Friday, 30 July 2021

Turgenev’s similes in First Love

First Love is about a 40-year-old Vladimir Petrovitch looking back at his first love—for a 21-year-old woman—when he was 16. My copy is translated by Constance Garnett. I’m not going to write much about either the story or the characters, this blog post is about similes. 

(emphases are mine) 

Here is Vladimir setting up the mood for his story: 

“I was all hope and anticipation, was a little frightened of something, and full of wonder at everything, and was on the tiptoe of expectation; my imagination played continually, fluttering rapidly about the same fancies, like martins about a bell-tower at dawn; I dreamed, was sad, even wept; but through the tears and through the sadness, inspired by a musical verse, or the beauty of evening, shot up like grass in spring the delicious sense of youth and effervescent life.” (Ch.1) 

There are 2 similes here, but the one that catches my attention more is “like martins about a bell-tower at dawn”. Birds. 

Now look at this passage, our boy Vladimir has fallen in love: 

“It is a storm, I thought; and a storm it really was, but it was raging so very far away that the thunder could not be heard; only blurred, long, as it were branching, gleams of lightning flashed continually over the sky; it was not flashing, though, so much as quivering and twitching like the wing of a dying bird. I got up, went to the window, and stood there till morning.… The lightning never ceased for an instant; it was what is called among the peasants a sparrow night. I gazed at the dumb sandy plain, at the dark mass of the Neskutchny gardens, at the yellowish facades of the distant buildings, which seemed to quiver, too, at each faint flash.… I gazed, and could not turn away; these silent lightning flashes, these gleams seemed in response to the secret silent fires which were aglow within me. Morning began to dawn; the sky was flushed in patches of crimson. As the sun came nearer, the lightning grew gradually paler, and ceased; the quivering gleams were fewer and fewer, and vanished at last, drowned in the sobering positive light of the coming day.…

And my lightning flashes vanished too. I felt great weariness and peace … but Zinaïda’s image still floated triumphant over my soul. But it, too, this image, seemed more tranquil: like a swan rising out of the reeds of a bog, it stood out from the other unbeautiful figures surrounding it, and as I fell asleep, I flung myself before it in farewell, trusting adoration.…” (Ch.7) 

2 bird similes. The entire passage is wonderful, but I especially like the originality of these images, especially when Turgenev compares lightning to “the wing of a dying bird”. 

Above are things being compared to birds, here’s a bird compared to a person: 

“… at that point my attention was absorbed by the appearance of a speckled woodpecker who climbed busily up the slender stem of a birch-tree and peeped out uneasily from behind it, first to the right, then to the left, like a musician behind the bass-viol.” (Ch.14)

I like that. Throughout First Love, the narrator compares his own feelings to fire a few times, or his thoughts to a hurricane, but those aren’t particularly interesting. I like the comparisons that are striking and unexpected, like the ones above. 

Here’s another animal simile, when Vladimir writes about his loss of interest in everything else and how he only hangs around Zinaida’s house all day: 

Like a beetle tied by the leg, I moved continually round and round my beloved little lodge.” (Ch.9) 

Turgenev’s comparisons are unusual. This comes from the scene where Zinaida and her mother, the old princess, visit Vladimir’s house and have dinner with the family and the entire time Zinaida ignores him: 

“I was standing there in my short jacket, staring at the floor, like a man under sentence of death.” (Ch.6)

That sounds melodramatic, but it fits in perfectly with the thoughts of a boy in love for the first time. 

This one is less striking, but also interesting:  

“My “passion” dated from that day. I felt at that time, I recollect, something like what a man must feel on entering the service: I had ceased now to be simply a young boy; I was in love.” (Ch.9) 

About halfway through the book, Zinaida starts a game of comparisons with the men and boys. 

““What are those clouds like?” questioned Zinaïda; and without waiting for our answer, she said, “I think they are like the purple sails on the golden ship of Cleopatra, when she sailed to meet Antony. Do you remember, Meidanov, you were telling me about it not long ago?”

All of us, like Polonius in Hamlet, opined that the clouds recalled nothing so much as those sails, and that not one of us could discover a better comparison.” (Ch.11)

I like that—he follows a Shakespeare reference with another Shakespeare reference. Later on, Vladimir compares himself to Othello. 

(A side note: I like that since I caught the Shakespeare bug and got into him properly, I’ve been seeing him everywhere. In Tolstoy. In Chekhov. In Balzac. And now in Turgenev. The Balzac story I read the other day but didn’t finish, “Another Study of Womankind”, also referenced Othello). 

I’ve seen that some reviewers remark on the “shocking reveal/ending”. I wasn’t shocked—I actually suspected it quite early on (First Love isn’t Emma). But I do think that the second half of the novella is better than the first. At the beginning, First Love gives the impression of being light, but it isn’t. 

A good read. 

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Sympathy: Chekhov on peasants

Look at this passage from “My Life”: 

“… I was growing used to the peasants, and I felt more and more drawn to them. For the most part they were nervous, irritable, downtrodden people; they were people whose imagination had been stifled, ignorant, with a poor, dingy outlook on life, whose thoughts were ever the same—of the gray earth, of gray days, of black bread, people who cheated, but like birds hiding nothing but their heads behind the tree—people who could not count. […] There really was filth and drunkenness and foolishness and deceit, but with all that one yet felt that the life of the peasants rested on a firm, sound foundation. However uncouth a wild animal the peasant following the plow seemed, and however he might stupefy himself with vodka, still, looking at him more closely, one felt that there was in him what was needed, something very important, which was lacking in Masha and in the doctor, for instance, and that was that he believed the chief thing on earth was truth and justice, and that his salvation, and that of the whole people, was only to be found in truth and justice, and so more than anything in the world he loved just dealing. I told my wife she saw the spots on the glass, but not the glass itself […] How could she forget that her father the engineer drank too, and drank heavily, and that the money with which Dubechnya had been bought had been acquired by a whole series of shameless, impudent dishonesties? How could she forget it?” 

Now look at this passage from “Peasants”, a story about a couple in Moscow who have a hard time and decide to return to the man’s family home in a village and live among peasants (the passage focuses on the perspective of the wife, Olga):  

“Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labor that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize?” 

(both translated by Constance Garnett)

It is incredible how Chekhov can write about peasants truthfully, without idealisation and without illusion, depicting all of their ignorance and pettiness and deceit and bad habits, but at the same time write with so much humanity and compassion.

In “Peasants” for example, Chekhov depicts Fyokla, one of the other daughters-in-law, as an unpleasant woman. Unlike the kind Marya, she is bitter, envious, and sarcastic, and often rebukes the family of Nikolai and Olga for coming and becoming a burden. She is a deeply unpleasant character. And yet one night, whilst everyone else is sleeping, Olga hears a soft tap at the window and opens the door to find Fyokla standing outside completely naked, having been undressed and turned out like that by some ruffians, you can’t help feeling sorry for her, especially that she’s now vulnerable and asking for help from a person to whom she has been hostile for some time.

A writer like Tolstoy may switch to Fyokla’s perspective and tell us her feelings, but Chekhov doesn’t. Instead, he writes:  

“All was stillness again. They always slept badly; everyone was kept awake by something worrying and persistent: the old man by the pain in his back, Granny by anxiety and anger, Marya by terror, the children by itch and hunger. Now, too, their sleep was troubled; they kept turning over from one side to the other, talking in their sleep, getting up for a drink.

