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The Fellowship of Animals

The classic children’s book, Wind in the Willows, was published in 1908 and originally began as an antipodal exchange of short stories. The author, Kenneth Grahame, was a banker by trade who worked in the city during the week and would write letters home to his young son, affectionately called, “Mouse”. These letters were actually continuing stories about animal characters who lived by the river Thames and had adventures on the river and in the English countryside, presumably in such places as Wiltshire and The Berkshire Downs, as well as in the forest.

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Grahame describes generously, often poetically, the details in nature from a personified animal’s point of view, their adventures on the wide uplands and streams, along the river’s tributaries, bubbling brooks, runnels and little culverts. The animals, especially the Water Rat, have great escapades and picnics throughout these ebullient pools and backwaters. They go deep into the forest, too, and visit caves and underground tunnels that have been made into grand or quaint abodes, as with the Badger’s catacomb mansion underground and the Mole’s simple hideaway that he nevertheless calls home.

Ratty, the Water Rat, the wise, good-humored, avuncular animal in the story might be considered the main character, and yet, little Mole, who is naïve, impetuous, curious and childish, holds the center-stage, (that is at least when Mr. Toad is not hogging the limelight with his wild exploits). Mole starts out essentially blind to the world outdoors. Indeed, it seems as if Mole is born as the story of his adventure begins. As if in an underground liminal zone, he has been living for years doing nothing but scratching around for provisions and whitewashing his lair in the spring. His eyes are suddenly opened; he hears the birds singing for the first time, and when he reaches the river, he stops spell-bound… Mole has never seen the river before. Here, Grahame describes with Wordsworthian celebration, the spring that Mole wakes up to:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lovely little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing….
He sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him a babbling procession of the best stories in the world. Sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

When Ratty and Mole meet, they become fast-friends whose friendship grows and develops as that of a blossoming, childhood friendship. Yet these characters are not so much like children as they are like people that children can relate to and learn from. Certainly, the story is a classic that can absolutely be enjoyed by both adults and children. Ratty and Mole perform great adventures on the river, including a very funny scene in which Mole impatiently tries to take the oars from Ratty. They have picnics and meet many other animals who live by the river. There is an intricate system of social order and yet a warm comradeship among the various animals. Most of them are rather sophisticated, especially Ratty’s closest chums; they speak in an elevated English, and wear stylish outfits. Ratty, however, is more wise than most, and often circumspect or patient when the other animals are not as poetic or naturally insightful: as if the Water Rat were worldly-wise, though he lives only by the river in the English countryside. Still, each animal has the gift of natural instincts, much like that of humans, but the natural, more super-instincts, that inter-communication of animals – of sensing when they are close to home or when some danger is afoot. Indeed, Grahame humanizes the animals with great charm:

“Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!”
“Oh, Badger,” cried the rat, “let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.”
“What, Ratty, my dear little man!” exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. “Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.”

In and among this milieu of sodality and amidst these various expeditions with a handful of close friends, Ratty and Mole maintain the closest bond. Theirs has become a cultivated friendship. They have had their little adventures, their strolls far-afield, for example, where they mingle with humans in society: paying a porter at the train station, lodging a complaint to the police… where, in the evening, they see people sitting by the fireside through their living-room windows along a cobbled sidewalk in the village. Ratty and Mole’s relationship has endured the perils of lovable, capricious, reckless Mr. Toad. Mole is going through some changes. He is growing as an individual and as a mole.

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As for Toad, he learns a few of life’s lessons, for sure, despite his insanely impulsive craving for cars and boats, or anything with a motor. Toad experiences the revelation of hope even at his lowest point, in jail, when the goaler’s daughter brings in a hot, fragrant meal. The aroma fills up his cell, and suddenly his old aspirations and dreams return and he sees a solution to his problems – scolding himself for becoming so morose, thus, hope springs eternal, might be Toad’s credo, even in the face of his shortcomings. He has a long conversation with the gaoler’s daughter, which is a more intimate example among Grahame’s portrayals of an encounter between an animal and a human. Still, Toad is possessed by a perpetual wild hair combined with his compulsive lying. Promising the train driver, for instance, he’ll wash the driver’s shirts in exchange for a ride home, knowing full well he won’t send them back, yet passionately believing he will wash the man’s shirts and send them on, once he returns to Toad Hall.

Whether or not Toad changes and matures for good: this is only implied at by the restraint he shows in front of his friends by not indulging in self-centered speech-making and hogging the limelight at the Toad Hall party. But we the audience perceive how capricious Toad can be. He’s tricky and holds his cards close to his chest. Therefore, only the author really knows if Mr. Toad has actually changed.

Ratty has remained throughout: wise, clever, sociable, yet circumspect, good-humored and adventuresome; perhaps Ratty has become more so, in every quality. The other characters are not as delved into; they are who they are. However, Mole has changed as a central character. He has transformed from a naive, myopic little animal living in a narrow hovel underground into a more knowledgeable; indeed, wise; well-traveled (albeit of the English countryside, villages and forests); more experienced and sociable mole who has learned true comradeship and has in fact performed brave, heroic and kind deeds since he left his lair and unwittingly enrolled in the apprenticeship of the Water Rat. Even Badger gives his nod of approval by calling Mole, “clever Mole” and “good Mole,” tributes that Toad jealously covets from anyone, but especially from practical, austere, fatherly Badger.

When choosing your copy of Wind in the Willows, any book will do as long as it contains all twelve chapters. I found one large, hardbound version with the most beautiful illustrations that I’ve ever seen for this book, however, it was missing chapters. Oddly, the chapters that were left out happened to be some of the most magical, mythical and mysterious chapters of the entire story, such as: Piper at the Break of Dawn, Wayfarers All and the unedited The Return of Ulysses. To have these chapters is to enjoy the full enchantment of Grahame’s genius.

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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

Anna Karenina, A Painting

anna karenina painting
Anna Karenina, a painting.

He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the rink. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. “Is it possible I can go over there on the ice, go up to her?” he thought. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for the long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.

I am currently reading Anna Karenina and am already thoroughly swept away by the exquisite world of Leo Tolstoy. Russian literature, in general, has a deeply emotional effect on me, and Tolstoy, in particular, strikes a resonant chord with Anna Karenina.

The translation I am reading is by Constance Garnett from The Modern Library. Another excellent and more current translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Viking as well as other publishing houses. It would be interesting to compare translations.

Whether I continue with this version or another one, you can be sure, I will be writing a blog-post on this book as soon as I’m finished with it!