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[146] Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy considers Anna Karenina his most complete novel. Critics might be thought otherwise, and pick War and Peace as the quintessential novel, one of the greatest in the species. Tolstoy views the latter no more than a historical chronicle. Anna Karenina is known the first novel because Tolstoy has deliberately embraced the conventional limits of the novel genre. The polemic of the book rests on the ordinariness of its small group of characters, who are related by birth and marriage. It sets in the present of Tolstoy’s time and deals with the personal side of upper-class family and social life. White it is considered an act of defiance at that time owing to its sarcastic nature, the novel delves in some of the most ordinary issues of the day. It’s a tissue of polemics on all the questions then being discussed among aristocrats and the newspapers. There are opposing views of Orthodox Christianity and atheism, arguments with the aristocracy as well as with the nihilists on feminist issues; with the conservative Slavophiles as well as with the radical populists on the question of the exact geographical location of the Russian soul; with both landowners and peasants on questions of farm management; and with advocates of old and new forces of political representation. All these issues, which seem extraneous to Anna and Vronksy’s adultery, is mediated by Konstantin Levin, who withdraws from his hope for the happiness that marriage is to have given him after Kitty has rejected him.

Of course, the enigma of Anna Karenina is at the heart of the novel, which for the most part explores the values of marriage and how women’s little control over their life deprives them of happiness. An inevitable question raises in my mind: Why would Tolstoy allow this fate for Anna, who is beautiful, wealthy, educated, and has an adored son and loving husband, consider that Tolstoy holds rather conservative views on women issues. For him, marriage and child-bearing are a woman’s essential tasks and family happiness is the highest human ideal. It is not until about half way through the book that we find out about how Anna comes to marry, at the age of eighteen, a man who is twelve years her senior, mistaking her wish to shine in society for love, how she discovers her full femininity only at the age of thirty. So Tolstoy portrays Anna not as guilty but as only deserving of pity, with diabolical passions and impulses like that she demonstrates at the ball when she entices Vronksy from Kitty.

Even though Tolstoy might sympathize with the adulterous wife and gradually enlarges the figure of Anna morally, the power of love as life purpose could not save her. Not only is she rejected by the snobbish society and ostracized, her husband refuses to grant a divorce. This tension in the individual between freedom and excitement of her own passionate imaginations is best demonstrated by Anna’s pursuit of love and happiness. She’s eddied in this personal conflict in which she feels so guilty that she will forever be the source of unhappiness to her husband. Not only does she later, in a state of delirium, renounce her happiness, she also imagines the cruelest words Vronksy could have said to her. This is when death presents itself to her clearly as the only way to restore the love for her in Vronsky’s heart. Her intense love and passion have turned into retribution–to punish and to triumph over Vronsky.

Levin’s only meeting with Anna finally reveals the subtle link between the “two sides” of the novel–the most obvious is the contrast of the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin with the tragic relation of Anna and Vronsky. This meeting reveals Anna’s truthfulness for she does not even conceal from him all the difficulty of her situation. Lies under the moral problem of adultery is also death, which Anna struggles and later to which she surrenders. While Levin struggles with suicidal thoughts as he loses the purpose of life, his realization that religion is the ultimate meaning of live, Anna perishes with the worldly love and desire that are just part of the plan to perfecting life. Her love for Vronsky cannot redeem her, and the death only fetters his life.

Anna Karenina: Love and Happiness

Anna Karenina Series 2

The adulterous and tragic affair of Anna and Count Vronsky is intertwined with the story of Levin and Kitty’s love in one of the world’s greatest novels. Kitty is pursued by two suitors. Levin is a wealthy landowner from the provinces who could move in aristocratic circles, but who prefers to work on his estate in the country. Levin tries unsuccessfully to fit into high society when wooing the young Kitty Shcherbatsky. She rejects Levin (the awkward intellectual, similar to Tolstoy himself) in favor of the more glamorous Count Vronsky; although deep in her heart she does feel affection for Levin. However, Kitty was just a plaything to Vronsky, to whom marriage life is a foreign concept. He soon falls in love with Anna and abandons Kitty, who lapses into a morbid irritation for which she takes covalescence at a German spa. Rejected by Kitty, heartsick Levin quits his bureaucratic job and returns to his country estate. He throws himself into developing new agricultural tools and working side-by-side with the peasants. His efforts with the peasants are not successful. Besides the wound of unrequited love, a depressed Levin has been questioning the meaning of life.