Fyokla suddenly broke into a loud, coarse howl, but immediately checked herself, and only uttered sobs from time to time, growing softer and on a lower note, until she relapsed into silence.”

That is poignant. 

In “The New Villa”, Chekhov writes a variation of a basic idea of “My Life”. In “My Life”, an architect’s son and an engineer’s daughter decide to leave their own world and their own class, get married, move to the country and work on a farm, but they cannot get along with the peasants, keep getting cheated by them or getting into trouble with them, and soon the wife realises that it’s all a mistake, she cannot live such a life, and leaves. In “The New Villa”, an engineer builds a bridge in a village, then he and his wife like the area and build a villa, they try to be friendly and try to live on good terms with the peasants but fail and keep getting swindled by them or getting complaints from them, and in the end they have no choice but to move away. 

In “My Life”, Chekhov writes from the perspective of the “outsiders”. In “The New Villa”, he focuses more on the peasants. 

This is near the end (Elena Ivanovna is the engineer’s wife): 

“In their village, they mused, the people were good, quiet, sensible, fearing God, and Elena Ivanovna, too, was quiet, kind, and gentle; it made one sad to look at her, but why had they not got on together? Why had they parted like enemies? How was it that some mist had shrouded from their eyes what mattered most and had let them see nothing but damage done by cattle, bridles, pincers, and all those trivial things which now, as they remembered them, seemed so nonsensical? How was it that with the new owner they lived in peace, and yet had been on bad terms with the engineer?” 

(also translated by Constance Garnett) 

I should look at this passage now and then. As Scott commented on my blog post the other day about Chekhov, “his stories are already full of the ideas that life itself is beautiful and precious, and we ruin it for ourselves and each other through selfishness. There is, in Chekhov's opinion, no bigger idea than this, and he was examining this idea constantly, right there on the page.” 

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Chekhov’s sadness

From “A Woman’s Kingdom”:

“…she thought, too, that it was too late to dream of happiness, that everything was over for her, and it was impossible to go back to the life when she had slept under the same quilt with her mother, or to devise some new special sort of life.” 

From “Three Years”:

““However that may be, one has to give up all thoughts of happiness,” he said, looking out into the street. “There is none. I never have had any, and I suppose it doesn’t exist at all. I was happy once in my life, though, when I sat at night under your parasol. Do you remember how you left your parasol at Nina’s?” he asked, turning to his wife…”


“Laptev was convinced that the millions and the business which was so distasteful to him were ruining his life and would make him a complete slave. He imagined how, little by little, he would grow accustomed to his position; would, little by little, enter into the part of the head of a great firm; would begin to grow dull and old, die in the end, as the average man usually does die, in a decrepit, soured old age, making everyone about him miserable and depressed. But what hindered him from giving up those millions and that business and leaving that yard and garden which had been hateful to him from his childhood?” 

From “My Life”:

“I did not grieve for Dubechnya. I grieved for my love, which, too, was threatened with its autumn. What an immense happiness it is to love and be loved, and how awful to feel that one is slipping down from that high pinnacle!” 


“He was carried away by his subject, and no longer thought of my sister, nor of his grief, nor of me. Life was of absorbing interest to him. She has America and her ring with the inscription on it, I thought, while this fellow has his doctor’s degree and a professor’s chair to look forward to, and only my sister and I are left with the old things.” 

From “Peasants”:

“The river was crossed by a rickety little bridge of logs, and exactly below it in the clear, limpid water was a shoal of broad-headed mullets. The dew was glistening on the green bushes that looked into the water. There was a feeling of warmth; it was comforting! What a lovely morning! And how lovely life would have been in this world, in all likelihood, if it were not for poverty, horrible, hopeless poverty, from which one can find no refuge! One had only to look round at the village to remember vividly all that had happened the day before, and the illusion of happiness which seemed to surround them vanished instantly.” 


“Granny believed, but her faith was somewhat hazy; everything was mixed up in her memory, and she could scarcely begin to think of sins, of death, of the salvation of the soul, before poverty and her daily cares took possession of her mind, and she instantly forgot what she was thinking about.” 


“They lay down to sleep in silence; and the old people, troubled and excited by their reminiscences, thought how precious was youth, of which, whatever it might have been like, nothing was left in the memory but what was living, joyful, touching, and how terribly cold was death, which was not far off, better not think of it! The lamp died down. And the dusk, and the two little windows sharply defined by the moonlight, and the stillness and the creak of the cradle, reminded them for some reason that life was over, that nothing one could do would bring it back. . . . You doze off, you forget yourself, and suddenly someone touches your shoulder or breathes on your cheek—and sleep is gone; your body feels cramped, and thoughts of death keep creeping into your mind. You turn on the other side: death is forgotten, but old, dreary, sickening thoughts of poverty, of food, of how dear flour is getting, stray through the mind, and a little later again you remember that life is over and you cannot bring it back. . . .” 

All of these passages are translated by Constance Garnett. 


It’s interesting how last year I discovered many new writers and got some more favourites (Edith Wharton, Murasaki Shikibu, Soseki, Akutagawa, Cao Xueqin, etc.) but this year seems to be more like a year of rediscoveries. I read a few writers I never read before (kinda liked Marlowe, didn’t really get along with Ben Jonson, Balzac, nor Zola), but the main thing this year is that I reread Anna Karenina (again seeing it as the greatest novel of all time and the novel closest to my heart) and that I rediscovered Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov.

What is it about this year that I finally see the greatness that more or less eluded me several years ago? Or am I simply older?  

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Ideas in Chekhov: “The Murder” and “My Life”

One of my surprises reading Chekhov lately is that some of the stories contain ideas. Why is that surprising? For years I had a mental image of Chekhov as compassionate but cool and restrained, apolitical, writing about people’s lives and avoiding ideas. Part of it is true—his style is indeed quiet and understated—but it’s not true that his stories are all devoid of ideas. 

Take “The Murder” for example, which could be seen as story about faith and religion. The chief conflict between Matvei and his cousin Yakov is their clash over faith, specifically the question of what the best way to serve God is. Chekhov doesn’t reduce his characters to mere embodiments of ideas, but the question, the clash is central to the story as a whole. There’s a long scene of Matvei telling the waiter and the policeman about his faith and extreme religious rituals in his old days, and about his conversion. 

““… His words penetrated my soul; my eyes were opened. I listened, listened and—burst into sobs! ‘Be an ordinary man,’ he said; ‘eat and drink, dress and pray like everyone else. All that is above the ordinary is of the devil. Your chains,’ he said, ‘are of the devil; your fasting is of the devil; your prayer-room is of the devil. It is all pride,’ he said…

[…] And now I eat and drink like everyone else and pray like everyone else. . . . If it happens now that the priest smells of tobacco or vodka I don’t venture to blame him, because the priest, too, of course, is an ordinary man. But as soon as I am told that in the town or in the village a saint has set up who does not eat for weeks and makes rules of his own, I know whose work it is…”” 

(translated by Constance Garnett) 

The cousins clash because Matvei has changed, realising the unnaturalness and meaninglessness of his rituals, but Yakov hasn’t. 

