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[Holiday reading, somewhat belated.]

Anna Karenina I enjoyed, with reservations. I liked the psychology a lot, and the characters/characterisation (Oblonskij, Dolly, Anna's son; Karenin even); there are lovely scenes, lovely details. The contrast in the end is powerful, the juxtaposition between Anna's bleak outlook on life, when she drives through Moscow and is no longer able to see the world except in the worst and most negative light, coming to the conclusion that there can only ever be struggle and hatred between human beings, and Lewin finding a positive meaning and a spiritual frame-work for his life. What I didn't care so much about, if that makes any sense at all, was the story itself, which seemed a tad... I'm not sure if moralistic is even the word I'm searching for, but vaguely that. Which is perhaps unfair and anachronistic, because if (for the sake of the argument only, because it would obviously render the whole novel pointless) Anna and Wronskij rode off into the sunset in the end and lived happily ever after, would it even have been possible to publish the book at that time? And it's no cheap, superficial moralism either, because Anna's dilemma is described complexly enough, she is so wrecked by her guilt and situation precisely because she is a good person with deep feelings; he doesn't let society off easily, either - the way Karenin and Anna were manipulated into a loveless marriage by Anna's aunt, the hypocrisy that allows Wronskij to continue his social life, but forces Anna into the isolation and depression that will ultimately kill her. And when Tolstoi describes the pseudo-religiosity into which Karenin is lured, the seance Oblonskij witnesses - in my opinion these are perhaps the harshest, most sarcastic and judgmental passages in the whole book.

Perhaps part of the problem is that for me the love between Anna and Wronskij is never really tangible. It has to be there, and not only because we're told it is; Anna wouldn't risk so much for anything less and Wronskij is destroyed after her suicide, but I didn't feel it.

And I didn't particularly care for the Lewin/Kitty story-line, either. I liked Pierre in War and Peace, I didn't like Lewin. We're constantly being told what a wonderful person he is, but he rather started to grate on my nerves after a couple of hundred pages, although I'd be hard pressed to explain what exactly causes the irritation. I half-suspect that it might be that he is too close to myself at least in some respects, but I'm not entirely sure, either. His mood swings, his quick dismissal of ideas that don't interest him? (Kitty should have smacked him after that first fit of jealousy, not taken it as a compliment and proof of love.)

My main problem, however, is with Lewin's epiphany, which quite spoiled the ending of the novel for me. I had no issues with the religious/spiritual approach in any of Dostojewski's novels so far, and was fine with Andrej and Pierre's spiritual search in War and Peace, but this was just a little too dogmatic for little atheist me. The assumed necessity of a link between theist religion - orthodox Christianity, specifically - and the existence of an ethical code, the ability to be a good man is too pronounced, too exclusive, for my taste. I do realise Tolstoi wrote from an entirely different perspective in an entirely different time, but something within me balks at reading that and blankly refuses to accept it even in the context of a novel. Although in all honesty, I'm not so sure I even disagree all that much with the basic idea, if the words 'God' and 'church' were removed. But can one do that without entirely twisting the the meaning? Does or doesn't the whole philosophical construct collapse if you remove that particular element? Tolstoi does leave the door wide open for other religions, including non-theist ones like Buddhism and Konfuzianism...

(What I found rather likable though, is that Lewin's epiphany didn't immediately render him a saint. He still is, and knows he'll continue to be, prone to fits of temper and anger, will still quarrel with his wife and won't all of a sudden love his brother; he's not perfect. I like the humanity of that.)

Lewin/Tolstoi dismisses intellect, reason and science too readily here for my taste. I do see the need for a spiritual approach to life, but I also do think that these aspects can - and indeed must - complement and balance each other. For me the realisation that perhaps/probably there is no ultimate, perfect answer to all the question, no ultimate meaning, doesn't necessarily have to lead to despair or negativity only. I don't quite understand why the realisation of his own mortality frightens and shocks Lewin so that it almost incapacitates him. Perhaps I'm inclined to resign too easily, but for me it seems natural that at some point of your life you'll have to accept that you'll eventually die, that in all probability you won't change the world or even leave a lasting impression, that you won't find the Meaning of Life, but can only try to discover the meaning of your life as best as you can. That this is already quite a lot. But surely that doesn't mean that from thereon it has to be only gloom and depression? That you can't enjoy life for what it is, that you don't still have an obligation towards other human beings? The struggle is painful, certainly, but the acceptance seems liberating to me, in the same way that shaking off the restrictions of the kind of religion that is based on a system of fear/reward/punishment is liberating. I think you have to be able to accept imperfection and insecurity inherent in every aspect of life, and that perhaps it's a very male thing to despair at not being able to do so.

