Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)
Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna
Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna
Dear friends and readers,
After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.
I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.
Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.
Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.
He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.
In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.
Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.
Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)
The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.
If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.
The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.
It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.
D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.
From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:
At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.
It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.
Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.
Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.
I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.
Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.
Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.
In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.
In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.
But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.
Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.
As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.
Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful
Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.
I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.
Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.
Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.
It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.
Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.
Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.
Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.
I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.
It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.
Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.
This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.
From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.
The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.
The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.
I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.
Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.
She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.
The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).
So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.
So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.
The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.
Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.
We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.
I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.
At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.
Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.
The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.
Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.
Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.
I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.
At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.
I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.
He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.
One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.
Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.
One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).
Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).
The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.
He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna
The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.
The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.