At the end of the story, after Chekhov writes about the aftermath and some characters’ time in Sakhalin, we have this passage:

“Ever since he had lived in prison together with men banished here from all ends of the earth—with Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians, Chinese, Gypsies, Jews—and ever since he had listened to their talk and watched their sufferings, he had begun to turn again to God, and it seemed to him at last that he had learned the true faith for which all his family, from his grandmother Avdotya down, had so thirsted, which they had sought so long and which they had never found. He knew it all now and understood where God was, and how He was to be served, and the only thing he could not understand was why men’s destinies were so diverse, why this simple faith, which other men receive from God for nothing and together with their lives, had cost him such a price that his arms and legs trembled like a drunken man’s from all the horrors and agonies which as far as he could see would go on without a break to the day of his death.”

That is a poignant message. Chekhov doesn’t make it seem as though he wrote “The Murder” in order to send out a message about how to serve God and how to live, but the story is arguably about the question of religion and true faith. 

“My Life”, a long story or novella, also has ideas. The narrator Misail is an architect’s son and doesn’t want to do any job suitable for his class, so he becomes a house painter and then later, after getting married to a woman who admires his independence and radical ideas, starts working on a farm together with her. To put it in a simplistic way, “My Life” shows the complications when the intelligentsia return to manual labour, depicts the harsh reality of the working class, and destroys any idealisation or idylising of peasants—in a way the story feels anti-Tolstoyan and seems to subvert the Levin strand in Anna Karenina.

At the same time, Chekhov lets us understand why the narrator has to get away from his own world, his own class, which he sees as full of scoundrels and hypocrites. In “My Life”, there are discussions, debates, clashing perspectives, etc. Like Tolstoy (but without such a dominating personality) and like Shakespeare, Chekhov has voices and counter-voices, presenting different ideas and different perspectives, and depicting things as they are rather than push for a message. My surprise was that I didn’t expect to see such debates in Chekhov’s works. 

Interestingly, one thing makes me think of Tolstoy. One of the central themes in Anna Karenina is that people can’t change their nature and can’t help being themselves: Oblonsky can’t change who he is; Kitty wants to renounce vanity and pleasure and to be like Varenka but can’t change herself; Levin has a conversion at the end of the novel and thinks that everything would forever be altered but nothing changes, and so on. The same thing is in “My Life”: Masha feels drawn to Misail and fancies that she wants to become a simple peasant woman the same way she once fancied herself an opera singer, but can’t change herself and can’t adapt to the farm and life in the country; Misail’s sister Kleopatra stands up to their tyrannical father and escape from his control, only to be submissive and foolish to another man; the father doesn’t soften even when she’s dying; the failure of the marriage and farm life don’t make Misail return to office work or to the proper place of his class, as that would be against his nature, and he returns to working as a house painter, and so on.

These are such wonderful stories. 

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Rediscovering Chekhov: “Three Years” and “A Woman’s Kingdom”

I have read many books about marriages falling apart, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Effi Briest, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, The Custom of the Country, The Kreutzer Sonata, and so on. Chekhov’s long story or novella “Three Years” stands out as something quite different, something unique. I can’t help thinking that only Chekhov can pull off such a story—a story of a loveless marriage that starts in unpromising terms but doesn’t end in adultery or separation, a story in which nothing seems to happen but the characters mature over time and come to develop a bond with each other.

I find it hard to write about Chekhov’s art. Several years ago when I first read Chekhov, the same year I discovered other Russian writers, I found him a bit too quiet, too open and ambiguous, especially with the open, inconclusive endings. Now I’ve rediscovered him and found him to be a wonderful writer, but still find it hard to write about his writing. Like Ozu in cinema, Chekhov is subtle, quiet, without illusion about human nature. He avoids overt drama. How do you write about subtlety? How do you write about quietness? 

One of the things I’ve noticed is that in depiction of reality and approach to character, Chekhov is close to Tolstoy (more than Gogol or Dostoyevsky): both appear (deceptively) simple; both notice details, and capture all the complexity, all the shades and nuances; both aim for a truthful depiction of reality and present characters as they are, without judgment (though Chekhov goes further in this regard); both create complex, multifaceted characters and write about a wide range of characters, with compassion, etc.

Chekhov’s Russia, however, is very different from Tolstoy’s Russia—Tolstoy tends to focus on the upper class in his major works whereas Chekhov seems to write more about the middle class and working class. It’s fascinating to go from Anna Karenina, where women are aristocrats and do nothing, to Chekhov’s “A Woman’s Kingdom”, where the main character Anna Akimovna is a female factory owner. Most importantly, Chekhov and Tolstoy differ in temperament. Chekhov is neither interested in social issues nor in underlying messages, and his narrators are more invisible. His style is also quieter. Reading Tolstoy, I’m often overwhelmed and have some strong emotions, which I don’t really feel with Chekhov, but his stories often have a lingering effect. In “Three Years” for example, he skips everything about the baby’s illness and death, as well as the parents’ grief, and instead condenses everything into a single paragraph, a note from Laptev to his friend Yartsev before he and his wife return to Moscow. Tolstoy would write these scenes, Chekhov doesn’t. Then he writes that Yulia sometimes goes into a room to cry alone, but he doesn’t go with her. He writes enough, and it’s affecting. 

It’s hard to write about Chekhov because it’s hard to single out something as particularly good. Once in a while there’s a striking detail, such as the scene in “Three Years” where Laptev’s brother Fyodor has a mental breakdown, gets confused about the rooms, and when giving some water, bites into the jug and breaks into sobs. Generally Chekhov’s greatness is in the overall mood and overall effect, and everything contributes to it.

In “Three Years”, you see a good, timid man named Laptev, who is no longer young, fall in love with a woman named Yulia and propose to her, which she declines then accepts, because she feels bad for rejecting the offer of a kind man and because she’s afraid of rejecting a proposal only to later become an old maid. She isn’t attracted to him and doesn’t love him, and he knows it. Soon after the wedding, both realise they have made a terrible mistake, both feel miserable, and both keep asking themselves why this has happened. Yulia prefers to go out or spend time with Laptev’s friends, and they seem to know her better than he himself does. There’s a passage where Laptev wonders what Yulia thinks, talks, or prays about—her mind, her whole being is closed to him. But slowly, in a subtle and almost magical way, Chekhov lets us see that they mature over the three years, and that they come to respect and even love each other. There is no bang at the end, no sudden epiphany, and in a sense it’s not an obviously happy ending, but there is a realisation, there is hope, there is something different, and we know that they can now go through the difficulties of life together. 

In “A Woman’s Kingdom”, you meet Anna Akimovna, a factory owner and philanthropist. You see her sense of helplessness as she tries to manage a factory and other work and doesn’t quite know how. You see her terrible loneliness, her yearning to be loved, to get married. Others tell her to live, to have fun and have many lovers, or to get married and have some flings on the side, but all Anna Akimovna wants is a simple marriage with a workingman—a workingman like her father once was. She thinks she falls in love with Pimenov, a man working in the factory, and in a moment of fun and careless excitement, announces to others that she wants to get married to him, only to later realise that such dreams are impossible. 

