A couple of weeks ago I finished the 26th book of my 75-book reading challenge for 2015. It was The Scarlet Pimpernel, a fun story that stands as the inspiration between the Bruce Wayne and Batman dichotomy. It was enjoyable, but I was anxious to dive back into the deeper and darker classics.
The summer season has seen me un-purposefully take my literary exploits to the far end of Eastern Europe (or Western Asia, depending upon which global worldview you hold). I began with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, a monumental epic. I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, a literary classic from Cold-War era Russia that I, unfortunately, lost somewhere alongside a Carnival Cruise pool-deck. I blame the bottle of white wine that I downed during the last night onboard.
But on the plane ride back to Chicago, filled with anticipation of the weeks ahead, I took the full dive and flitted through my Kindle until I stumbled across Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This novel had been on my list for years, yet I was still unsure of what to expect from Tolstoy’s gargantuan 900-page masterpiece.
From the minute my eyes hit the first pages I was hooked. Very rarely do I encounter a novel where a Universe of external circumstances and character development intertwine so consistently, so flawlessly. Maybe the term ‘flawlessly’ isn’t the correct way to interpret this novel and my knee-jerk infatuation with it.
The more I read of Levin, Anna, Kitty, and Alexey, I began to realize that it was the striking flaws and shortcomings of all the characters that made the novel what it was. Levin’s character, a man with humble bones in his body who acknowledges the land and struggles with the inherent battle between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, works tirelessly through the novel to show the world what kind of man he is and wishes to be. His humility and regard for others, particularly Kitty, is the thing that holds him back from mobility in a Moscow standing on the approaching end of an aristocratic lifestyle. He lacks the sort of animal magnetism and vigor that drives Kitty’s mother towards Vronsky, but the universe’s arc seemingly bends back into Levin’s hands as he looks out upon his child at the end of the book, grappling with the existential questions of the human experience, and smiles through it all.
Alexei’s persona, and the conflicts that ensue between Anna Karenina and her husband, struck at the very nerve of ‘love’ in a way that I had never quite seen before. Alexei Alexandrovitch, a man who wears a mask of calm wherever he goes, sent goosebump-inducing fear into my heart. Alexey’s aversion towards conflict and the falsely nonchalant demeanor that he entertains reminded me of my own faulty traits. His stubborn disposition hid from him the nature of his marriage and the potential for love that was laid there, and even his wife’s behavior shows the reader just how desperately she wishes to see her husband collapse into the world of emotional empathy.
And that’s where we get to Anna Karenina. Her very entrance into the novel, where she catches Vronsky’s eyes and begins to thaw his inconsequential love for Kitty, showed me the sheer power that this woman possessed. After about twenty minutes of exploring Anna’s early character development I began to draw a light sketch of this seemingly all-powerful figure in my head, which became a gorgeous canopy and rose to a grandeur that I cannot really capture in a short review such as this. Anna Karenina began as a dream, the sort of self-sufficient woman stereotype who slays men in her wake with the looks of an angel and the attitude of a Queen. Through the entire book I couldn’t quite erase from my head the image of a strong-jawed Anna Karenina, with fierce, dark Russian facial features (Which are my weakness) and the emotional gravitas of a Romanov or even Catherine the Great.
But the most beautiful thing with Anna Karenina was when she was toppled from her perch and viewed alongside the other characters on an equal plane. With each argument and brewing conflict her exterior began to crumble away, and it tore me to pieces as I began to realize where the end was leading. Her pain at the end of the novel was a very real pain, a struggle that a wide swath of humanity can read and say ‘I know where Anna Karenina has been.’ And as she entered the train station I saw exactly where she was going to, as if it had been prophesied since the first time that the reader heard her name.
I dreaded the moment that beauty self-destructed and laid bloodied on railroad tracks, but in a sense I had to know that it was coming all along. How could such a convoluted cluster-fuck of romantic intrigue end without the death of its most valued prize? How could Anna Karenina, a character with serious faults but beautiful contributions in her own right, really survive the fact that she was powerless in the grand scheme of things?
Such an important lesson of the novel struck me near the last pages, as Levin looked out on the Milky Way and continued to ponder that faith and reason struggle. I’m sure that standing beneath that starry canopy, whether a creation of an all-knowing deity or something else, humbled the man. Humbled Levin even more than he had been, even more than working on the land with the servants could have done. And I’m sure that as he looked in his child’s eyes after the storm he realized just how utterly powerless he is. And that’s what I love about this novel.
Vronsky attempts to play puppet-master at the end of his relationship and drives Anna consequently headlong into a train station. Anna tries to play God with the feelings of others and is driven mad by the very realization that she can’t conquer the world and hold onto love. She looks at herself and, foolishly and unfortunately, ends it all in the fury of depression and dread. But Kitty and Levin, who fail time and time again, overcome the valleys and somehow manage to squeak through alive and relatively happy. The couple had thrown up their hands to ‘fate’ and somehow made it, or maybe it was, as Levin pondered, due to the ‘prayers’ that he began to recite.
This novel is an incredibly imperfect book stock full of enormously flawed people who lead lives that flutter between manically enjoyable and strikingly desperate. But that’s what makes me love this book, this wonderful book. And maybe it’s a sign of my troubled personality, or an inherent flaw within all of us, that I still long for that moment when an Anna Karenina, strikingly beautiful and clad in a black dress of power and intrigue, happens to cross my path in life someday. Let’s only hope that my Anna Karenina doesn’t ride the train.