But that's what Lewin does in the end, give up a search that can never come to an end, because there is no end, at least none that the human brain/mind/soul can discover or grasp, accept these imperfections and insecurities, and focus on life itself, his wife, his child, find happiness in that, but are the dogmatic trappings of religion, its concept and language really necessary? Does it have to be in the name of 'God'?

Then again, easy to say that, more than a century of increasing atheism later.

And see, this is where I'm unable to determine whether I basically agree with Tolstoi's philosophy, if you just changed the wording a little, or whether we're on opposite sides in this argument.

Longer ramble than I intended... I'll leave Dostojewski's Idiot for another entry.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 15th, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC)
Wow, you nailed it. I read this a long time ago, but I remember feeling the same way about Anna and Wronskij; I felt as if a beautiful person, namely Anna, had been sacrificed for nothing, because I just could't feel this overwhelming love. For me, it was just unfair and sad, and also made me respect Anna less, somehow.

Well, like I said, it was a loooong time ago, but it struck me how you pointed out the same thing. I remember vaguely being quite fascinated by Karenin, though.

I look forward to hearing what you thought about The Idiot. Again, read it long long time ago, but remember loving it very much and crying a lot too. Hm.
Feb. 15th, 2006 11:23 pm (UTC)
I've been trying to put this into words and failed for the last ten minutes or so, but there's something about pretty much all of Tolstoi's male-female relationships... there seems to be a profound chasm between men and women on a mental/intellectual level, no real *connection*, except love, however you want to define this. But *why* do they love? Then again, why does anyone... it is only in fiction that one expects reason, logic and explanations.

But perhaps this is the point of the novel, at least partly? The changing role of women (Kitty's mother's confusion) and relationships... I think it is Dolly who at one point says something about how hard it is for girls when they can only wait for a proposal and either accept or reject when they don't even *know* the man, and can't chose at all, except say yes or no when they're asked, whereas a man can take his time. There's Anna and Karenin, both unhappy, there's Dolly's own unsatisfactory marriage. But marriage at least offers some sort of security, however questionable - lacking even that, Anna panics, thinks she has only her body to keep Wronskij attracted, it apparently doesn't even occur to her that he might actually love her as a person - which he did, I believe, at least to some extent. And *he* doesn't understand the depth of her fear at all. I could see how Wronskij would fall in love with Anna, but the only reason for Anna to fall in love with him seems to be that she has this capacity for love that she's never used at all...

This doesn't make much sense at all... Perhaps I'll be able to think clearer tomorrow.
Feb. 16th, 2006 12:03 am (UTC)
Perhaps part of the problem is that for me the love between Anna and Wronskij is never really tangible. It has to be there, and not only because we're told it is; Anna wouldn't risk so much for anything less and Wronskij is destroyed after her suicide, but I didn't feel it.

I agree with this, but then I thought about how in similar situations, when I'd hear of an affair like this, all I'd know about it were the actions. She left her husband, her husband left her, to be with this other person. I don't know about the love, about the intimacy, because there isn't supposed to be any there. It's one of the aspects of Anna Karenina which makes the reader rather desperate & frustrated, that lack of completion, which I guess is a foreshadowing for the ephemeral aspect of their love-affair.

I also think that these people live in a 'reality' which prepares them for fatalism. If you expect life to be a certain idealistic way, you're just begging for jadedness. A cynic is an idealist once disappointed, and so they throw themselves into the bowels of negativity when they realize their life will not be the mark-all, be-all of humanity. For those of us who expect less, and live closer to the truth, whatever that might be, it is not so easy to dissolution us. We are happy with much less, and at the same time, much more.
Feb. 16th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)
Exactly. I guess there are people who have these high-flying dreams, who know exactly what they want and are a hundred percent sure that they'll make it happen, for whom disappointment isn't an option; but I also know (now) that I'm not one of them, I lack that determination, the energy... and then you have to find a balance, a more realistic perspective, learn to be appreciate life as it is. It's hard, though, painful, or at least was for me. It took quite a long time, and to be honest sometimes I'm still struggling - I'm not as philosophically composed as I pretend to be...

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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