Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Reading. Tolstoy.

I was thirteen or fourteen the first time I read Anna Karenina; I quickly became impatient with all the characters and their tangled and (to my mind) boring and pointless lives, and never finished the novel. Occasionally I would make the attempt to return to its pages, but I found Tolstoy dusty and dull; I turned instead towards Chekhov and Pushkin, and eventually towards Bulgakov, one of the great loves of my life. I left the 18th and 19th century behind as the writers of the 20th century blazed fiercely in my mind. Later in college I would find myself studying Russian, and one entire semester was spent studying War and Peace (a suprisingly exhilarating experience). But back when I was still in high school I promised my favorite teacher, the one I used to discuss Kundera and Bulgakov with before class, the one who once told me that I think too much, that one day I would come back to Anna Karenina, and that day has come.

In the intervening years a new translation came out, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband-and-wife team who have translated several Russian classics. I had been underwhelmed by their translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (having fallen in love with the Diana Burgin/Katherine Tiernan O'Connor version so many years before), so it was with some apprehension that I reached for their version of Anna Karenina. And was reassured as soon as I opened to the first pages and fell into the story. More than ten years have passed, and instead of fading the words seem brighter, clearer, sharper than before, more compelling than I remembered. I've changed. It isn't so much the translation, or perhaps it is, but my heart has changed, my eyes are seeing things differently now.

How alive this world seems, this world of grand houses and grand families who are all related somehow by birth or marriage or some other mysterious connection, of aristocrats who speak French and English and German to one another instead of Russian, who drink and dine and dance the night away. How alive I feel when I slip into the whirl of their lives! It's strange, now I can look upon the hapless Obolensky with something like pity as his wife at first refuses to forgive him for his infidelity and reconcile, now I can read the description of Anna Arkadyevna as we first see her emerging from the Countess Vronsky's carriage and see how it is that everyone is drawn to her, with her beauty and elegance and modest grace, her expression gentle and tender, with a "restrained animation that played over her face...as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed herself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile." She brings her shamed brother, Obolensky, and his wife back together, the beautiful young Kitty is in love with her, "as young girls are capable of being in love with older married ladies."

But then the story becomes a tangle of emotions, as Kitty falls in love with Vronsky, who falls in love with Anna, who is married to a man she does not love; meanwhile Levin is in love with Kitty, proposes, and is refused. The sadness I felt when I first ventured into these pages all those years ago is still there, the disillusionment, disenchantment with people who fall into and out of love as swiftly as a handkerchief slips from one's sleeve and drifts to the floor. I remember now why I stopped reading this novel, but the beauty of Tolstoy's words - for they are beautiful - draw me back in to this story of doomed love.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Penguin Books, 2000. pp 61, 71.

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