envy of the young men is a little unclear to me. Yes, they envy the man who’s getting away with this, and no surprise there. But what, exactly, do they envy? It’s not a woman of good breeding – as Tolstoy’s aunt puts it – that they are said to prize here. Their envy seems based rather on the “exalted position” of Anna Karenina’s husband. They see that the liaison is conspicuous in high places, and that therefore Vronsky is conspicuous among the higher class. They envy him not especially for conquering a married woman; not for having a woman of good breeding; but for cuckolding a highly-placed man.
What the young women feel about the affair is described in a straightforward way and is more clear. What surprises me about it is that Anna is not a moralist or hypocrite the likes of which anyone would be delighted to see fall. Yes, Tolstoy says she’s regarded as righteous. And I’m only a quarter of the way into the novel, so there may be more to discover about her in that regard. But so far Tolstoy hasn’t presented her as exceptionally righteous, or as the kind of person to moralize and judge. She simply seems to be a relatively good woman who has yet to fall; and that alone makes her an anticipated target of scorn.
Tolstoy has two long masterpieces, one about infidelity and the other about war and peace. But it’s the latter which seems to be more of a soap opera. If you want to read about rich, bored and beautiful people shamelessly doing scandalous things, read “War and Peace.” So far, “Anna Karenina” is a more intimately drawn world, centered on a few characters who do have moral compasses; who are troubled by their own feelings or acts. Anna, Levin, Kitty are all like that. Even the more superficial Vronsky is presented as struggling with the affair he’s having, rather than as a simple rake.
This novel is not quite grabbing me by the throat the way “War and Peace” did last summer. But I’ve finally realized that my experience with that wonderful little anti-Napoleon tract is unrepeatable. So I’m going to enjoy “Anna Karenina” for what it is rather than directly comparing against the other novel. And they are very different novels.
But my man Leo turns up alive and alert in AK. He’s as clear as he was at the Battle of Borodino.
That horserace in which Vronsky participates is just as good as the wolf-hunt in WP, and it darn near triggered my vertigo.
And in AK we’ve got Tolstoy again telling us about the eyes. Always he’s getting into their eyes – men’s, women’s, horses’– and telling us what other people see in those eyes; or what he sees there.
In AK he does something with Anna’s eyes completely unique.
She lay for a long time motionless, her eyes open, and it seemed to her that she herself could see them shining in the darkness.Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Part 2, Chapter 9
In another great bit we have Anna’s husband, as suspicion enters his mind and he tries repeatedly to sideline it:
His thoughts, like his body, completed a full circle without encountering anything new.Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Part 2, Chapter 8
The arrival of spring in Part 2, Chapter 12 is so good I had to read it again, even though I understood it.
“War and Peace,” as good as it is, flags in some places. Almost all great books make you struggle at times. But “Anna Karenina”, as countless readers have said, seems flawless. I look forward to seeing if it maintains this level through 800-plus pages.