Monday, 4 June 2012

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

For some reason, which I don't quite understand myself, I suddenly felt compelled to watch again, the BBC Classic Drama Series of 'Anna Karenina', starring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter and Stuart Wilson; Produced and Dramatised by Donald Wilson. This series was first made in 1978 - goodness – wherever has the time gone? I can remember very clearly sitting watching it when it first came out, and being totally enthralled and mesmerised by it. So much so, that I decided to buy the series on DVD some 4 years ago. Upon purchase, Glenn and I sat and watched it spellbound; we couldn't get out of our seats, not even to make a cup of tea! It is absolutely brilliant; full of drama, passion, depth, meaning and breath-takingly good acting. And Eric Porter plays the part of the upright but boring man just so perfectly - he was Soames in the Forsyte Saga as well of course. That was another series that I was totally mesmerised and enchanted by. And Nicola Paget – well, what can I say? She is just sensational as Anna Karenina.

Anyway, a few years after watching the BBC Series of 'Anna Karenina' I decided to read the book. That was at a time when I was absorbed in just so many of the classics; pouring my way through them and just getting so much out of them. This included books by the Brontes, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy etc. etc. etc. Yes, I also read 'War and Peace' around this time (and watched the BBC Series with Anthony Hopkins prior to this). I loved 'War and Peace', although was not quite so keen on the War parts. But for me, personally, I actually preferred 'Anna Karenina'. And interestingly, in the Introduction to this Wordsworth Classic Edition which I have just read (published in 1995) it says that:

"Tolstoy's letters, diaries and revisions show that he was supremely concerned with the novel form, and considered Anna Karenina to be his first attempt at this."

Gregory, our youngest son, saw me watching ‘Anna Karenina’, took an interest, and ended up watching it with me. He was surprised by the drama and depth in it all; I had to bite my tongue, to make sure that I did not give away the ending! Especially, when he suggested that Anna might be a selfish person! But the ending made him speechless, as it does everyone when first reading or watching it, of course.

Anyway, whilst watching it, I suddenly also felt compelled to re-read the book (the Wordsworth Classic version). So, I poured myself into it. I put myself through a very intense, deep, heavy and emotional period, and this very much dominated my life for a couple of weeks. I was living and breathing it all. I was not thinking about anything else much, or at least, not in any depth. This was what was consuming me. It was incredible!

Now, I have finished both, so I can now write this blog, reflect and move on. It has been quite some journey.

“I thought you wanted to do lighter, fluffier and more cheerful things?”, Gregory said to me (see also my previous short blog about Jane Austen’s works!). A good point; so what was I doing? I was intoxicated; I was driven; I was entranced. How complex we all are.

When one reads and re-reads the classics, and watches good productions of them, one nearly always gets something new out of the whole experience, I find. This time, what hit me was just how powerfully, effectively and brilliantly Tolstoy portrays the inequality of the sexes when it comes to adultery: 'One rule for men and another for women'. So, it is OK for Steva (Anna’s brother) to have an affair, but not for Anna. And even more, Anna helps Steva through this difficult period, and as a result his marriage remains firm, but the same sympathy, kindness and understanding is not shown to Anna.


“…lived and worked all his days in official spheres, which deal with reflections of life, and every time he had knocked up against life itself he had stepped out of its way. He now experienced a sensation such as a man might feel who, while quietly crossing a bridge over an abyss, suddenly sees that the bridge is being taken to pieces and that he is facing the abyss. The abyss was real life; the bridge was the artificial life Karenin had been living. It was the first time that the possibility of his wife’s falling in love with anybody had occurred to him, and he was horrified.” (p. 140)

Karenin goes to visit Dolly, and this is what she says to him:

“No, wait a bit! You should not ruin her. Wait a bit. I will tell you about myself. I married, and my husband deceived me; in my anger and jealousy I wished to abandon everything. I myself wished…But I was brought to my senses, and by whom? Anna saved me. And here I am living; my children growing; my husband returns to the family and feels his error, grows purer and better, and I live…I have forgiven, and you must forgive.” (p. 389)

Karenin replies:

“I cannot forgive; I don’t wish to and don’t think it would be right. I have done everything for that woman and she has trampled everything in the mud which is natural to her. I am not a cruel man, I have never hated anyone, but I hate her with the whole strength of my soul and I cannot even forgive her, because I hate her so much for all the wrong she has done me!” (p. 389)

But Karenin’s personality is stifling Anna; he found it so difficult to relate to people on meaningful levels.

“His attachment to Anna excluded from his soul any need he had felt for affectionate relations with other people; and now, among all his acquaintances, he had no intimate friends. He was connected with many people, but had friendly relations with none. He knew many persons whom he could invite to dinner, could ask to take part in anything he was interested in or to use their influence for some petitioner, and with whom he could frankly discuss the actions of other men and of the Government; but his relations with these persons were confined to a sphere strictly limited by custom and habit from which it was impossible to escape.” (p. 502)

As it says in the Introduction:

“The double standards that society maintains towards men and women are made clear at an early stage…”

Yes, indeed, and that:

“Anna transgresses, yet it is perhaps the novel’s most triumphant paradox that Anna represents the qualities of honesty and compassion and integrity that are notably absent in her circle. The image at the heart of the novel of life as an obstacle race, is powerfully illustrated by the race scene which culminates in the death of Vronsky’s mare. Anna fails to overcome the obstacles of her own conscience, and of the pressures of a society that is tacitly condemned by Tolstoy, but from which she is unable to bear alienation.”

