Anna Karenina – Parts 3 and 4 (of 8)

“Anna Karenina” is not a book you can read quickly. It just doesn’t move at a hungry pace. You can read a couple of chapters and feel like you’ve moved into a single character’s soul; and you’ve got more than enough to digest for one night, without thinking of moving out into some other character. That’s how spirit-dense this novel is. It demands you take time with each person.

As plot events go, nothing tops the long-in-coming reunion of Levin and Kitty. You knew it was coming, but the payoff was original. The way they sat at a table and communicated with only bits of chalk, single letters, and their eyes, was so off-scale sweet, so pure, it reminded me of that scene in “Before Sunrise” with Celine and Jesse in the listening booth.

Levin’s recent reunion with his brother, now near death, had left him talking like this: “this whole world of ours is just a bit of mildew that grew over a tiny planet.” He says this only moments before seeing Kitty again. By the end of the evening, he and Kitty are flooded with happiness. Oblonsky notes the change and asks, “So it’s no longer time to die?” Levin responds: “No-o-o!”

When Sergei remarks in passing that, yes, Kitty is a nice girl, Levin can’t stand it:

“Don’t speak, don’t speak, don’t speak!” Levin cried, seizing him by the collar of his fur coat with both hands and wrapping him up. ‘She’s a nice girl’ was such a simple, such a low phrase, so out of harmony with his feeling.

What I like particularly is that even though Kitty and Levin have both had their hearts broken, it’s not their reunion that cures them. Tolstoy has them already cured by other means, during that long stretch between Kitty’s refusal of Levin and their reunion. Kitty, traveling abroad, has had something of a spiritual encounter; an ambiguous one; but it has jarred her out of the pain that Vronsky caused her. Levin, rejected by Kitty, goes back to his farm, where he embraces work so earnestly that he eventually lands like an athlete “in the zone”, scything wheat unconsciously. Levin recognizes what’s happening here and names it “Arbeitskur,” which Pevear/Volokhonsky translate as “work-cure.”

Others in the novel do likewise. Dolly, betrayed by her husband, finds some peace, again, in work: in taking care of her children in their “country solitude”. Alexei Karenin, ruminating uselessly over whether to divorce Anna, shoves his thoughts aside crudely but effectively, by putting together a plan for the administration of the racial minorities.

Now, about Mr. Karenin. As the cuckolded husband, he has been until now a pathetic figure. There appears to be nothing remarkable, and everything false, about him. He espouses Christian principles like turning the other cheek, but we don’t believe it for a second. Yet by the middle of the novel, he has somehow learned to forgive, and not only that, has felt joy in forgiving. He stands head and shoulders above Vronsky, who had looked upon Anna’s husband as a nuisance, and had wished to kill him in a duel, but now feels so ashamed in his presence that he nearly kills himself.

Think about that: with nothing but spirituality, Karenin has turned the tables on Vronsky.

There’s completely unexpected depth to this man.

The pity is that his flaws remain; his world still is what it is; the situation remains essentially unchanged; and no one dares enough to change it; so this spiritual evolution will not last. But how amazing that there was any, even temporary, spiritual victory here.

Tolstoy is said to have lacked conventional belief, or any belief at all (?), at least during the years when he was writing his two famous novels. But even at that time, he apparently had some sort of belief in the spiritual world, because he chooses to depict Anna and Vronsky as having the same dream on the same night, with the exact same phrase spoken in French, a phrase that only Anna understands. He’s practically stating here that there is some non-material bond between people.

“Anna Karenina” is completely different from “War and Peace,” hopelessly different, but one small thread runs through both that I happen to love: the sky. Pierre’s famous encounter with the comet of 1811, which for him represents his love for Natasha, has something of a sequel here, when Levin briefly spots Kitty riding in a carriage just before dawn and he’s compelled to look upward: he sees fleecy clouds forming and unforming, at one point appearing in the shape of a mother-of-pearl shell. Later there is the “soaring yellow star”, Capella, seen by Levin just before dawn, a few hours before he proposes to Kitty.

There is one cold, clear morning that thrills Vronsky, but Tolstoy observes that the very same morning made Anna hopeless; she feels no warmth in the chill and is certain that she will not be forgiven.

And then there’s this from Anna: “You can’t understand. I feel I’m flying headlong into some abyss, but I mustn’t try to save myself. And I can’t.”

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