Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Finally Gave into the Russians

Having never forayed into the world of Russian authors – aside from Nabokov’s Lolita (but then, it was written in English) – I was tempted by the new Penguin Deluxe edition of Tolstoy’s classic novel with its French flaps, pliable spine, and rough cut pages.

My sole assumption about the book was that it was the Russian Madame Bovary, a story of a young married woman named Anna who has an affair with a man named Vronsky, and upon his desertion, throws herself under a train. Kit and caboodle. This assumption was not false, but it was overly simplified. Tolstoy had much more on his mind than a simple morality tale of love and betrayal when he penned Anna Karenina, which he considered his first attempt at the novel (disregarding his magnum opus, War and Peace).

This novel has been well-read and beloved for over a century, and I doubt that I could say anything new to demonstrate my new loyalty to such a classic. But as a new devotee to Tolstoy, allow me to encourage those who haven’t been forced to read Anna Karenina in high school, to contemplate it. Let us be warned, however; the novel is 830 pages in the Penguin Deluxe edition and lacking one simple narrative arc, does demand one’s constant attention while reading. Tolstoy employs a host of characters, which are called by a variety of related names (Kitty: Katia, Katenka, Ekaterina, Katerina).

Anna Karenina is a family drama, chiefly concerning the personal lives of wealthy Russian nobles in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Each of the eight principle characters are related to each other by birth, marriage, or some other intimate knowledge. The novel begins with the now-famous aphorism “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The novel begins with Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, who is at odds with his wife, Dolly, after she has discovered his love affair with the French governess. Oblonsky hopes his sister, Anna Karenina, will intercede to his wife on his behalf. Oblonsky meets Anna at a Moscow railway station, where she meets handsome Count Vronsky, who happens to be a sometime suitor of Dolly’s youngest sister Kitty. Kitty, meanwhile, has turned down her longtime friend and suitor Konstantin Levin in favor of Vronsky (who will soon abandon her for an affair with Anna). Tied in knots yet?

In contrast to Anna’s fall, the reader encounters the day-to-day life of Levin, as he tries to forget Kitty, eventually woos and marries her, and engages in the daily life of a country gentleman. He idolizes his angelically pure wife, but is not immune to Anna’s charms. As Levin is now related to Oblonsky’s side of the family, the reader is able to hear of the affair and its consequences from the outside, allowing both an intimate and estranged view of events.

Anna’s plight is compounded by her cuckolded husband who decides to freeze out and control his wife by refusing her a divorce that will allow her to find happiness with her lover. Karenin holds their son as leverage and soon falls under the influence of a pious Christian noblewoman who infects him with a righteous sense of duty to redeem his adulterous wife. As Anna has no chance to fully escape the damnation she has received at the hands of her husband and of good society, she and Vronsky, though once very much in love, turn against each other, propelling her doom.

When he began writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s chief heroine was a caricatured and depraved older woman who seduces a young officer, leaving her husband as the source of the reader’s pity. As he wrote, Tolstoy began to shift his allegiance by comprehending Anna not as an aging whore, but as a young, beautiful, spirited woman, trapped between her own desires and the social mores of the day.

One would imagine the novel’s title character to be its chief protagonist, but Tolstoy’s true hero is arguably Konstantin Levin. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya recognized Lev to be a mirror of Tolstoy. Lev is a nobleman wholly caught up with ideas of farming and agricultural improvement, and though not a philosopher, is always pondering his own questions. The novel concludes, not with Anna’s death, but with avowed atheist Lev’s revelation of God and life’s purpose.

What purpose, one must wonder, does Tolstoy have in contradicting these story lines – a woman embarking on a love affair and leaving her responsibilities and good name behind her; and a sincere and overly passionate man who experiences life and learns the value of work, innovation, love, and divine revelation? Perhaps, as one source suggests, Tolstoy desires to explore human weaknesses in all forms, or perhaps he wishes to show the falseness of the individual within the context of the falseness of society. Perhaps it was simply his instincts and novelistic impulse.

A note on translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky form a team that is the hot, newest commodity in terms of Russian translation, having translated the Brothers Karamozov and War and Peace. They have succeeded at not only winning the PEN/ Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize, but at translating dead Russian authors into vital prose, and being published in attractively marketed books. Win-Win-Win! Additionally, these translators (one American, one Russian) live together in Paris. Truly a perfect life: gazing at each other over Tolstoy’s Russian manuscript in a little house in Paris covered in vines.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It was a Dark and Stormy Night in Yorkshire

I have seen people reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on airplanes for years, and decided that the autumnal Northwest provided a dark and rainy October perfect for reading Susanna Clarke’s bestseller. I was told that this book was cross between Jane Austen and a dark Harry Potter (with a bit of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thrown in for good measure). This recommendation was not far wrong: like Jane Austen, Clarke’s book contains men in naval uniform, young women with and without inheritances, fashionable circles in Bath and London, and the importance of manners and decorum. Like Harry Potter, magic is often seen as utility, improved upon by rigorous study and practice rather than by an exploration of mysticism or divine gift. Also, like Rowling’s magical kingdom secretly inhabits the normalcy of everyday England, Clarke’s proper Georgian England is the unlikely (yet perfect) backdrop for magic of every kind.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel begins with a small circle of theoretical magicians in York, who would never practice magic, only study it (echoing Dolores Umbridge’s plot to curtail the practical elements of Hogwarts’ class of Defense Against the Dark Arts). But when a hermetic magician, Mr. Norrell, proclaims himself the only true magician in England, and desiring the return to real English magic, causes the statues in York cathedral to sing and speak, England is forced to reconsider the relevance and applicability of English Magic in the Enlightened Age. Mr. Norrell desires to aid the British in their fight against Napoleon and the French, and he is soon joined by the man who will become his pupil and ultimately his rival, Jonathan Strange. As exploratory and passionate as Mr. Norrell is cautious and stingy, the two become so divergent as their approach to magic that they reach a schism. Both magicians are haunted by the legend of the Raven King, the ultimate English magician (a Northern English Merlin and Arthur hybrid). Embarking as a charming, anecdotal by-the-fire sort of book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell increases in intensity and darkness and spins a well-written plot designed to keep you up past your bedtime.

Clarke’s use of copious footnotes might annoy the reader, though I confess it thrills me that Clarke has embroidered Regency England to such a degree that she has conjured up fictitious sources and pseudo-historical figures. This is done so thoroughly as to cause the reader to wonder how much Clarke has created and how much she has simply adapted. The footnotes cause a constant stream of stories-within-a-story.

Ultimately, if any of the following put you off – novels the size of large bricks, reading polite conversation, words spelled in the Georgian way (eg. “shewed” for showed, “stopt” for stopped), and a cautiously progressing plot – then you had best avoid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But if you are thrilled by a brooding English atmosphere, quaint English names like Honeychurch and Drawlight, historical figures such as mad King George, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, strange enchantments, questions of magic and ethics, by all means embark on this novel as Halloween approaches.