“She lay down without undressing and sobbed with shame and depression: what seemed to her most vexatious and stupid of all was that her dreams that day about Pimenov had been right, lofty, honorable, but at the same time she felt that Lysevich and even Krylin were nearer to her than Pimenov and all the workpeople taken together. She thought that if the long day she had just spent could have been represented in a picture, all that had been bad and vulgar—as, for instance, the dinner, the lawyer’s talk, the game of “kings”—would have been true, while her dreams and talk about Pimenov would have stood out from the whole as something false, as out of drawing; and she thought, too, that it was too late to dream of happiness, that everything was over for her, and it was impossible to go back to the life when she had slept under the same quilt with her mother, or to devise some new special sort of life.” 

(translated by Constance Garnett) 

Barely anything happens in “A Woman’s Kingdom”, and yet the story haunts your mind—it’s too late to dream of happiness, and Anna Akimovna feels everything’s over for her. 

Wonderful stuff. 

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

100 latest films and plays I've watched

From January 2021 to July 2021
In bold: films/ plays that I think are good 

1/ Le Violon Rouge (The Red Violin- Canada, UK, Italy- 1998)- again
2/ 乱 (Ran- Japan- 1985)- again
3/ পথের পাঁচালী (Pather Panchali- India- 1955) 
4/ Macbeth (filmed play 1979, ft. Ian McKellen) 
5/ Othello (filmed play 2019, ft. Michael Blake) 
6/ অপরাজিত (Aparajito- India- 1956) 
7/ Love's Labour's Lost (1975) 
8/ Much Ado About Nothing (1993) 
9/ Educating Rita (1983) 
10/ Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn (2021)
11/ News of the World (2020) 
12/ Stacey Dooley Investigates, Canada's Lost Girls (2017) 
13/ 蜘蛛巣城 (Throne of Blood- Japan- 1957) 
14/ After Life (2019- 2020)- 12 episodes
15/ Much Ado About Nothing (2012) 
16/ 浮草 (Floating Weeds- Japan- 1959) 
17/ The Taming of the Shrew (American Conservatory Theater- 1976) 
18/ 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder- South Korea- 2003)- again 
19/ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) 
20/ Othello (filmed play 1990, ft. Willard White and Ian McKellen)
21/ When Nudes Are Stolen (2021) 
22/ Mank (2020)
23/ Druk (Another Round- Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden- 2020) 
24/ Nomadland (2020) 
25/ 미나리 (Minari- 2020) 
26/ Evil Under the Sun (1981) 
27/ Death on the Nile (1978) 
28/ The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)- again
29/ 麦秋 (Early Summer- Japan- 1951) 
30/ Verdi's Otello (opera- Scala di Milano 2001, ft. Placido Domingo)
31/ Three Identical Strangers (2018) 
32/ Poirot: Murder in the Mews (1989)
33/ Poirot: The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly (1989)
34/ Poirot: Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1989) 
35/ Poirot: The Third Floor Flat (1989)
36/ Poirot: Triangle at Rhodes (1989) 
37/ Poirot: Problem at Sea (1989) 
38/ Poirot: The Incredible Theft (1989) 
39/ Measure for Measure (1979 BBC) 
40/ Poirot: The King of Clubs (1989) 
41/ Poirot: The Dream (1989)
42/ Poirot: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (1989) 
43/ Poirot: Peril at End House (1990) 
44/ Poirot: The Veiled Lady (1990) 
45/ Poirot: The Lost Mine (1990) 
46/ Poirot: The Cornish Mystery (1990) 
47/ Poirot: The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (1990) 
48/ Poirot: Double Sin (1990)
49/ Poirot: The Adventure of the Cheap Flat (1990) 
50/ Poirot: The Kidnapped Prime Minister (1990) 
51/ Poirot: The Adventure of the Western Star (1990) 
52/ Poirot: The Double Clue (1991)
53/ Poirot: How Does Your Garden Grow (1991) 
54/ Poirot: The Affair at the Victory Ball (1991) 
55/ Poirot: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (1991)
56/ Poirot: The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge (1991) 
57/ Poirot: The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (1991) 
58/ Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1991) 
59/ The Taming of the Shrew (1980 BBC) 
60/ Poirot: The Plymouth Express (1991) 
61/ Poirot: The Theft of the Royal Ruby (1991) 
62/ Poirot: The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor (1991)
63/ Poirot: Wasps' Nest (1991)
64/ Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993) 
65/ Poirot: The Underdog (1993) 
66/ Poirot: The ABC Murders (1992) 
67/ Poirot: Death in the Clouds (1992) 
68/ Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993) 
69/ Poirot: Case of the Missing Will (1993) 
70/ Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993) 
71/ Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993) 
72/ Poirot: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1992) 
73/ Poirot: Dead Man's Mirror (1993) 
74/ Poirot: Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993) 
75/ Poirot: Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995) 
76/ Poirot: Hickory Dickory Dock (1995) 
77/ Poirot: Murder on the Links (1996)
78/ Poirot: Dumb Witness (1996) 
79/ Othello (1981 BBC) 
80/ Poirot: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (2000) 
81/ Poirot: Lord Edgware Dies (2000) 
82/ Poirot: Evil Under the Sun (2001) 
83/ Poirot: Murder in Mesopotamia (2002) 
84/ Poirot: Five Little Pigs (2003) 
85/ Ace in the Hole (1951)- again 
86/ Poirot: Sad Cypress (2003) 
87/ Poirot: The Hollow (2004) 
88/ Clarkson's Farm (2021)- 8 episodes 
89/ Under the Skin: The Botched Beauty Business (2021) 
90/ Prosecutors: Modern Day Slavery (2018) 
91/ Poirot: Mystery of the Blue Train (2006) 
92/ Bad Influencer: The Great Insta Con (2021) 
93/ Catch Her If You Can (2020) 
94/ Poirot: After the Funeral (2005) 
95/ Poirot: Death on the Nile (2004) 
96/ A Letter to Three Wives (1949) 
97/ Poirot: Cards on the Table (2005) 
98/ Poirot: Taken at the Flood (2006) 
99/ Poirot: Mrs McGinty's Dead (2008) 
100/ Poirot: Cat Among the Pigeons (2008) 

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Rereading Anna Karenina: Part 8 and the ending

1/ Nabokov’s lecture on Anna Karenina (from Lectures on Russian Literature) is a great companion to Tolstoy’s novel.

One of his most interesting points in the lecture is time: it’s not mentioned anywhere in the novel but Nabokov calculates that the action of Anna Karenina starts at 8am on Friday, February 11th (old calendar) in 1872 and Anna commits suicide on a Sunday evening in May 1876. 

He explains: 

“Oblonski reads in his morning paper about Count Beust, Austrian Ambassador to London, traveling through Wiesbaden on his way back to England. […] This would be just before the thanksgiving service for the recovery of the Prince of Wales, which took place Tuesday, February 15/27, 1872; and the only possible Friday is Friday 11/23 of February, 1872.”

The year of Anna’s suicide is easier to deduce because in the following chapter after her death, Tolstoy mentions the Serbian- Turkish wars, which started in June 1876.

Nabokov provides a more detailed timeline of Anna and Vronsky:

“The political events on the eve of the Turkish War, as alluded to in the last part of the novel, set its end at July 1876. Vronski becomes Anna's lover in December 1872. The steeplechase episode occurs in August 1873. Vronski and Anna spend the summer and winter of 1874 in Italy, and the summer of 1875 on Vronski's estate; then, in November, they go to Moscow, where Anna commits suicide on a Sunday evening in May 1876.”

