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:

I took as many Russian lit courses as I could in college, which was, admittedly, two.  But still, I love how the great Russian novels so successfully present big ideas in real human struggle.  I have yet to read The Brothers Karamazov, and I feel the need to re-read Crime and Punishment, which I loved as a senior in high school.  But I have read an assortment, including Eugene Onegin, Fathers and Sons (love it!), Notes from Underground (love it in a painful sort of way), The Master and Margarita (fantastic opening scene that reimagines Christ's encounter with Pilate from Pilate's POV, but the rest is beyond me), Dr. Zhivago (didn't think it lived up to the others), and two of Tolstoy's novellas, which I think you would really enjoy: "Family Happiness" and "The Kreutzer Sonata."  So that is my background to this reading of AK.

As I may have mentioned, this is the third time I've read AK, and it is number 2 in my top 3 all-time favorite novels (one is Jane Eyre, three is Vanity Fair).  I love the way it moves; yes it's long, yes it's a commitment, but it doesn't feel that way because of the short, scenic chapters and the spot-on characterization.  I'm bowled over every time I read it at how the characterization is in every gesture, and it is so lifelike because, to borrow a phrase I encountered at Squaw Valley, of the "significant irrelevancies"--those small things that convince you you're looking into a mirror of life itself.  For example, I love right up front Oblonsky trying to remember his dream, which is about a dinner where even the decanters are women:

‘Yes, yes, now how was it?’ he thought, trying to remember a dream.  ‘Yes, now how was it? Oh yes!  Alabin was giving a dinner in Darmstadt; no, not in Darmstadt but in some American city.  Ah, but in my dream Darmstadt was in America.  Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass table—ah yes, and the tables were singing Il mio tesoro. No, not Il mio tesoro, something better.  And there were some little decanters there, and the decanters were also women,’ he recalled.

The whole thing is irrelevant, and if I were writing this, the MFA critic leaning over my shoulder would tell me to take it out.  It is, after all, superfluous to the story and the central conflict, and it slows everything.  Except that it doesn't because Tolstoy gives it only 4 or 5 sentences and because it speaks volumes about Oblonsky, and, to an extent, the overall societal atmosphere where dinners and balls are given and women are as displayed and expendable as decanters.  But such a lofty thing is silently placed in a recollection of an already fading dream, which, for me, reaches the absolute height of credibility when Oblonsky debates if the dinner was in America or Darmstadt and concludes, "Ah, but in my dream Darmstadt was in America."

Another of my favorite significant irrelevancies is again early on when Levin can't think about what Oblonsky is saying because he's distracted by "the hands of the elegant Grinyevich, who had such long white fingers with such long yellowish nails, curving at the tips, and such huge glittering cufflinks."  I remembered those nails after the first time I read it, and it's always the same perfect impression.

And when Anna is finally introduced--well, I don't have to tell you how every gesture, every detail of her down to her paper knife is perfect.

But that brings me to a point of interest that I suppose is related to structure: the choice to start with Oblonsky, morph into Levin, Kitty, Koznyshev, and finally, after 75 pages, arrive at Anna.  75 pages!  Contemporary taste would make such a thing all but impossible today, though I think--and I would love to hear your opinion on this--it really works.  To me, the lesson of AK (in terms of writing) is to forget about the obligations of set-up, explaining motives, adding information, and just present what is most vital and immediate EVEN IF that requires telling many things without showing and delaying the protagonist's entrance to suit your purposes.

As we keep reading, here is another interesting point of debate which I cannot settle with myself.  Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, which, as you know, was groundbreaking for me, contends that AK is a flawed book because Tolstoy short-changes Anna's backstory.  He claims that Anna's fall does not have the full impact it should because we do not see Anna before the fall, only after.  I have already pondered this point for awhile, so I'll let you tell me what you think, and then I'll share my thoughts.  Deal?  

I agree with our sense of relief at the permission to us exposition.  As you know, that's the other gem I gleaned from Lubbock, but you raise an interesting point about the importance of transitions between exposition, scene, and dialogue.  It strikes me that all these aspects that we love, especially the significant irrelevancies and the overall movement of the book, are primarily the instinctual things we cannot be taught and cannot intentionally pull off.  But lest we despair, let me leave us with this great hope, which I learned in reading my edition's introduction: Tolstoy struggled with this novel, began it again and again, rewrote it, and almost, at one point, gave up entirely.  Comparing ourselves to Tolstoy may seem bold, but I'm sure in those moments of struggle Tolstoy forgot he was Tolstoy.


  1. Hey hey, that fellow Master is ME!! Very excited to get the shout-out on your blog :)

  2. Okay, okay, since November is still two months away and Anna Karenina is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it, I'm going to start today. Thought you'd be happy to know!