“First he decided from that day on not to hope any more for the extraordinary happiness that marriage was to have given him, and as a consequence not to neglect the present so much. Second, he would never again allow himself to be carried away by a vile passion, the memory of which had so tormented him as he was about to propose.” [92]

Late Levin and Kitty meet again–and both of them have changed. Levin wins her only when he allows himself to be himself.
The joyous, honest and solid relationship of Levin and Kitty is continually contrasted in the novel with that of Anna and Vronsky, which is tainted by its uncertain status (marriage) resulting in constant upheaval, backbiting, and suspicion. So by the time Anna commits the tragic act that takes her life, Tolstoy supposedly did not want readers to sympathize with her supposed mistreatment, but rather to recognize that it was her inability to truly commit to her own happiness or self-truth which leads to her ignominious end.

“He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superflouous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.” [396]

That is, when Levin becomes comfortable in his skin, and says it sincerely, she responses. The most beautiful thing happens after Kitty has read that he has written his diary with her in mind. She knows his whole soul through love, and in his soul she sees what she wants. How often do we really get to know someone but only let our stubborn reasonings get in the way of something that might flourish?

Further Reading
Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina Series 1

We all (maybe not all, but those who are familiar with the story through the movie) know the story: Anna Karenina is charmer. She has beauty, social position, wealth, a husband, and an adored son—except that her existence seems to be empty. When she meets Vronsky on the train to Moscow from Petersburg, ironically on a trip to help reconcile and mediate her brother’s marriage, she rejects her marriage and turns to him to fulfill her passionate nature. No she is not Madame Bovary, because Anna has the power to put people under her influence and make them fall in love with her. While her comrades feel that Anna is perfectly simple and keeps nothing hidden, but there is in her some other, higher world of interests, inaccessible to them, complex and poetic.

Like in War and Peace, Tolstoy does not confront us at the outset with the familiar lengthy description of a character, nor does he take refuge in the awkward flashback. The revelation of personality in real life comes about over a period of time by slow accretions, by the accumulation of much detailed information and understanding through innumerable small actions and intimacies. Maybe the slow progression makes Anna appear to be more likable even when she commits adultery that leads to devastating consequences.

Even though Vronsky importunates her with his presence, speaks to her whenever he can about his love, she never gives him any cause. But her soul has lit up with the feeling animation that has swept her on the day they first met. She clearly understands that from the sadness which has come over her that she is deceiving herself, that Vronsky’s pursuit not only is not unpleasant for her but constitutes the entire interest of her life. This book is about an agonizing personal conflict, with scattered notions of marriage values.

‘Then do this for me, never say these words to me, and let us be good friends,’ she said in words; but her eyes were saying something quite different.
‘We won’t be friends, you know that yourself. And whether we will be the happiest or the unhappiest of people—is in your power.’ [140]

This sentimental exchange seems almost too familiar to me!

Never Talk To Strangers

The Master and Margarita Series 1
…is the heading of the first chapter of The Master and Margarita. This might as well be some of the most intriguing opening chapters in any novels—a good example of the playwright at work. Readers will realize that Bulgakov is playing a very sophisticated trick as they flip the page to the second chapter—on Pontius Pilate, from the gospel, which I’ll defer until later. Bulgakov’s narrator at first seems to promise a conventional story, but this narrator turns out to be a very unreliable one. His style is misleading. When Berlioz, Ivan and Woland (the Devil) meet on the park bench, the major worlds of this novel meet. The discussion about theology which appears merely to be a pretext for Woland to make fun of the atheism of the two Soviet writers is, in fact, filled with clues to Bulgakov’s intentions when telling the story of Pontius Pilate, but like Berlioz and Ivan themselves, we are unable to discern these clues until he has finished the novel. The themes touched on in this opening chapter—fate, atheism, the existence of God and the Devil, and humanizing Jesus Christ—are part of the overture. Obviously, the transition from this chapter to the next, which is really the novel the Master is writing, is what makes Bulgakov so brilliant a writer who possesses a remarkable ability to combine seemingly disparate elements, especially language levels, in such a way that we as readers accept the whole as coherent. More about the Pilate chapter tomorrow.

[127] A Dead Man’s Memoir – Mikhail Bulgakov

bulgakovmemoir.jpgRussian Reading Challenge #4

A Dead Man’s Memoir is semi-autobiographical. The narrator, one mishap Sergei Maksudov, who has failed as a novelist and attempts to commits suicide (which turns out to be a farce), shadows Bulgakov’s life that was emblematic of the writer persecuted for his art. Almost all of Bulgakov’s work was censored by the early Soviet regime, including the famous The Master and Margarita (which I know you’re familiar) in which Stalin is portrayed to be Woland the Magician, a.k.a. Satan.