Another interesting thing Nabokov points out is the time difference between the Anna strand and the Levin strand: even though Tolstoy moves harmoniously between the 2 strands of story and creates the illusion of parallels, in some parts there’s a gap of about a year or more than a year—Anna’s story moves faster than Levin’s, as Anna and Vronsky gallop to their destruction whereas the journey of Levin and Kitty is more open-ended.

2/ After Anna’s death at the end of Part 7, Tolstoy begins Part 8 by writing about Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshev (Levin’s half-brother, the Turgenev character). It works perfectly: generally in the novel, Tolstoy follows a strand of story and builds it up, and when it gets to the peak, he switches to the other strand till it gets to the peak, and switches again (the same rule for telling parallel stories in cinema). After the emotionally draining chapters that lead up to Anna’s suicide, he has to switch to something still, quiet, and that is Sergey Ivanovich’s story. By writing that Sergey Ivanovich, after the failure of his book, gets interested in the Serbian wars and is now on the way to see Levin, Tolstoy can let him, and thus the reader, meet Vronsky at the train station.

In Anna Karenina (and other works), Tolstoy has 2 main ways of moving between strands or groups of characters: either the narrator makes a jump (when the story gets to the peak), or a character moves from one place to another and the narrative then follows another character who appears in the same scene. There’s lots of travelling, and everything feels natural and harmonious.

At the train station, before seeing Vronsky, Sergey Ivanovich meets Oblonsky. As usual, he’s jolly and cheerful—nothing can hurt him deeply, nothing can sadden him for long, even his sister’s recent terrible death.    

“‘You don’t say!’ he exclaimed when the Princess told him that Vronsky was going on this train. For a brief moment Stepan Arkadyich’s face expressed sadness, but a minute later, when, with a slight spring in his step and smoothing his whiskers, he went into the room where Vronsky was, he had already completely forgotten his desperate sobbing over his sister’s dead body, and saw in Vronsky only a hero and an old friend.” (P.8, ch.2) 


“‘There he is!’ said the Princess, indicating Vronsky in a long overcoat and a black, wide-brimmed hat, walking along with his mother on his arm. Oblonsky was walking beside him, talking avidly about something.

Frowning, Vronsky was looking straight in front of him, as if not hearing what Stepan Arkadyich was saying.” (ibid.) 

Looking at (Stepan Arkadyich) Oblonsky, I can’t help thinking of this Hamlet soliloquy:

“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed 

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on't! ah, fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this:

But two months dead, nah, not so much, not two…” 

(Hamlet, Act 1 scene 2)

What’s a life worth if it’s forgotten so soon after death?

Vronsky however is nothing like Oblonsky. Nor is he like Emma Bovary’s lovers, Rodolphe and Léon. Again, placing Madame Bovary next to Anna Karenina, one can’t help seeing a smallness to Emma’s character—she is hollow and her affairs all seem so futile and stupid. Anna and Vronsky do love each other, even if their love is in some way destructive. His mother, Countess Vronskaya, doesn’t get it but he feels deeply. The Vronsky that loves Anna, I can’t help thinking, is different from the Vronsky that plays with Kitty’s feeling at the beginning of the book—his love for Anna ennobles him.

It’s a heart-rending scene, all the more because of the casual way Countess Vronskaya dismisses it and the way almost everyone, including Oblonsky, seems to just move on with their lives. 

3/ The great thing about Tolstoy’s characters is that his characters, like real people and better than any other writer’s characters, are complex and full of self-contradictions. But at the same time they’re still recognisably themselves and can’t help being themselves: Oblonsky for example is a man of pleasure and cannot feel anything very deeply; Levin always tries to be better, etc. Their essences, to use James Wood’s word, are always the same. 

Tolstoy often uses leitmotif, which makes it easier for readers to remember his vast range of characters, such as Oblonsky’s beaming smile, Kitty’s innocent eyes and radiant smile, Karenin’s shrill voice and the way he cracks his fingers, Anna’s round arms and shoulders, Veslovsky’s fat legs, etc. 

Vronsky’s leitmotif is his strong, even teeth and the last time we see him, he’s having a toothache.

4/ Anna dies, but the novel doesn’t end. There is another tragedy and that is Dolly’s tragedy of being married to a man like Oblonsky—she is not any less of a tragic figure than Anna has been. 

“Two weeks earlier a penitent letter from Stepan Arkadyich had arrived for Dolly. He begged her to save his honour by selling her estate to pay his debts. Dolly was in despair, she hated her husband, despised him, pitied him, made up her mind to obtain a divorce and refuse him, but she ended up agreeing to sell part of her estate.” (P.8, ch.7)

In the novel, the Anna strand and the Levin strand act as counterpoint to each other, and it may be argued that through the two couples, Tolstoy contrasts two kinds of love—passionate love (like between Anna and Vronsky) and a more prosaic love, based on compatibility, trust, and understanding (like between Kitty and Levin)—but the characters are not complete opposites. In fact, I would say that all four characters have something in common: they are all truthful, and all feel deeply. Part of Anna’s tragedy is that she feels tormented and cannot live in deceit like many others do in high society. Vronsky himself also wants truth and clarity. More importantly, for all of their faults, they both have depth of feeling. 

Oblonsky, in contrast, doesn’t. He cannot feel anything deeply. He cannot feel bad for long, and has no guilty conscience about cheating on his wife and neglecting his children. And he lives for only himself, and his own pleasures. 

5/ Unlike some readers, I find Levin’s conversion in the final part of the novel fascinating. It’s partly because Levin’s thoughts act as a counterpoint to Anna’s thoughts before her suicide (though some of his thoughts actually echo hers), and partly because his existential crisis, especially when he watches the peasants and thinks that they all are going to die and be buried, makes me think of Hamlet’s Yorick speech. I don’t think the chapters are didactic because Levin still has a questioning attitude, as he does for the entire novel. He still has some questions and is by no means certain about anything. 

See Levin, when he thinks he has found the meaning of life: 

“He now perceived his brother and his wife and the unknown visitor in a different way than before. It seemed to him that his relations with everyone would be altered.” (P.8, ch.14) 

The feeling doesn’t last long. Soon after, a coachman gets on his nerves. 

“This sort of interference riled him just as much as it always did, and it was with sadness that he immediately recognized how mistaken he had been in presuming that his spiritual state of mind could instantly change him when he came back into contact with reality.” (ibid.) 

And later: 

“He recalled that he had already managed to lose his temper with Ivan, treat his brother coldly, and talk in an offhand manner to Katavasov.

‘Was that really just an ephemeral state of mind which will vanish without trace?’ he thought.” (ibid.)

It reminds me of Kitty’s time in Germany—inspired by Varenka, she wants to change, to make sacrifices and live a simpler life, but cannot change herself. Levin cannot change himself either. As we see in his conversation with the over-intellectual and idealistic Koznyshev and some others, Levin remains the same.

And yet something is different. To steal Himadri’s line, “the possibility of a new approach to life has dawned on him: and on this note – a note not by any means of certainty – the novel ends.” (full post

6/ The final chapters of Anna Karenina are also fascinating because there are 3 main things happening: Levin’s conversion, the debate about the Serbian-Turkish wars, and Levin’s married life.

The debate is interesting because, as I’ve written before, Tolstoy depicts different perspectives and different voices, and we can see the difference between Levin and his idealistic half-brother Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshev. This is a character I didn’t remember after my last read, but I think now I’m going to remember him—it’s not hard to guess what his politics would be if he were alive today.

