Thursday, September 27, 2012

From Anna to Andre: Reflections on Andre Agassi’s Open

Elizabeth, you ask, how does Andre Agassi’s autobiography fit into your series on Anna Karenina

It doesn’t.  But I have to interrupt the series and talk about this book that made me read it cover to cover when I meant to read only the first couple chapters.  I just finished it last night and I’m eager to share it with you, if for no other reason than that I’m still shocked that I, not especially a tennis fan, devoured Agassi’s book.  In fact, I’m so poorly versed in tennis that I recognized Agassi’s name primarily from memorizing it as a good guess for any tennis-related questions that my high school In the Know team encountered back in the day.  (I know, this makes me sound like the quintessential dork and is therefore probably not something to confess on a public blog…all this autobiography stuff must be rubbing off...)

More amazing still, I’d wager that most non-tennis folk who give Open a try would find themselves hooked, too.
In part, the book’s appeal comes from the vicarious thrill of living an incredible career and with seeing more of that career than just the fame and the fortune. Agassi really does come off as a down-to-earth guy with no real designs on the vast wealth he ultimately obtains, and so there’s this kind of underdog, rags-to-riches allure that we Americans have historically loved and continue to love.  In fact, Agassi’s story has a lot of the same elements that draw us to many movies and books: the domineering father, the ill-fated romance, the fairytale romance, the nice moral to care for other people, and the lesson that hard work pays off.

But if the book had just these archetypical plots, I doubt I would have picked it up in the first place, and I certainly wouldn’t have continued reading.  What Agassi offers is an intimate look at the struggle for vocation that everyone, in one way or another, wrestles with through their young adult lives and into their twenties, if not well beyond.  Agassi’s grand claim and recurring theme is that he hates tennis.  He seems to think his confession will shock everyone, and maybe, if I were a die-hard tennis fan, it would.  But people who love their jobs are as rare as happy marriages—they do come along , but they are the dear pearls on a beach full of ordinary sand.

I appreciated the honest struggle, and part of what makes it work so well in the book is the way it’s punctuated with real, tangible, win/loss situations.  No tennis match recounted in the book was dwelt on in a way that tested my patience, because no match felt as if it were included for the sake of the sport alone.  Instead, it was part of the search for motivation, for Agassi to find what he did and didn’t want, for him to observe how these other players approached tennis and, by extension, vocation. 

A similar struggle with vocation occurs in the novel I’m currently drafting, and a friend of mine who reads my work and who also happens to arrange his life around Roger Federer matches, saw the similarity and recommended I read Open.  But whether one reads Open for a character study (unlikely) or for an interest in Agassi (more likely), the pleasure quickly becomes that of personal identification. 

Whenever you read a first-person narration, it’s hard not to identify with that first-person narrator.  Of course, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, and there are certainly elements of that here too.  For one thing, I was skeptical—and the acknowledgements confirmed my skepticism—that Agassi himself sat down and wrote this; indeed, he credits J.R. Moehringer with “transform[ing]” (Agassi’s word) transcripts from their personal interviews into this story.  It’s an autobiography only insofar as Agassi himself was involved in the process.  We expect artifice in fiction; we want reality in autobiography, subjective though its presentation will be.  For another, I caught glimpses that—for however much I read along with “Agassi” and identified with him—if I had actually met Agassi at many points in his career, I would not have gotten along with him.  Chilly and determined as Pete Sampras comes across in Open, I can see, when I step away from the lure of Agassi’s “I,” that I would be faster friends with Sampras than Agassi (insofar as Agassi’s memoir represents the two).  And then, of course, we have to be constantly aware of the subjectivity—that this is Andre Agassi’s story and not Mike Agassi’s story, etc. etc.  Don’t get me wrong: subjectivity is not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s essential to autobiography.

But now here’s my shocking confession: for as much as I identified with Agassi and was rooting for him, I actually felt a little disappointed with the final chapters—not because I wasn’t glad that he had finally secured his reputation and his wealth, wooed Stefanie Graf, experienced the joys of fatherhood, and established a thriving charity.  I was glad, glad in a more genuine way than we usually are for people who make it so big because I understood the difficulties he’d faced in getting there.  And yet, after such struggle, the book comes down to pat and usual morals: caring for others, caring for education, caring for family.  I don’t doubt his love for his wife, children, and charity, but it suddenly all seemed so storybook that it lost its ring of authenticity.

Which is as much a lesson for fiction as for life.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Life in 3D: Reflections on Anna Karenina, Part 2

Good news: two people have contacted me to let me know that they are reading Anna Karenina so that they can enjoy it along with my blog.  Hooray!  But I realize that for those of you who aren’t reading along, detailed discussion of AK might be too much for eight weeks.  So this week, I want to talk about a feature of Tolstoy's masterpiece that you can look for in any great book and that will, no doubt, enhance your appreciation.  It has mine.

Some months ago, I was reading some essays by Sven Birkerts, who is an admirer of Madame Bovary.  Birkerts observes that Flaubert’s mastery lies not just in how well-drawn the characters are, but in how he places them in a 3D world.  Which is to say, the reader has the sense that there is an objective world that continues to move around the characters, just as the real world moves around us.  Birkerts gives the example of the priest’s umbrella.  When Charles and Emma, the protagonists of Madame Bovary, first arrive in the small town where they are going to take up residence, some of the townspeople gather to watch their carriage approach.  One of these townies, the priest, watches not just out of interest in Charles and Emma but because his umbrella is on the approaching carriage as well.  The chapter goes on with Charles and Emma’s arrival and their reception.  Several pages later, it is raining and one of the stable boys is sent to accompany Charles and Emma to their new house.  The boy accompanies them carrying the priest’s recently-returned umbrella.  Through this insignificant detail, Birkerts observes, Flaubert has managed to convey that the world is moving around Charles and Emma as it moves around us—that there is an objective reality outside of the characters themselves. 