Maksudov is humbly scraping a living as a hack on the Shipping Herald. He does proofreading by day, but performs it mechanically so that his mind does not involve in it. He has a stroke of luck when a leading literary magazine publishes an extract from the novel he has been working on at night. Even though the conceited critics trample on it (some of them don’t even read the book) the exposure brings him to the notice of Moscow’s top theater, to which he signs away all rights in a play based on his novel.

Those who are familiar with the caprice of the entertainment business and brandished with common sense would perceive this liaison too good to be true to begin with. But to Maksudov, this is the hot ticket to the world that he has been striving to enter, the flamboyant theatrical world that bedazzles him—for he has cherished to become a writer. But the odd thing is that he immediately finds it unbearable. Soon he realizes that the inflated egos, the tyrannical theater director, the literary double-dealers, and the communist censors take turn to toy with his fate.

To his utter dismay is the outrageous changes that completely distort his scripts in order to suit the selfish purposes of the theater. Maksudov doesn’t want to perform a play that is so tattered, altered, and meaningless. But as a means to satirize, Maksudov later finds out the truth behind all these ridiculous undertakings. A hoax. Many figures from Russian literary and theatrical circles of the times are satirized, including Stanislavsky, whose method is brilliantly lampooned. The book, unlike The Master and the Margarita and Heart of a Dog, is devoid of political references. It focuses on the life of a struggling writer whose only wish is to be granted the right to exist along with his art.

Challenge Update

I totally agree with Andi that The Journal of Dora Damage should garner more attention and dance all over critics’ radar. It’s very intriguing read that not only Dora binds these pornographies for the high society behind her husband’s back, but she also suffers from the scruple of doing so. For she has navigated into areas for which her upbringing and society had not prepared her. But there is more to this bookbinding commission. I’m drowning right in the first twist and turn of the story and I simply cannot set the book down. More update and review later.

For Russian Reading Challenge 2008 I’ve got two down and just finished the third, Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir (also known as A Theatrical Novel), a somewhat unfinished (unresolved) novel that is emblematic of a writer persecuted. It was partially his own story of failing as a playwright that satirizes many of the contemporary artists. The ongoing read for this challenge is Anna Karenina which cross-lists the Chunkster Reading Challenge. Also lined up for this stunt is Ken Follett’s latest, World Without End, which Bookpuddle has read and recommended recently. I also read along Les Miserables (the unabridged edition) with some of you.

Ex Libris has mentioned the Man Booker Challenge hosted by The Hidden Side of a Leaf. I have yet to select my 6 Booker Prize short-listing/winners but plan to stop by the bookstore for some ideas before leaving for Beijing. I wonder if the recent Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner would qualify for this project? Other ideas include John Banville (a favorite author) and J.L. Carr. Last but certainly not the least, I read about the Novella Reading Challenge from Eva. I plan to read unheard-of titles from favorite authors like Naguib Mahfouz and John Banville. Included in her suggested list is Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander which if I remember correctly Danielle read last year.

Whoa so many books! They fall over me like blocks descending in the Tetris video game. Just a thought.

[120] Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

Russian Reading Challenge #3

heartdog.jpg“My hypothesis is that the grafted hypophysis has opened a speech center in the canine brain, and words have burst out in a stream. In my view, what we see is a resuscitated and expanded brain, and not a newly created one…And another hypothesis: during his canine existence, Sharik’s [a common name for dog in Russia] brain accumulated a mass of concepts. All the words he used in the beginning were gutter words. He heard them and stored them in his brain. Now as I walk in the street, I look at dogs with secret horror. Who knows what is hidden in their heads?” (63)

Like any dogs in cold Moscow, a scroungy mongrel has made peace with his fate, taking life one day at a time. Shaggy, lanky, tattered and most of all hungry, this mutt, which suffers from a scalded wound on one side, is in sheer luck when a lordly benefactor gives him a piece of fine sausage and leads to his apartment. But we know there must be more to the story, as there is no free lunches. The quality of sumptuous diet, along with the pampering, warmth, and comfort are only measures to strengthen Sharik for an operation.