But the best part of the last chapters is the way Tolstoy writes about Levin’s married life, especially that scene of Kitty giving a bath to their baby Mitya. 

“The point was that Mitya had clearly and unmistakably begun to recognize his own family that day.

As soon as Levin had come up to the bath an experiment was carried out in front of him, and the experiment was a complete success. The cook, who had been specially summoned for this, replaced Kitty and bent over the baby. He frowned and started shaking his head. Then when Kitty bent over him, his face lit up with a smile, and he pushed his little hands into the sponge and burbled with his lips, making such a happy and strange sound that not just Kitty and the nanny but also Levin were lost in unexpected admiration.” (P.8, ch.18) 

This is magnificent. Levin has begun to love his baby. 

(These passages come from Rosamund Bartlett’s translation). 

After nearly 5 weeks, I have now finished rereading Anna Karenina. It is perhaps the greatest novel of all time. Nothing else like this (except War and Peace).

I love it even more than I thought. What a wonderful novel.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Rereading Anna Karenina: Parts 6 and 7

1/ In the previous blog post, I wrote that Tolstoy didn’t seem to allow Anna sexual pleasure. 

Look at this line about Levin and his wife Kitty:

“He had already forgotten that fleetingly disagreeable impression, and alone with her now, with the thought of her pregnancy never leaving him for an instant, he experienced the radiant pleasure, still novel to him, of an intimacy with the woman he loved which was completely free of sensuality.” (P.6, ch.3)

That comes from my current copy, translated by Rosamund Bartlett. To be sure, I’m also putting here the same line from the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude: 

“He had already forgotten that momentarily unpleasant impression, and being alone with her experienced, now that the thought of her pregnancy never left him, a feeling still novel and joyful to him of pleasure, entirely free from sensuality, at the nearness of a beloved woman.” 

Couldn’t help noticing “an intimacy […] which was completely free of sensuality”. I love Tolstoy, but I do think that one of his biggest problems is his unhealthy view of sex. 

2/ Here’s an idea I stole from Tom of Wuthering Expectations: Levin’s brother Nikolay, who has a prostitute girlfriend and dies from consumption, is a Dostoyevsky character; Levin’s other brother Sergey Koznyshev, who is over-intellectual and incapable of love, is a Turgenev character.

The scene of Sergey and Varenka picking mushrooms in the woods is magnificent. A bit infuriating, but magnificent.  

3/ Tolstoy likes to enter the mind of everybody, and does it better, more convincingly than any other novelist I’ve read. Sometimes he also writes from the point of view of a horse or a dog (though I wish he had also written about cats). This for example is an interesting passage about Levin’s dog Laska, from the hunting scene: 

“Levin was longing to drink some vodka and eat a piece of bread. He was exhausted, and felt he could only just pull his tottering legs out of the quagmire, so for a moment he hesitated. But Laska was pointing. All his tiredness vanished in an instant, and he walked easily through the quagmire towards his dog. A snipe flew out from under his feet; he fired and killed it, but the dog continued to point. ‘Fetch!’ Another bird flew up from under the dog. Levin fired. But it was not his lucky day; he missed, and when he went to look for the one he had killed, he could not find that either. He trawled through all the sedges, but Laska did not believe he had shot anything, and when he sent her to search, she pretended she was searching, but was not really searching.” (P.6, ch.10)

Later on, in chapter 12, Tolstoy describes the hunt almost entirely from Laska’s point of view, and yet it works perfectly. 

How many writers can pull off something like this? 

4/ As Dolly is on the way to see Anna and Vronsky, she meets a young woman who has just lost her baby. The woman says “‘What is there to miss? The old man has grandchildren enough as it is. They’re just trouble. You can’t work or do anything. They just tie you down.’” (P.6, ch.16). That is shocking, but as Dolly thinks more about it, she can’t help thinking there’s some truth in those cynical words. 

“…thought Darya Alexandrovna as she looked back over her whole life during the fifteen years she had been married, ‘it’s just been pregnancy, nausea, dull-wittedness, indifference to everything, and above all looking hideous. Even Kitty, young and pretty Kitty, has lost her looks, but when I’m pregnant I become hideous, I know. Labour, suffering, hideous suffering, that last moment … then the feeding, those sleepless nights, that dreadful pain …

[…] And what is it all for? What will it all lead to? To me living out my life without a moment’s peace, either pregnant or breastfeeding, permanently cross, grumpy, worn out myself and wearing other people out, repulsive to my husband, while the children will grow up unhappy, badly brought up, and poor…’” (ibid.) 

This, ladies and gentlemen, comes from a writer that many readers call a misogynist. 

Many readers, for some reason, are so fixated on Anna’s downfall and the ending that they’re blind to the understanding and sympathy Tolstoy has for the women in Anna Karenina, especially Dolly. One may argue that the author depicts Dolly’s illusions about Anna’s life, and her daydreams, only to show her later realise that Anna has changed and isn’t truly happy, but the fact remains that Dolly is an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a woman worn out by her several children and unloved by her husband. 

After the conversation with Anna, Dolly chooses her children, as a mother does, but throughout the novel, Tolstoy doesn’t describe her life as all good and easy. He doesn’t idealise it. 

I note that Dolly is one of the few characters in the book who are kind and not hypocritical. Tolstoy depicts Princess Varvara, for example, as a hypocrite who pretends to be nice to Anna only to enjoy the comfort at Vronsky’s house; Betsy is also a hypocrite, who has an affair herself but abandons Anna because of her awkward position in society; Karenin’s only friend, Countess Lydia Ivanova, is sanctimonious and her devotion to Karenin isn’t entirely innocent; Karenin himself isn’t entirely honest either, he is self-righteous and uses religion as an emotional crutch, etc. Dolly, in contrast, is a good woman and not a hypocrite. Tolstoy has compassion for her, and her suffering.

5/ Through Varenka Veslovsky (Kitty’s flirtatious cousin), Tolstoy again subtly contrasts Anna and Kitty, Vronsky and Levin.

The contrast between the 2 men becomes even more obvious as Vronsky, now that he has left the army, becomes a landowner like Levin and joins the zemstvo and devotes his time to public duties, like Levin used to do. 

I like that Levin, in spite of himself, comes to like both Vronsky and Anna. 

6/ I haven’t said anything about Tolstoy’s metaphors and similes. They tend to be more straightforward than, and not as striking as, Flaubert’s metaphors and similes. But sometimes they can be very interesting.  

For example, this is how Dolly feels pretending to enjoy a game at Vronsky’s house.

“All that day she had felt she was acting in a theatre with actors who were better than she was, and that her bad acting was ruining the whole show.” (P.6, ch.22) 

I like that.

This one is about Levin trying to sort out a business for his sister who lives abroad. 

“All this fuss and bother, the endless going from one place to another, the conversations with very kind, good people, who completely understood the unpleasantness of the petitioner’s position but could not assist him—all this effort without any result produced in Levin a ghastly feeling which was akin to that exasperating sense of powerlessness experienced in dreams when one wants to apply physical force.” (P.6, ch.26) 

Straight to the point. 

7/ There are 3 different portraits of Anna in the novel: one in Karenin’s room, one by Vronsky, and one by an artist named Mikhailov.

