Fools, domestic life, and Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is one of the most discussed, most referenced, most imitated novels in the history of the form and anything I write about it here is, by definition, superfluous. But this blog as a whole is, by definition, superfluous and I read Tolstoy’s famous novel for the first time this year and had a couple quick notes I wanted to get down.

I also read (the great, astounding) Bleak House for the first time earlier this year and when reading Anna Karenina the parallels between Stiva Oblonsky and Dickens’ Harold Skimpole stood out. Skimpole is a self-described “mere child in the world” who has no understanding of money (except, it seems, in how to lavishly spend it); he neglects his wife and children and relies on the charity of others to survive (even when they can ill-afford to provide it). Stiva Oblonsky in a similar way spends beyond his means, neglects his family, and ends the novel living off the charity provided by Levin. As the narrator notes after a domestic failure on Oblonsky’s part: “Try as he would to be a considerate husband and father, Oblonsky never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had the tastes of a bachelor and understood no others.” Oblonsky charms the reader more than Skimpole (Dickens highlights the destructive consequences of Skimpole’s childish “simplicity” more) but is just as much of a villain – at least as much as any of the characters in either of these nuanced and vibrant novels can be divided into stark categories like heroes and villains. Oblonsky and Skimpole are charming, silly, really entertaining dinner party guests, but destructive all the same. They are both examples of the idea of the “fool” found in the biblical book of Proverbs: they live in worlds of their own making and refuse to recognize or live according to the contours of reality – with harmful consequences for those who rely on them. The Karenin/Vronksy/Anna plotline gets top billing in terms of relational dysfunction, but the portrayal of Stiva and Dolly’s terrible marriage is its own kind of quiet tragedy.

Related to this is just how good Tolstoy is in his description and treatment of domestic life. Adjectives like “epic” and “sweeping” tend to fill out the blurbs on the back covers of his novels, and these are not inaccurate, but the vastness of Tolstoy’s imagination includes excellent, detailed depictions of the intimate and ordinary. Since I recently became a father I was especially struck by the description of Levin’s panic and fear when his wife goes into labor, his astonishment at the doctor and midwife’s calmness and seeming indifference, the way “the ordinary conditions of life … no longer existed” during the long day and night, and finally when the baby is born: the strange unexpected feelings, the sense of the baby creating a “new and distressing sense of fear. It was the consciousness of another vulnerable region. And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest the helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.” (I know I posted this quote a few weeks ago, but it is a great passage). This is only one example: Tolstoy spends time describing nursing mothers, children bathing and playing, the squabbles of a young marriage, and the final scene of the book is a family walk on Levin and Kitty’s country estate. The detail and care with which Tolstoy describes the domestic only serves to make Stiva’s (and Anna’s?) carelessness and indifference appear that much more callous.

A couple more random notes:

  • Tolstoy writes such memorable scenes: Levin mowing with the peasants, Vronsky’s race, hunting in the marshes, Levin and Kitty ice-skating, Anna’s humiliation at the theater – his books are huge, but they’re made up of these almost self-contained building blocks of scenes that each have their own sense of living reality
  • Karenin and Anna’s reconciliation when she is ill that later just seems to dissolve as if it never happened is incoherent, contradictory, strange … and the story and the characters feel that much more real as a result. Reality is contradictory and strange, it is more uneven than the smoothness of narrative – part of what makes Tolstoy great is his willingness to take this sort of risk
  • I think it is a pretty significant misreading to read the book as some sort of hymn to romantic passion in the face of repressive societal pressures – but that such a reading exists speaks to the way Anna charms and seduces everyone – including the reader
  • Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Still Dostoevsky … the reasons why will have to wait for another post …