Professor Philip Philippovich implants human testicles and pituitary gland from a recently-dead twenty-eight-year-old man into a stray dog to determine viability of such transplant and its effect on rejuvenation of human organism. In defiance of expected fatal outcome, the dog survives and shows sign of resuscitation. The creature proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, in both physical appearance and in speech.

“His appearance is strange. The fur remains only on his head, chin and chest. The rest of his body is bald, with flabby skin. In the genital area–a maturing man. The skull has grown considerably larger. The forehead is low and slanting.” (59)

So the outcome of the implant is humanization instead of rejuvenation. The creature’s words are no longer dissociated from surrounding facts, but are a direct reaction to them. Finding a niche of his talents, he makes a career as the director of a purge sub-section under the Moscow Communal Property Administration–chasing after stray animals, mostly cats. While chasing after one at the professor’s house, he wreaks a havoc in the form of a flood after breaking a water pipe.

Interpreted as a satire on the Soviet utopian attempt to radically improve human nature by creating a New Soviet man, or an improved human species, Heart of a Dog bears analogies to Dr. Faustus, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, but with an edge about a wry comment on scientist going too far. The historical prototype is a Russian-French surgeon, Serge Voronoff, who was known for his experiments on implanting humans with animal testicles and thyroid glands. Bulgakov satirizes the inconsistencies (and absurdities) of the system in which a man with a dog’s intelligence could become significant and influential. On the same note he praises the man who with his strong personalities and conviction could remain unaffected in the midst of insanity.

[116] Le Bal – Irène Némirovsky

Russian Reading Challenge #1

lebal.jpg

UK publishers are ahead of the game in releasing new translations of Irène Némirovsky’s other works after the thumping success of Suite Francaise. Browsing through Kinokuniya in Kuala Lumpur, I was excited to have found David Golder and La Bal, neither of which are available in the United States at the time of travel. This slim volume binds together two tales of 50 pages each that explore the same themes.

Le Bal is set in 1930s Paris. Némirovsky presents the Kampf family. Alfred Kampf, a German Jewish immigrant, struggles to be accepted for years until he makes a fortune on the stock market. Once wealthy, he marries Rosine, who becomes Madame Kampf, is a snob who enjoys denigrating other women for their dubious moral background. She is acrimonious, sullen, and pretentious. The opening sentences of this story, which is packed with actions and rich details, aptly summarizes the troubling dynamics of the relationship between Madame Kampf and her 14-years-old daughter Antoinette:

“Madame Kampf walked into the study and slammed the door behind her with such force that a gust of air made the crystal beads on the chandelier jingle with the pure, light sound of small bells. But Antoinette didn’t stop reading; she was bent so far forward over her desk that her hair brushed the pages of her book. For a moment, Madame Kampf watched her daughter without saying anything; then she went to stand in front of her, arms crossed over her chest.” (3)

How can one resist such intriguing opening? One senses a complex, standoffish, and hostile relationship, a product of years of living in fear of her parents. They frightened her with the roar of angry voice that resonates her head over the years. Hounded from morning to night, trapped in monotonous routine, she was subjected to humiliation and torture. Madame Kampf was obsessed with being accepted into the upper classes, material possessions, and status. The plan to give a ball was intended to confirm their acceptance into the Parisian high society, but her relationship with her daughter would intervene to give the tale a scathing twist. In an impulsive fury of adolescent rage and despair, Antoinette pulled a tantrum that would ruin her mother, for whom she felt contempt and scorn.

Snow in Autumn is set in revolutionary Moscow. It chronicles the life of a devoted servant following her masters as they flee Revolutionary Russia and emigrate to a life of hardship in Paris. For 51 years, Tartiana Ivanovrna cared for the children over three generations in the Karine family. As she watched the youngest son called up to war, she was resolved to stay and watch over the family property. Upon news of the family from Paris, she smuggled back the jewelry that was left under her guard to her master in order to cash in money. As the crisis pushed the Karine to brink of dissolution, the grown-up children found no use of the senile woman and chased her away. But Tartiana’s heart has been with the family house in Soukharevo, where she nourished and raised all the children against vicissitudes. As the Karines, having lost everything to warfare, desperate attempted to start a new life in a foreign country, the faithful nanny resorted to the beloved memories and waited in vain for her cherished first snows of autumn.

Duly bound together in one volume, the two classic tales present an insightful analysis of two recurring themes in Némirovsky’s works: the nuances in interaction between family members and how foreigners were treated with suspect in 1930s Parisian society. Némirovsky treats these emotions and feelings that associate to parting and loss with a touching sensitiveness.