This is the first painting: 

“Above the armchair hung an oval portrait of Anna in a gold frame, which had been finely executed by a famous artist. Alexey Alexandrovich glanced at it. Her inscrutable eyes fixed him with a mocking, brazen stare as they had on the evening of their altercation. The sight of the black lace on her head, her black hair, and beautiful white hand with its fourth finger covered with rings, superbly painted by the artist, also struck Alexey Alexandrovich as unbearably brazen and defiant. After looking at the portrait for a minute, such a shudder ran through Alexey Alexandrovich that his lips quivered and uttered the sound ‘brr’, and he turned away.” (P.3, ch.14)

This is Mikhailov’s painting:

“From the fifth sitting onwards the portrait astonished everyone, and Vronsky in particular, not only with its likeness but also its special beauty. It was uncanny how Mikhailov had been able to uncover her special beauty. ‘One would have had to know and love her as I have loved her to uncover that most endearing heartfelt expression of hers,’ thought Vronsky, although he had only discovered this most endearing heartfelt expression of hers from the portrait. But this expression was so truthful that he and others felt they had known it for a long time.” (P.5, ch.13) 

Later, when Levin looks at the same painting:  

“While Stepan Arkadyich went behind the lattice screen and the man’s voice which had been speaking fell silent, Levin gazed at the portrait, which stood out from the frame in the gleaming light, and could not tear himself away from it. With his eyes riveted on the remarkable portrait and not listening to what was being said, he even forgot where he was. This was not a painting but an enchanting living woman with curly black hair, bare arms and shoulders, and a pensive half-smile on lips covered with soft down, looking at him triumphantly and tenderly with eyes which unnerved him. The only thing which showed she was not alive was that she was more beautiful than a living woman could be.” (P.7, ch.9) 

Then Levin sees the real Anna: 

“She was less dazzling in reality, but in the flesh there was also something new and alluring about her that was not in the portrait.” (ibid.) 


“… With this expression on her face she was even more beautiful than before; but this expression was new; it lay beyond the range of expressions radiating and transmitting happiness that had been captured by the painter in the portrait. Levin looked again at the portrait and at her figure as she took her brother’s arm and proceeded through the tall doors with him, and he felt a tenderness and pity for her that took him quite by surprise.”(P.7, ch.10) 

I don’t have much to say about the 3 portraits, for now, but these passages are so good.

It seems to be a mistake on Tolstoy’s part that Levin and Oblonsky have been childhood mates but Levin has never met Anna till this scene, but it doesn’t matter because the scene is excellent. 

8/ I shall not write about the childbirth scene, which is one of the greatest scenes in the novel. Instead, I want to write briefly about the scene of Oblonsky seeing Karenin with Countess Lydia Ivanova and Landau (P.7, ch.21-22).

It is a simple enough scene with 4 main characters, but there are many things going on at the same time. At the centre of action, Oblonsky, Karenin, and the Countess are there to talk about Anna’s request for divorce; in the background are Landau the clairvoyant, who looks at portraits or walks about and does his own thing, and the footman, who occasionally interrupts the conversation by giving Lydia Ivanova something and takes her order.

In the conversation itself, Oblonsky wants to plead Anna’s case but Karenin seemingly prefers to rely on Lydia Ivanova, and Lydia Ivanova is more interested in talking about Landau and religion.

Tolstoy writes the scene from Oblonsky’s perspective and there are 2 things going on within him: he’s asking for a divorce for Anna, and at the same time thinking about a job position he means to ask Lydia Ivanova to put in a word for him. Because of the favour, the second motive, Oblonsky can neither state his views strongly, nor go as far as he should in the matter of Anna, and risk offending the Countess.

In short the scene has several layers, and several things taking place at the same time. Under Tolstoy’s skilful hand, it all flows perfectly and feels so natural—it even feels simple. 

9/ For now, I shall not write about Anna’s death. The chapters are emotionally draining, and just unbearable. 

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Rereading Anna Karenina: Parts 4 and 5

1/ In Part 4 chapter 12, in the dinner scene, Tolstoy has a minor character called Pestsov say “inequality in marriage lay in the fact that a wife’s infidelity and a husband’s infidelity were not punished equally, either by the law or by public opinion”. Tolstoy himself demonstrates it in the novel—through Anna’s infidelity and her brother Stepan’s infidelity. He also shows later that society’s doors continue to be open for Vronsky but closed to Anna. 

The dinner scene is very good: there are a few debates, and again Tolstoy has voices and counter-voices, as in Shakespeare, and conveys everyone’s personality. Oblonsky (Stepan Arkadyich) for example is the genial host, who gets all the different guests to mingle (which his wife hasn’t been able to do before his late arrival) and who always knows when to intervene when the conversation touches a sore point of anyone present. Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshev (Levin’s half-brother) is intellectual and has his own opinions, but has the talent to tell a joke to make everyone laugh and end a serious discussion. 

In the same room are Levin and Kitty, but they’re in their own world.

“… he felt that he and Kitty were the only people who existed, not just in that room, but in the whole world. He felt he was at such a high altitude that his head was spinning, while somewhere far away down below were all those nice, good Karenins, Oblonskys, and the rest of the world.” (P.4, ch.9) 

That is like Anna and Vronsky in the ball scene: 

“[Kitty] could see they felt they were on their own in the crowded ballroom.” (P.1, ch.13)

(Translated by Rosamund Bartlett)

The story moves seamlessly between different groups of characters in the same room, and different moods—it is magnificent, especially when Tolstoy moves from Karenin and Dolly, a scene of suffering and sympathy, to the scene of Levin and Kitty, who feel they’re the happiest in the world. The Anna strand and the Levin strand act as counterpoint to each other and it’s most obvious in these chapters: as Karenin is planning for divorce, Levin gets engaged to Kitty.

2/ Tolstoy is brutally “honest” about Karenin’s thoughts on the way to Anna after her “Am dying” telegram: 

“He could not think about it, because when he imagined what might happen, he could not dispel the idea that her death would at one stroke undo all the difficulty of his position. Bakers, closed-up shops, night cabbies, street-cleaners sweeping the pavements flashed in front of his eyes, and he observed all of this, trying to stifle within himself the thought of what awaited him and what he dared not wish for, but nevertheless did wish for.” (P.4, ch.17) 

Uncertain about whether Anna’s request is genuine or a trick, but not wanting others to condemn him in case she dies, Karenin hurries home, and gets told that she safely gave birth the day before.

“Alexey Alexandrovich stopped and turned pale. He now clearly understood how intensely he had wanted her to die.

‘And how is she?’

Korney came running down the stairs in his morning apron.

‘Very poorly,’ he answered. ‘There was a doctors’ consultation yesterday, and the doctor is here now.’

‘Take my things,’ said Alexey Alexandrovich, and feeling slightly relieved at the news that there was still a hope she might die, he went into the hall.” (ibid.) 

This is a man who talks about God and religion. This is a man who talks about love and duty and forgiveness. 

But everything changes when Karenin sees Anna, as she’s close to death. There is something here, something I can’t explain. Anna and Karenin and Vronsky seem to enter a heightened state of consciousness, and do things they themselves don’t understand and can’t rationalise. It is sublime. 

3/ Part 4 is where Karenin becomes more magnanimous and dignified whilst Anna and Vronsky appear small and selfish. When I read Anna Karenina the first time, I thought this was Tolstoy siding with Karenin. 