So, the inequalities between the sexes are not just around pay, jobs, power and status etc. No, it also gets to the very heart of our relationships and how we interact with each other. And women can be quickly labelled as ‘tarts’ and loose and no good – they have to be just so careful. But men being cads – well, they don’t get labelled so quickly and even if they do, it is generally seen to be OK. What a society, eh!

As Tolstoy says through Pestsov:

“The inequality between husband and wife, in his [Pestsov’s] opinion, lay in the fact that the infidelity of wife and that of a husband were unequally punished both by law and by public opinion.” (p. 386)

And then Anna:

“…wept because the hopes of clearing up and defining her position were destroyed for ever. She knew beforehand that everything would remain as it was and would be even far worse than before. She felt that, insignificant as it has appeared in the morning, the position she held in Society was dear to her, and that she would not have the strength to change it for the degraded position of a woman who had forsaken her husband and child and formed a union with her lover; that, however much she tried, she could not become stronger than herself. She would never be able to feel the freedom of love, but would always be a guilty woman continually threatened with exposure, deceiving her husband for the sake of a shameful union with a man who was a stranger and independent of her, and with whom she could not live a united life. She knew that it would be so, and yet it was so terrible that she could not even imagine how it would end. And she cried, without restraint, like a punished child.” (p. 289)

When Anna embarks on her affair we feel the passion; we feel her pain:

“She felt so guilty, so much to blame, that it only remained for her to humble herself and ask to be forgiven; but she had no one in the world now except him, so that even her prayer for forgiveness was addressed to him. Looking at him, she felt her degradation physically, but could say nothing more. He felt what a murderer must feel when looking at the body he has deprived of life. The body he had deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something frightful and revolting in the recollection of what has been paid for with this terrible price of shame. The shame she felt at her spiritual nakedness communicated itself to him. But in spite of the murderer’s horror of the body of his victim, that body must be cut in pieces and hidden away, and he must make use of what he has obtained by his murder.” (p. 146)

It does not state in the Introduction to the Wordsworth Classic edition, who it is by, which is very unfortunate, to say the least, particularly as I think the introduction is very good. It certainly shed some more light on the novel for me.

As it says in the Introduction, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina came:

“…to be regarded as the standard by which other European novels are measured.”

In addition, that:

“Despite Henry James’ much cited opinion that Tolstoy’s novels are ‘loose baggy monsters’, Anna Karenina seems remarkable for the clarity and symmetry of its structure.”


Also, that through the character Levin, Tolstoy was able:

“…to voice through this autobiographical character, all his own obsessions concerning Russian society, politics, agriculture, philosophy and culture.”

I had not realised this before; that Levin is actually based on Tolstoy himself, and apparently Tolstoy’s early married life was something like Levin’s. So, that was something else that I discovered this time round. And leading on from this, I also found out quite a lot more about Tolstoy’s actual life. Tolstoy’s marriage must have been very romantic, but then it went very wrong. Indeed, Tolstoy’s marriage has been described by A. N. Wilson as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Perhaps, he would have preferred a more passionate person, like Anna.

Levin, of course, has a real social conscience and ponders the inequalities in society.

And as Tolstoy’s life progressed, he increasingly questioned the meaning of life, became very critical of his aristocratic background and concerned about poverty and destitution. He moved towards anarchism, pacifism, Christianity and vegetarianism. Someone at the dance also pointed out to me that Tolstoy heavily influenced Gandhi. And in regard to religion, we see for example that Levin:

“…had been mistaken in imagining from his recollections of his youthful university circle, that religion had outlived its day and no longer existed.” (p. 773)

After decades of agonising, at the age of 83 years, Tolstoy renounced his rank and privileges, gave his estate to his family, wore peasant clothes, walked out into the open, caught a chill and died.

And pondering various social issues we witness Levin saying this to Sviyazhsky on one occasion:

“How will schools help the peasants to improve their material conditions? You say that schools and education will give them new wants. So much the worse, for they won’t be able to satisfy them. And in what way knowing how to add and subtract and to say the catechism will help them to improve their material conditions, I never could understand!” (p. 332)

Then, much later, Levin:

“…having convinced himself that he could get no answer from the materialists, he read and re-read Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, those philosophers who explained life otherwise than materialistically.” (p.774)

As it says in the Introduction:
“Levin is able to enjoy the pleasures of his class, yet is responsible and profoundly concerned with issues of far wider relevance. In close contact with agriculture and nature, Levin embodies Tolstoy’s struggle towards an ideal way of life, whereas the relative frivolity and irresponsibility of Stiva and Vronsky, and Karenin’s preoccupation with appearances rather than truth, reflect the degeneration of the upper classes. Every element in the book impinges in some way on the intensely-felt lives of Anna or Levin, and the reader gains an extraordinary sense of intimacy with these two main characters, and even with the minor individuals thus portrayed.”

The Introduction then sums up the whole novel just so well, saying that:

“The richness and density of Anna Karenina are unparalleled. The novel addresses serious issues, such as the very nature of society at all levels, of destiny, death, human relationships and the irreconcilable contradictions of existence, with discerning insight. It ends tragically and there is much in it that evokes despair, yet set beside this is a genuine delight in many of life’s ephemeral pleasures, reflected in countless episodes and warm descriptions, and abundant comic relief. Ultimately, it is Anna’s overwhelming charisma that dominates the entire novel…No one can fail to forgive her, and she is surely one of the most loved and memorable heroines of fiction.”

Like Anna, I also feel things very deeply and passionately and have a strong mind of my own; indeed, I can very much identify with Anna on various levels (although she is in a completely different social class to me, of course). I find myself very drawn to her character.