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.