Anna Karenina boasts this same quality.  In part, a sense of objective reality is established simply in the connections between characters.  The two main storylines of the novel belong to Anna and, almost equally if not moreso, to Constantin Levin.  The book begins with neither of these protagonists, but with Oblonsky and his wife Dolly.  However, Oblonsky is Anna’s brother, and Dolly is the sister of Kitty, the girl whom Levin wishes to marry.  Dolly and Oblonsky therefore have obvious points of contact with the main plot lines, and this interconnectedness—which occurs through more characters than I have here named—contributes to an overall sense of society.  Oblonsky also knows Princess Betsy, who becomes one of Anna’s main contacts because of her connection to Vronsky, who is in Princess Betsy’s set.  And so on and so forth—before we know it, half of high society Russia is before us with their connections, both major and minor.

But let’s observe more particularly.  Oblonsky, we know from the beginning, is a social butterfly.  We haven’t seen him for many chapters, but in Part II, Anna, Princess Betsy, Karenin, and other socialites gather to watch the horse race in which Vronsky competes.  Tolstoy has been using the chapters leading up to this race to show Anna and her husband Karenin’s strained relationship.  But now, in the middle of Karenin saying something, he is interrupted by:

“Princess, a wager!” came the voice of Oblonsky from below, addressing Betsy.  “Who are you backing?”
“Anna and I are betting on Prince Kuzovlyov,” replied Betsy.
“I’m for Vronsky.  A pair of gloves.”
“It’s a bet.”

And just like that, without belabored set-up, nor even in a moment of real consequence, Oblonsky has re-entered the narrative in a way that makes perfect sense. Of course he’s at the race because upper class society is at the race; of course he knows Vronsky and Betsy because they are all part of the same social sphere.  Most importantly, Anna’s world has become 3D: while we were watching her story develop, Oblonsky’s life, too, was moving forward, even though we didn’t see it.  But now here he is, and we readers know exactly this type of exit and entrance and continuing storyline from our own experience of life.

A similar moment occurs in part III, Chapter 6.  Dolly, whom we haven’t seen since much earlier in the book, is living in the country for the summer.  She is in a different setting than the one in which we first saw her, the Oblonsky household that was in such turmoil at the beginning of the book.  Here, in the country, Dolly uses the phrase “come right” to comfort one of the country servants.  Tolstoy adds in parentheses that this was her usual phrase and that Matvey had gotten it from her. Matvey, we remember from chapter 2 of the first volume, is Oblonsky’s servant, and in that very first scene of the book, he tells Oblonsky, “It’ll all come right” in reference to the trouble Oblonsky’s unfaithfulness to Dolly has caused. We haven't heard that phrase or seen Matvey since that first scene, but now, 270 pages in, the entire world to which Dolly belongs is recalled.  This one detail serves to both characterize Dolly in the moment and retroactively illuminate something of the household we've previously witnessed.

My friend the MFAer with whom I am reading Anna Karenina observed that she loves this novel because it “burgeons” with life.  A book, in her opinion, “has to be ripping the seams with every emotion, every kind of person, every kind of tragedy and happiness.”  I couldn’t agree more, and I would add that it is this very 3D quality—this sense of an objective world that masters like Tolstoy and Flaubert manage to create around their characters—which allows this burgeoning of life to happen and which makes the life on the page compellingly realistic.

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Open Letter to a Fellow Master: Anna Karenina, Part 1

Often when I hear about a new movie version of a classic novel, I can’t help but suppress a small shudder.  Not because I am such a purist as to think a movie and a book can ever be compared—the experience is so different that each must be treated as its own artistic form—but because a movie inevitably treads on the precious space a novel occupies in my imagination.  I have read Jane Eyre more times than any other book, and my mental images of the rooms, the characters, the scenes prove preserved from one reading to the next.  I don’t like it when a movie so intrudes that I can’t remember as clearly my own imagined version of a particular protagonist or setting.

The Signet Classic edition from which
I have always read and which I bought
for 25 cents at a library booksale in 2001.
I especially didn’t like the choice to cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, although in that case, I felt the choice was so far off that Knightley’s performance didn’t threaten to supplant my imagined Elizabeth, who is plainer and an overall more homespun sort.  But now Keira Knightley has been cast as another 19th-century heroine, and this time around, I think the choice has the potential to be spot-on: Knightley as Anna Karenina in the movie version that premiers this November in the U.S. (it starts today in the UK). 

Anna must be exceptionally beautiful, graceful, and dark-haired; Knightley can claim all three adjectives.  Also, I have yet to see a satisfying version of Anna Karenina, but the novel is certainly cinematic in scope and movement, and I believe a good film version could be made.  This just might be it.

So where the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and the recent new Jane Eyre movie felt like obligations to watch, I am really looking forward to Anna Karenina.  And so is a good friend of mine, a fellow alumna of the George Mason MFA program.  In fact, she suggested we read Anna Karenina together before the movie comes out, for me a refresher, for her a first-time reading.  The book is divided into 8 parts of roughly 100 pages each, and we plan to read a part a week.  As I prepared my remarks to my friend, I realized that my blog readers might enjoy reading along with us, and also that with reading, thinking, and writing time devoted to this endeavor, I may not have much to share on the blog if I don’t share my thoughts on AK.  So what follows are portions of my letter responding to my friend.  Where possible, I have edited to make this readable for Elizabethan Lit followers, but the occasional “you” is inevitable, and I hope you will forgive the address to my fellow master of fine arts.  Without further ado, here are portions of my comments on part 1: