**This post spoils some things about Anna Karenina‘s plot**
Today I dozed for a while while reading The Man Without Talent. It was the weirdest period of sleep I’ve had in recent memory. It was a total void. People talk about heavy or light sleep but this felt different: like I clipped through the geometry of myself into some sort of exterior void outside of reality’s programming. I wasn’t aware that I was sleeping, not even in that low broad unblinking level of consciousness that doesn’t sleep and constantly reminds us we’re alive.
There was no blackness; it was without color, substance, mental texture. The only way I knew it existed was that I woke up and realized I had been somewhere. It existed only as this chronological gap that I was aware of when I woke up, a lacuna; there was this sensation of recovery, of the senses rushing in to be shocked at something that had happened too quickly and completely for even their godlike instantaneousness. My brain felt like it was recovering from a lover’s unexpected slap.
I don’t know exactly how long it lasted. Not long. But it was one of those sleeps that isn’t restorative at all, that somehow feels draining, like you left something vital for the day behind in it – although in this case there was no it to speak of.
I finished Anna Karenina last night. There’s a quote that circulates from Nabokov in which he calls it “one of the greatest love stories in world literature.” I don’t know the context of this quote; I assume it’s from Lectures on Russian Literature but I don’t have a copy of that book to confirm. Maybe don’t have that much Nabokov in your library. I think he’s an insufferable snob. My favorite literary own of all time is the way David Markson describes Nabokov’s style as “pinchbeck” in the Reader’s Block tetralogy.
Nabokov is one of those insufferable mid-century gamesmen, but let’s assume he’s not, in this case, being ironic or precious and really does consider Anna Karenina a love story, in the traditional sense of that term.
This assumption will give me a chance to countermand Nabokov because Anna Karenina is emphatically not a love story in the traditional meaning of the term. It is, however, a book about love. There are two types/depths/breeds of love explored in the novel: that between Levin and Kitty, and that between Anna and Vronsky. One of these, at least according to the book’s internal metaphysics, is actually love. To this end there is one of the more interesting structural elements of the book: the Levin/Kitty side sees the climax – their getting engaged and married – happen well before the novel’s end, so that most of what you see is these two young people living in the honesty agony of loving another human being.
Because the process of being love is different than the process of loving someone. Being in love is a selfish phase, an act where we respond to an artifact inside of us that is made in honor of or in response to somebody else, but isn’t. This is the sexy, easy side of love, the marketable side; it’s commercial and catchy.
But to love someone is to enter into a deadly serious commitment, and to move away from all that easy joy. Real connections to other people we make only through a sort of violence, because we’re forcing down barriers within ourselves that are rooted in the center of who we are, in our very pith. Love ceases to be an emotion we feel for a doll and becomes another country we leave our homes for, or an entire planet with its own gravity, weather, and tides.
And it’s a hostile environment, an odyssey from which there is no return. Love is an ocean, and there is no shore. It ends only because the author dies, not because the book is finished. It takes bravery and abasement to love with any honesty. And love is as demanding as consumption; to give anything less than every wringable ounce of what it asks is to give nothing at all, and to fail entirely.
And because love is its own world with its own rules, it moves away from delivering any of the things we have been told we should promise ourselves in this world: happiness, pleasure, etc. Those things may come in the course of life, from the person we love, but they come from outside of the love in some way, because like us the person we love has to live both in this reality and in the other reality of love.
The only reason to love is the same reason to engage with art. It’s the only way to make a real connection. And, in the desert loneliness and desperation of existence, that is more than enough reason.
(This was the same copy of Anna Karenina, by the way, that you read when we lived in Boulder. Every time I saw it since then I thought that someday I’d read it, and it would be like some kind of strange penance, an oblique way of moving towards you again. But, actually, I didn’t think of you at all while I was reading it. In fact, while I was reading Anna Karenina was the only time I wasn’t thinking of you. The reality of the book was such that I was immersed in it, rather than my own reality. In my reality there’s some way, maybe a weakness of mine or maybe simply some integral truth, that makes it hard for me to define myself to myself without reference to you. When I was reading I wasn’t thinking of myself, and thus I wasn’t thinking of you. But I thought of you again whenever I closed the book.)