However, it’s more nuanced and complex. As written above, on the way home, Karenin wishes Anna to die. 

Now look at this little moment of Karenin, when Oblonsky persuades him to agree to a divorce:

“And turning away so that his brother-in-law could not see him, he sat down on a chair by the window. He felt bitter, he felt ashamed; but alongside this bitterness and shame he felt joy and awe at his supreme humility.” (P.4, ch.22) 

He feels good about his own goodness—that doesn’t sound truly good, does it? 

At the same time, Tolstoy includes two significant things for the reader to see: firstly, Anna is hopelessly stuck and even if she can obtain the divorce, the ecclesiastical law wouldn’t allow her to marry again whilst the ex-husband is alive, and she would be ruined; secondly, Oblonsky points out that Karenin is 20 years older than Anna and they married without love, so their marriage is nothing like the marriage between Levin and Kitty. Regardless of his own views and opinions, Tolstoy presents the full picture, showing all the facts and nuances and complexities, and we can judge for ourselves. 

4/ The chapters leading up to the Levin-Kitty engagement and the scene of the engagement itself filled me with such joy and happiness, as though they’re real people. Tolstoy, I think, can write about all kinds of human experience and all kinds of emotions, and he does it better than any other novelist. 

5/ I’ve noted the subtle way Tolstoy draws the 2 main strands together. 

Levin and Karenin both react to an emotional blow (Kitty’s rejection and Anna’s affair respectively) by burying themselves in their work. 

Kitty goes to Europe (Germany) during her illness, Anna and Vronsky go to Europe (Italy) after their near-death experience. 

Anna gives birth, later Kitty also gives birth. 

In Part 4, the narrative moves between Karenin preparing for divorce and Levin getting engaged to Kitty.  

In Part 5, the story moves from the wedding of Levin and Kitty, to the “honeymoon” of Anna and Vronsky in Italy, then from the ennui and dissatisfaction of Vronsky and Anna, it moves to the disenchantment at the beginning of Levin and Kitty’s marriage. 

6/ Speaking of “honeymoon”, I can’t help noticing that Tolstoy doesn’t seem to allow Anna sexual pleasure. The first time she and Vronsky have sex, it doesn’t seem that enjoyable—she is filled with shame and guilt. If she enjoys it at other times, Tolstoy doesn’t mention it. 

Contrast that with the way Flaubert writes Emma Bovary or Zola writes Thérèse Raquin: we know Emma and Thérèse love sex (or maybe they’re just French).

This is a remark more than a complaint—not writing about women enjoying sex seems to be the norm in 19th century literature.  

(By the way, in Shakespeare there are a few women that like/want sex: Emilia from Othello, Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well, Lady Percy from Henry IV, Part 1, etc.) 

7/ See what Levin says to Oblonsky at the beginning of the novel:   

“‘…I have an aversion to fallen women. You are afraid of spiders but I’m afraid of these vile creatures. You probably haven’t studied spiders, after all, and don’t know their manners and customs: it’s the same for me.’” (P.1, ch.11) 

Now look at this passage about Levin, after he and Kitty agree to visit his dying brother Nikolay, who is taken care of by his prostitute girlfriend Marya Nikolayevna: 

“Deep down he even more seriously disagreed with the idea that she need not have anything to do with that woman who was with his brother, and he thought with horror of all the possible conflicts that might arise. The mere thought of his wife, his Kitty, being in the same room as a whore made him shudder with disgust and horror.” (P.5, ch.16)

In such moments, I find Levin unlikable, even obnoxious, especially considering what he has done sexually. I do remember from the last read, however, that later on Levin would meet Anna and rethink his view on “fallen women”. It’s similar to the way Tolstoy set out to write a novel to condemn adultery, but gradually came to love and have sympathy for his heroine.

If Tolstoy puts himself in Levin, it’s not very flattering. When they meet the dying Nikolay, Levin appears judgmental, ineffectual, and helpless, next to the kind, caring, and sufficient Kitty. Tolstoy doesn’t shy away from depicting the ugliness of illness and death, and the feeling of disgust and terror in Levin. 

8/ The Death chapter is magnificent. It affects me a lot more strongly now than last time. 

“The sight of his brother and the proximity of death revived in Levin’s heart that feeling of horror at the combined unfathomability, proximity, and inevitability of death which had overwhelmed him that autumn evening when his brother came to visit. This feeling was now even stronger than before, while he felt even less capable of understanding the meaning of death, and its inevitability seemed even more ghastly; but now, thanks to his wife being close by, that feeling did not reduce him to despair; he felt the need for life and love in spite of death. He felt that love had saved him from despair, and that this love had become even stronger and purer in the face of despair.” (P.5, ch.20) 

9/ After Nikolay’s death, Tolstoy returns to Karenin.

When I read Middlemarch a few years ago, I remember struggling with it for a while because of my clash with George Eliot, and it was chapter 42 that convinced me it was a masterpiece. Before this chapter, Casaubon is only seen from outside and from afar—he is seen by other characters as dry, difficult, demanding, emotionless, a man whose blood is “all semicolons and parentheses”. In chapter 42, George Eliot depicts Casaubon from the inside and makes the reader see him in a completely different light: he is also vulnerable and lonely and helpless, he is human.

Tolstoy doesn’t quite do the same thing because the stiff, duty-bound, passionless, self-righteous, and unlovable Karenin is already depicted with sympathy and compassion—we have seen him suffer. But Tolstoy goes further, and makes us realise the man’s utter loneliness and helplessness: 

“His despair was increased still further by the awareness that he was completely alone in his grief. It was not just that he did not have a single person in all of Petersburg to whom he could talk about everything he was going through, who might pity him, not as a senior official, or as a member of society, but simply as a suffering human being; he did not have such a person anywhere.” (P.5, ch.21) 

One common failure of many adaptations of Anna Karenina is that Karenin is depicted as a cold monster and we can’t really sympathise with him (though we probably have old Hollywood code to blame—for Anna to get sympathy, her husband has to be completely unsympathetic). The 2012 film tries to subvert that but ends up swinging too far the other way—not only does Karenin not seem cold and stiff but he’s also too good-looking (it’s Jude Law). One doesn’t think Anna would feel suffocated in the marriage, and can’t really sympathise with her (Keira Knightley) jumping into an affair that would cause her downfall.

To go back to the novel, in this passage I’ve spotted a continuity error: earlier in the book, Tolstoy writes that Karenin mentions sending Seryozha to his sister, and now says that he only has brothers. The sister isn’t mentioned anywhere else so that’s probably from an earlier draft of the book. 

10/ The scene of Anna secretly meeting her son Seryozha on his birthday is such a powerful scene. Tolstoy writes so well the point of view of a 9-year-old boy and the point of a view of a mother.

The scene at the opera is also magnificent. 

One of the things I forgot from the last reading is that in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy (almost) always narrates and describes from one character’s perspective for a stretch of time, usually a scene or a sequence, then switches to another character’s perspective. Think of the descriptions in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet for example, especially the long description of the streets and buildings at the beginning of the book: it is objective (seen by the author), whereas the description in Anna Karenina is subjective (seen by a character). The same technique has been used by Flaubert in Madame Bovary.

Thus Tolstoy enters all of his characters’ minds, and he can inhabit them all: even a child’s or a dog’s. 

Wonderful novel.