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Christmas Stories

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Everyman’s Pocket Classics

Christmas tales are meant to cheer us and to help usher in the Christmas spirit; yet, every favorite tale embodies a degree of struggle, an element of danger or some darkness that must be gotten through. There may be magic and wonder leading up to the final, satisfying denouement of Christmas morning – upon waking to find everything wished for sitting under the starry lights of the Christmas tree, but the waiting is always prolonged.
Most of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket anthology follow this pattern distinctively, in 20 different ways. From Charles Dickens to Richard Ford the inveterate Christmas struggle is traced.

Dickens and Early Russian Writers

The anthology begins with a Dickens tale called The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (from The Pickwick Papers). Charles Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this playful tale, and the ironic humor that we have come to love in just about every Dickens story is delightfully fresh in this selection from his first novel. It is a Christmas Eve ghost story amidst a nighttime landscape of snow and stars and a bad-tempered old grave digger named Gabriel Grubb. A bit like A Christmas Carol, Grubb is visited, in this case, by a fantastical goblin king and his goblin courtiers. They sing terrifying ghostly songs to Gabriel Grubb and, rather violently, teach him a lesson about life and his disagreeable attitude toward other people. Dickens, the eternal humanitarian, makes a case for women as being the most compassionate of the human race.

He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotedness.

Of the Russian writers in the anthology, Nikolai Gogol is most similar to Dickens, yet Gogol’s devils and witches of Christmas Eve are finally conquered by the, mostly benevolent, characters of a snowy village near St. Petersburg in The Night Before Christmas. This is a famous Russian fairy tale about a gifted painter and blacksmith who paints frescoes of the saints on the church walls and who is therefore most sought after by the devil. This devil, whose lover is a witch, steels the moon on Christmas Eve and tempts the best, god-loving people of the village. Another delightful, fantastical tale!
Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is and Anton Chekhov’s Vanka are both heart-warming stories that evoke questions of morality, spirituality and the love of God and people.

Vladimir Nabokov’s more modern narrative reflects an elegant mastery of story-telling with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style in the beautiful yet tragic story titled, Christmas.

The night was smoke-blue and moonlit; thin clouds were scattered about the sky but did not touch the delicate, icy moon. The trees, masses of gray frost, cast dark shadows on the drifts, which scintillated here and there with metallic sparks.

The three Russian writers are similar to Dickens in their sympathy toward humankind; they are quite clear about the virtues of compassion. In the modern tales, however, the narrative of compassion and human mercy is more implicit.

British Writers Apart from Dickens

When it comes to expert story-writing, leave it to the British. And when it comes to writing a great detective yarn, leave it to Arthur Conan Doyle to tell an amusing Sherlock Holmes story. The investigation in The Blue Carbuncle takes place in the bustling streets of London, in Covent Garden Market, two days after Christmas. Holmes is just as we like him: clever, articulate, circumspect, and yes – merciful.

Anthony Trollope’s whimsical Christmas at Thompson Hall mixes suspense with a smattering of cheeky humor. His name, Trollope, like his writing style, gallops or trots along and is as ever: impeccably English. And Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Bella Fleace Gave A Party takes place in Ireland, outside Dublin in the Market town of Ballingar where a wealthy, eccentric lady decides to divert death and instead throw a party. The story is expertly written, detailed and surprisingly ironic. Elizabeth Bowen, who always wrote a flawless tale, is somewhat dated in Green Holly, yet the witty cadence makes this bizarre ghost story worth the read. And Muriel Spark whisks the reader along in Christmas Fugue. It is a romantic tale, a travel piece, in which the main character, Cynthia at twenty-four is suspended in a kind of limbo or liminal zone up high in the air on a passenger jet. Questions of belief… in Christmas, in the start of a new life, in a love affair and in reality itself are raised in an unforeseen way.

American Writers

Willa Cather, a favorite American poet and novelist, had a beautiful way of drawing in the reader and maneuvering the plot. The Burglar’s Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve in Chicago. Reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, juxtapositions of excitement vs. safety, and poverty vs. success, drive this touching story along, together with the prevailing theme of motherhood and mother-son relationship.

John Cheever’s excellent Christmas is a Sad Time For the Poor examines the benevolence of people in a New York City high-rise apartment-building one day out of the year when these sophisticates have the chance to give. And Truman Capote’s now famous A Christmas Memory is the striking memoir about a seven-year-old boy and his elderly cousin. Capote’s style is compelling from the first sentence:

Imagine a morning in late November.

