5/9/20: On Anna Karenina

Trying to form some thoughts on Anna Karenina that can stand separate from the work itself. When I’m reading it, the thoughts I have are all immediate ones pertaining to the characters and to their situations. Mostly, I don’t think of the Tolstoy’s style or the book’s structure, or ironies or echoes or any other literary contrivances.

We’ll call Tolstoy’s prose “natural.” There’s an immediacy to it that overrides analytics, the same way people, usually in love or rage, can be temporarily imbued with an immediacy, so that we can’t think of anything else other than their nearness to us and what we’re doing with them. You can see through Tolstoy’s prose as through a window. Critics talk of ‘transparent prose,’ but usually when they say this they mean something other than the kind of transparency on display in Anna Karenina. In his introduction to Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Robert Stone talks about that novel’s sense of ‘lightness,’ in the sense of a bright clarity to its prose; and I think that’s closer to the mark to what it feels like to read Anna Karenina. Nothing intrudes between you and the people, places, things, pains being presented in exactly their natural light.

Or maybe that’s something else. Maybe there are two things going on in Anna Karenina; there’s the proximity of the prose, which puts the world being shown to you right in front of you. But there’s also this sense of clarity, a sensation that things are being shown to you exactly as they are. Whether one thing or two, they make Anna Karenina blissfully easy to read, but hard to pull any thoughts out of other than admiration and the confirmation that, yeah, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

One thing that I do wonder about though is the difference between a character and a real person. Because unquestionably Tolstoy creates wonderfully-dimensioned characters, imbued with a sense of heaviness and reality. But are they real people?

I mean, a character can serve lots of functions in a story. But let’s say that in its primal application a character is an ancient tool writers use to depict a real person, bearing the same relationship to a real person that way that a paragraph bears to a thought or emotion.

But there’s sometimes it seems like there’s suspicious perfection to Tolstoy’s characters. I might be imagining it. Everything they say and do flows so even-keeled from the way in which they’re portrayed. It’s not that they’re not inconsistent; but that even their inconsistencies (for the most part) seem perfectly orchestrated and logical, perfect in their plausability.

I mean but I’m addicted ineluctably to doubt and, in the absence of doubt, the manufacture of synthetic doubts, indistinguishable from the real thing in taste and texture. So this suspicion may, in fact, be a figment.

But outside of the characters, as I approach the 2/3rd’s point in the book and things start to coalesce, it’s hard to overstate my appreciation for the subtlety with which Tolstoy depicts human relationships. Because really, that’s what Anna Karenina is about: relationships between husband and wife, between lovers, between brothers, between a person and their own mind.

Discussion of a book’s length is almost universally an asinine endeavor, but here you can see a direct corellation between Anna Karenina‘s length and the nuance that is achieved in its portrait of these relationships.

But most of that nuance comes from the novel’s awareness of the effect of time on a relationship. As we usher our connections forward through time with us, constant changes fall onto us and them, from every direction, and as ceaselessly and mysteriously as neutrinos. Connections, inevitably, change: someone we love in the fall can bore us by the spring, or maybe even we can just hate them for one night, inexplicably; dissatisfaction with ourselves enacts bitter alchemy and corrodes our respect for other people; questions of mortality and human limits can recontextualize how we approach other people, or the possibility and sustainability of anything approaching happiness…nothing is unfragile enough to be completely unaltered under this onslaught.

I also don’t know any novel so fixated on depicting marriage in particular. Really when I say depicting marriage, I mean depicting the sensation of any serious long-term relationship with another human being: the incredible burden and the quiet, but powerful, rewards that come with it for those who are able to see them,

These concepts in particular are deeply unhip, I know, and there are plenty of dumb elements to the sexual politics of 19th century Russia any reader will have to deal with; but that clear-eye appraisal of both relationship struggles and the rewards, without any attempt at poeticizing or abstracting them, is rare.

Anna Karenina is obviously a book written from a moral standpoint. And again, for as unsexy as that sounds on paper, I think that morality is an essential part of true art. The lameness of much ‘moral writing’ comes from the writer’s oversimplification of morality, not from the presence of morality itself. Morality isn’t choosing Good over Evil as if they were both on a ballot; really, it’s the formation, preservation, and embodiment of our true self (I guess I believe any true self is inherently moral), and the neverending war to assert that self in the external world.

If any of that is true, morals are the method of interchange between our real selves and external reality, because they’re both the purpose and direction of our actions. Or would be, or should be, maybe, but instead of sweeping up the world in who we are, we allow ourselves to be lost in its churn of intricacies and proliferating fractal sub-sub-clauses. We move substance the wrong direction, out to in instead of in to out; so that we’re filled with directionless impulses we didn’t make, and not really ourselves but a sad repository for inert artifice.

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