Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Past the point of no return...with Anna Karenina

Slowly reading a long book makes it more memorable. Over time, the story weaves itself into the fabric of your memories of your life while you were reading it. At least it works this way for me. I passed the halfway mark with Anna Karenina yesterday, and I know that whenever I think of it in the future I will remember that I read it the summer my oldest child left the nest for college.

There's a melancholic oppressive feel to the story--partly because I know Anna's fate and partly because, despite the joy and energy that keeps on cropping up (see previous post on AK), the pace is ponderous and nothing turns out as expected for the characters. I noticed this in particular last night. Tolstoy alternately described Kitty and Levin's courtship and then marriage and then honeymoon intermixed with Anna and Vronsky's flight from propriety, Russia, and her marriage.

Although Kitty and Levin were surprised that the euphoria they experienced through the wedding was displaced by the annoyances of actual married life, they worked through the annoyances to find joy again. Conversely, Anna and Vronsky anticipated the freedom and joy they could have unfettered by Anna's husband, but found themselves bored and restless when all they had was love, without the daily trials and rituals of real life.

Here's what I marked as I passed the midpoint (or as I like to think of it--the point of no return--who can abandon a book after they have read more than half of it--too much invested to turn back now!).

Here are Vronky's thoughts while they are still in Russia, before Anna decides to leave her husband without agreeing to a divorce, and he is starting to have buyer's remorse:
She was not at all as he had seen her in the beginning. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out, and her face...was distorted by a spiteful expression. He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it. p.358

This next passage really struck me--it made me think about how we often say that Austen's heroines insist on marrying for love, as if that will lead to happiness. What I got from this passage is that Tolstoy, via this conversation between Anna and her brother, is saying that while marrying for love may not ensure happiness, marrying without love will ensure unhappiness. This is Stiva talking to Anna... married a man twenty years older than yourself. You married without love or not knowing what love is. That was a mistake... p.427

Here's some of Vronsky's thoughts while he and Anna are lounging around Europe, becoming disenchanted with each other.
Vronsky meanwhile, despite the full realization of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy...It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires. p. 465

Finally, I absolutely loved how Tolstoy had both Vronsky and the painter Mikhailov do portraits of Anna, which reflects so beautifully who Vronsky really is, who Anna really is, and how they are hopelessly shallow and soulless, nothing more than costumes and jewelry and show.
He liked the graceful and showy French manner more than any other, and in this manner he began painting a portrait of Anna in Italian costume, and to him and to everyone who saw it this portrait seemed very successful.

If you're getting the sense that I don't like Anna and Vronsky, you're right. But like them, I'm past the point of no return and must see what other treasures Tolstoy has hidden in the 334 pages remaining. First, I'm going to take another mini-break and get through some more of Gabaldon's A Breath of Snow and Ashes.


  1. I loved your comments on the book and the things that have struck you and why. So very intuitive. Thanks for your input.

  2. What struck me about the first scene you quoted is that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky's child when this scene occurs - so of course she has broadened out!!

    I agree with you about the scene with the real artist, who captures the real Anna, and the fake artist (Vronsky) who only cares about technique, and has no true artistic appreciation.
    And art is yet another thing Vronsky takes up to occupy his idle hours, he goes from one distraction to another. Kitty's father was 100% accurate in his assessment of him.

    I loved the contrast between Vronsky and Levin - as of course we are supposed to compare the two original suitors of Kitty. And I thought this quote about Vronsky was perfect too, when he had to show a visiting and extremely vacuous Prince, life in the city:

    But the chief reason why the Prince's presence oppressed Vronsky was that he saw himself reflected in the Prince, and what he saw in that mirror was not flattering to his vanity.

    Tolstoy was just so good at describing people's real motives and thoughts.