This poignant tale is a must-read at Christmastime.

John Updike’s evocative The Carol Sing takes us through a melancholy surveillance of the cycles of life, death and seasonal holidays in highly intelligent, sharply witty prose.

Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives.

Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice is about a Jewish schoolgirl, Shirley, who has the most resonant voice in a Christmas play. Her family and the Jewish families in her neighborhood struggle to accept their children being in a Christian play. Shirley, representing the only first-generation American in her family, is open-minded, curious, helpful and resoundingly confident.

Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Richard Ford depicts a divided American family mired deeply in issues. In Creche, the main character, Faith, a successful L.A. attorney, narrates the story amidst growing resentments, threats and dangers. Yet, by Christmas Eve, the snow still glistens over everything and the children are tucked away safely in their beds. Ford holds our interest and sustains a measure of hope with his buoyant prose, as when Faith goes for a solo, nighttime ski-run:

Here the snow virtually hums to her sliding strokes. A full moon rides behind filigree clouds as she strides forward in the near-darkness of crusted woods.

Canada

Nobel Prize winning, Canadian author, Alice Monro’s gamey tale is a bold and effective portrait of human nature. The Turkey Season describes the acute observations of a fourteen-year-old girl who is surrounded by small town people who tend to be decidedly small-minded and cruel. Still, Christmas appears to win in the end.

These stories represent a fine collection of esteemed writers. I have not mentioned all of the stories here, some of them are simply short and sweet, but for a good measure of the Christmas spirit and a reminder of what it is to have a sympathetic heart, all of them are worth reading.

The Bog Girl

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Karen Russell, Author of “The Bog Girl”

The celebrated novelist, Karen Russell, of Swamplandia! fame, has also written a similarly swampy, short story, The Bog Girl, which was published in the June 20th issue of The New Yorker. It is the kind of story one would expect to read in The New Yorker: eloquent, articulate… even high-brow. Russell is fluent in the art of providing a comfort zone for the reader with everyday, likable characters and familiar yet vibrant, pulsating settings, then soon, delightfully switching the filter so that we are now in a surprisingly surreal realm.

Most horror writers are passive aggressive alarmists, and Karen Russell falls into this category but in the nicest possible way. When Cillian discovers his new girlfriend, completely intact, in the ethereal bog waters of a remote island off the coast of northern Europe, the other men as well as the authorities hardly flinch. They are just relieved that this wasn’t a recent murder victim. Granted, this is a far-flung locality, with a small town milieu; the locals maintain a private respect for the island’s mythic ancestors and their gods. In fact, the place is a creation born out of Russell’s imagination, a clever way of giving the story a sense of its own logic outside the normal rules of time or place.

 

          It’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit.

 

And this kind of droll humor softens the horror continually, rendering it safe, almost scientific. That which would normally seem grim is charmingly made-over into poetic beauty, shimmering with historical observation and an otherwise normal conversational tone. Amidst the shockingly morbid resides an underlying voice of calm speculation, as when the narrator explains what bogs are like.

 

          They are strange wombs where the dead do not decay – in that sense, too,

          like human memory.

 

Refreshingly, The Bog Girl is partly about acceptance and inclusion. Cillian, a reclusive fifteen-year-old, is finally accepted and even included now that he and his new girlfriend have each other. Indeed, he is more noticed and effortlessly integrated at high school with the Bog Girl on his arm. She is like a princess. The popular girls bring her clothes and jeweled barrettes for her hair. The way Cillian loves the Bog Girl incites awe and a little envy in the popular girls at school. They sigh over his devotion to her.

 

          The popular girls were starving for that kind of love.

 

Even Cillian’s uncle becomes an example of accepting someone who is rather intolerable. Uncle Sean is a big, ungainly presence; still he is tolerated, though he leaves something of a stench in the air.

          He smeared himself throughout their house… His words hung around, too,

          leaving their brain stain on the air.

 

Nevertheless, Cillian communes with Uncle Sean as they share a bong out on the patio, where Cillian listens to his uncle’s warped logic about girls and love. Uncle Sean argues with his lazy wit and a decidedly adult tongue-in-cheek attitude that Cillian hardly knows the Bog Girl, plus there’s a striking age-difference. Cillian is fifteen while the Bog Girl is two-thousand. Anyway, love is love, what can you do?

Gillian, Cillian’s mother, is the kind of mom that won’t get in her son’s way. She loves him too much. Also, she is insecure, harassed by her sisters and her own memories and mistakes. She gave birth to Cillian when she was seventeen. The slightest protest about the Bog Girl invites Cillian to argue with Gillian and bring up the past. “We have rhyming names, Ma,” he complains. At seventeen Gillian had found it endearing to give her baby son a name that rhymed with her own. “If he’d been a girl I’d have named her Lillian.”

Gillian, though apprehensive and qualmish by nature, is especially brave when Cillian whisks his girlfriend up to his bedroom and locks the door. Gillian’s mothering instincts cause her to worry herself into a stupor. She really has no one to talk to, as her sisters are the only ones who are all a-panic about this, strangely enough.

The most she can do to set down some rules is to say “everyone has to wear clothes, and no locking the door.”  Though she goes through the motions of accepting Cillian’s girlfriend, letting her sit at the dinner table and basically not putting her foot down and calling the authorities… or a museum, Gillian feels contempt for the girl. And all the while, the Bog Girl smiles-on serenely, her red/ iridescent hair glistening down her back. She is totally non-judgmental and the essence of acceptance.

 

          The Bog Girl smiled her gentle smile at the wall, her face reflected

          in the oval door of the washer-dryer. Against that sudsy turbulence,

          she looked especially still.”

 

Russell brings Cillian’s girlfriend, this Bog Girl, alive slowly. At first, giving her the possibility of poetic, Bog Girl thoughts:

 

          The bog crickets were doing a raspy ventriloquy of the stars;

          perhaps she recognized their tiny voices.

 

Cillian, in his love for her, creates these dreams and fantasies of what the Bog Girl should be – what their relationship should be. No betrayals… no broken promises. In his quiet conversations with her, she smiles agreeably.  He is convinced that he knows her very soul. But when she actually offers back the same kindness he gave to her, Cillian cannot receive it. The minute she looks him in the eye and loves him –  is when he changes. Of course, this messy development truly resembles an ordinary love-relationship. Someone is incapable of fully loving; in this case Cillian. Subsequently, he finally relies on his mother to step in and help him. And Gillian, who feels she knows her son better than he knows himself, has the answer.

 

In Karen Russell’s uncanny worlds, the beautiful and the monstrous assume blurred lines, just as the real and the fantastic flirt with our sense of truth. She does this in the most compelling way: with a blazing imagination and pure, story-telling talent.

 

The Bog Girl

 

 

 

 

The Quandary of Carrie

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Like the gritty, metropolitan angst of a Dickens tale, such as Little Dorrit: the dark, cobbled streets and the beguiling characters of a large city, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie portrays how an unkind and apathetic city can engulf and hide a person under a wave of indifference, but will eventually lift her up to societal success and even stardom. But unlike Dickens, in Drieser, the driving human force becomes self-ambition instead of love.

Carrie’s focus begins with the material – on the train bound for Chicago, when she notices a passenger, the young man, Charles Drouet, who is gorgeously dressed, and this, along with Drouet’s flowing and dazzling conversation, impresses Carrie. Yet she also sees and appreciates the beauty of the landscape rushing by outside – the author keeps a sense of hope tethered in this beauty. There is always some sad nostalgia lingering in Carrie’s face, around her sad, expressive lips.

Dreiser’s genius is in these details, as at the beginning of Carrie’s assent when still a neophyte searching for a job in the big city: As she contemplated the wide windows and imposing signs, she became conscious of being gazed upon and understood for what she was – a wage-seeker. The writer remains consistent in surprising his reader with such precise descriptions of the inner world of his characters. These finer points render the characters captivating, and thus, we care about their lives.

Though beauty and sensitivity persevere in this tale, real love, other than for success, seems disappointingly absent. As the story falls short of depicting any true love, true hatred is also just as absent, apart from that of the ubiquitous hatred in the mean, city streets. Only Drouet hints at feeling any genuine passion when he becomes jealous of Hurstwood and Carrie. Yet, the author implies that Drouet never really intends to marry her. Sadly, instead of love, or even hatred, overall indifference and self-centered gratification are the driving human qualities.

Still, Drouet’s eternal good nature makes him a true protector of Carrie, though he is extremely superficial and lacks the subtlety and sensitivity that Carrie needs; she is far beyond him in the intuitive senses. However, Drouet has introduced Carrie to the theater, and so a small desire to act has secretly blossomed. She loved to modulate her voice after the conventional manner of the distressed heroine, and repeat such pathetic fragments as appealed most to her sympathies.

Hurstwood’s kidnapping of Carrie, as appalling as it is, eventually brings her to New York City. As if destiny had finally provided the means to secure her success. As he stealthily abducts her and leads her onto a train under the darkness of night, Hurstwood is very cordial and sensitive to her comfort. He wants her, but one wonders whether he truly loves her or just the idea of escaping his wife and family to be with someone young and beautiful like Carrie

So earnest an effort was well deserving of a better reward ~ This becomes a mental refrain of Carrie’s from the early days of her job-hunting in Chicago, through most of her relationships, and on up to her great success in New York City. From her beautiful suite at the Astoria, she lingers over this astonishing lack of fulfillment and reward as she gazes out on the city from her window, where below the homeless shiver on their street-corners, while: All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration – the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.

Theodore Dreiser came from the Chicago school of Realism, in which the natural human responses to the environment are stressed, rather than romance. There seems to be a moral message in this story, yet Sister Carrie was deemed immoral and was not published right away upon its completion in 1900. The heroine, Carrie Meeber, was viewed as sexually loose, yet today the sexuality is only implied and is hardly perceptible. Dreiser was also a believer in the notion that art is an imitation of life, rather than life being an imitation of art. This philosophy is apparent in Carrie as she makes a study of human nature and turns it into art on the stage.

 

 

 

 

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

Tolstoy’s Three Marriages

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Leo Tolstoy’s original title for Anna Karenina was to be, Two Marriages, initially serialized between 1875 and 1877 in a Russian periodical. This first title, with its Shakespearean ring, might have been altered slightly to Three Marriages, for the story can be segmented into three key relationships.

The novel does not concentrate solely on Anna Karenina, as the title suggests, though Anna is unquestionably the most captivating character. Her marriage to Karenin, the marriage of Dolly and Oblonsky as well as the budding relationship between Levin and Kitty, which grows and matures with such beauty and sensitivity, are the three pivotal relationships that Tolstoy develops by weaving them together through interactions and near-associations that work in concert as an elaborate Russian dance.

The first chapter begins with the wearisome marriage of Oblonsky and Dolly, centering on the awkward and ridiculous, illicit affair carried out by Oblonsky, which Dolly, a strong woman, will not tolerate. She is not the kind of wife who will avert her eyes and look the other way, as many of the society women will do by compromising and finding lovers of their own. Next, Tolstoy introduces Levin. An idealistic man, he dreams of Kitty and wonders if he still has a chance with her. These are the beautiful scenes on ice with brightly rendered skaters circling as the couples meet within a dazzling milieu of sunshine and snow. Tolstoy gives Kitty and Levin deliciously restrained dialogue, and particular enchantment is given to Levin’s thoughts:

“Yes,” he thought, “now this is happiness! Together, she said let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid to speak – because I’m happy…”

Even at this early stage, Levin and Kitty strive to understand one another, and when Levin fears he has lost the thread in conversation, he panics inside:

“What’s wrong? I have offended her. Lord help me!”

With this stirring scene, the reader gains a kind of bond and trust in the two characters. We root for Levin and Kitty even through their lost hopes and their flaws.

Vronsky, on the other hand, never fully gains our trust. Right from the beginning, Tolstoy portrays him as questionable. Vronsky “had never had a real family life.” He did not love his mother. His mother was a wealthy society woman who later had “notorious” love affairs, while Vronsky was away being educated at a military school. He hardly remembered his father. Knowing this about Vronsky’s past, one naturally draws conclusions about his aversion to Anna’s son and complete, almost contemptuous denial of Anna’s marriage to Karenin and the sacredness of her family life. Vronsky pursues her and doggedly, almost fanatically, lures her away from the family lair.

Indeed, Tolstoy paints Vronsky as rather spoiled, privileged and vain:

“He had often before had this sense of physical joy in his own body, but he had never felt so fond of himself, of his own body, as at that moment.”

Yet, these sensations are brought about by Vronsky’s anticipation of seeing Anna.

“And as I go on, I love her more and more.”

Vronsky’s character is uniquely sensuous and not altogether wicked, but consistently surrounded by beauty – and beautiful himself:

“… the roofs of the houses shining in the rays of the setting sun, the sharp outlines of fences and angles of buildings, the figures of passers-by, the carriages that met him now and then, the motionless green of the trees and grass, the fields with evenly drawn furrows of potatoes, and the slanting shadows that fell from the houses, and trees … everything was bright like a pretty landscape just finished and freshly varnished.”

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

However, there is a vanity and an unnamable dread in the beauty of Vronsky. Froufrou, the name of Vronsky’s horse, is more than a little telling. In French, froufrou means swish, rustling, pomp, show. These meanings describe Anna, especially at the point when she and Vronsky meet: on the train and then at the magnificent Russian ball. Anna is beautifully dressed in a swishing, rustling gown surrounded by a show of pomp and aristocratic pageantry. What’s more, in English, froufrou implies something that is not taken very seriously, something ephemeral and not lasting. Vronsky himself shows signs of the latter meaning with regard to women. Originally, with Kitty when she feels so certain of his love for her, yet Vronsky, all the while, thinks nothing of Kitty once he leaves her side. For the reader, his reputation of fleeting romance stays, even as he appears to be devoted to Anna. We are never completely certain that his devotion is lasting.

Communication and misunderstanding are a driving theme here in relationships. Anna and Vronsky, despite their grand passion, never fully understand each other. There are great lapses in interpretation between what is said and what is heard. While Kitty and Levin, on the other hand, understand each other, often with only a look but also via long, tirelessly wrought conversation. Theirs is the lasting, spiritual relationship of a true marriage. Vronsky may love Anna, but regrettably he fails to express his love for her and she fails to believe in anything he says. They do understand one another through their bodies. However, verbal exchanges only get in their way, disfiguring their love to utter confusion. As when Anna tells Vronsky about having confessed their affair to her husband, Karenin. Vronsky’s response is actually quite chivalrous.

“‘Yes, yes, that’s better, a thousand times better! I know how painful it was,’ he said. But she was not listening to his words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression on his face. She could not guess that that expression arose from the first idea that presented itself to Vronsky – that a duel was now inevitable. The idea of a duel had never crossed her mind, and so she put a different interpretation on this stern expression.”

Ilya Repin, 1899

Ilya Repin, 1899

Time and again, Vronsky tells Anna that he loves her and wants to devote his life to her, but she simply will not believe him. She feels certain that she can read his thoughts and that he could never love her now that she is in such a humiliating “position”. Yet, the writer builds upon small horizons of hope throughout the story.

Tolstoy illustrates many contradictions such as these. Anna yearns for Vronsky’s love, while rejecting it; her pompous husband, Karenin appears harsh, even severe, at times, yet he embodies the Christian virtues of compassion and mercy, even with Anna, up to a point. Levin, who constantly searches for spirituality and meaning, stumbles into murky territory even in the simplest of situations. The entire story reaches for clarity, with religious perseverance, yet Tolstoy’s central characters are habitually tangled up in confusion and ambiguity.

Indeed, it seems that Tolstoy has painted Anna into a corner. She is a remarkably intelligent woman; however, she remains so troubled that she cannot reason lucidly nor even turn to God. Consequently, Anna has little choice, and the one choice she truly desires eludes her, because she deeply believes that Vronsky can’t possibly love her. The words “shame,” “hopeless,” and “disgrace” repeat themselves in her mind, and she feels these things not only in society and in her own household but also in the eyes of Vronsky. It’s as if Vronsky represents society itself. Their only chance would be to somehow escape the era in which they live.

Dolly presents another character altogether. A matronly woman, the perfect example of a good mother and wife, ultimately, her choices are either to forgive her husband for being free and promiscuous or to leave him. Still, leaving him is not a real option. Dolly entertains the idea in fantasies, but in reality, it would be no life for her in 19th Century Russia.

Conversely, the highly circumspect Levin, tortured with his incessant soul-searching and philosophical labyrinths to find the meaning of life, finally reaches his answers, first, through a mere peasant and this peasant’s uncomplicated answer; “To live for God and for the Soul” and secondly, through a higher Divinity while gazing up at the stars, which appear to be moving across the sky. The celestial illusion suddenly puts to rest all of Levin’s questions about religion. And a clear understanding is shared when Levin looks into the bright, incomparable eyes of his wife.

Anna Karenina is a brilliant, expansive novel with too many small, beautiful scenes and nuances to include in a blog post… or a film, for that matter. I have seen two film adaptations and both were not able to represent the tale fully, although, the 2012 version is spectacular. Keira Knightley portrays Anna wonderfully, and it was interesting to hear Knightley describe Anna as an “anti-heroine” rather than the heroine of the tale. Perhaps Anna could have changed her fate; however, the writer chose to make a statement about a woman and her position in relationships and in the world.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina