Really really did not want to read Tolstoy tonight. But this week’s Steven Pressfield’s “Writing Wednesday” email newsletter helped–Surviving in the Desert–and I overcame my resistance. And when I bought the above at Print Bookstore in Portland (ME) I perused it and wondered if I would ever finish it. Looks kind of boring to me and I’m an innerlekshual!
Of course I bought Emile because of what A.N. Wilson said about how influential Rousseau was, especially in this book, on Tolstoy. So, in the spirit of working up the Master’s creative tree (as Austin Kleon says in his Steal Like An Artist Journal) I thought I would try this as a travel book. I read Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic back when I was in seminary, but all I remember about that was that our professor explained how Bloom was a Straussian and what that meant, which was that Plato didn’t really mean all the stuff he said in The Republic. I would also like to read Ravelstein, Bellow’s novel about his friend, Allan Bloom. But I digress.
Tonight I read up to page 109 of Volume VII of the Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or up to Chapter XXIV of Anna Karenina. In these pages, Anna comes to be with Dolly, her sister-in-law, and helps bring about a reconciliation between her brother and his wife. Kitty is there because she is Dolly’s sister and she immediately “falls in love” with Anna, the beautiful radiant but also melancholy married woman.
I have been afraid as I read Anna Karenina that it is a bit boring compared with War and Peace because these are only scenes of “peace,” but I need not have worried because Tolstoy can ratchet up the tension even in peacetime. The stakes are just as real.
Here is a wonderful scene wherein Stepan, Dolly, Anna, and Kitty are talking:
“About half past nine a particularly animated and pleasant confidential conversation, which was going on at the tea-table, was interrupted by an incident apparently of the slightest importance, but this simple incident seemed to each member of the family to be very strange.”
Anna, because it was near ten when she would usually say good-night to her eight-year-old son, gets up and says she’s going to get the album so she can show them his photo.
“Just as she was leaving the drawing-room the front door-bell rang.
“‘Who can that be?’ Dolly asked.
“‘It is too early to come after me, and too late for a call,’ remarked Kitty.
“‘ Doubtless somebody with papers for me,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch.
“As Anna was passing the staircase she saw the servant going up to announce a caller, but the caller stood in the light of the hall lamp, and was waiting. Anna glancing down saw that it was Vronsky, and a strange sensation of joy, mixed with terror, suddenly seized her heart. He was standing with his coat on, and was taking something out of his pocket. At the moment Anna reached the center of the staircase, he lifted his eyes, and saw her, and his face assumed an expression of humility and confusion. She bowed her head slightly in salutation; and as she went on her way she heard Stepan Arkadyevitch’s loud voice calling him to come in, and then Vronsky’s low, soft, and tranquil voice excusing himself. . . .
“There was nothing extraordinary or strange in a man calling at half-past nine o’clock in the evening to inquire of a friend about the details of a proposed dinner and not coming in; yet to everybody it seemed strange, and it seemed more strange and unpleasant to Anna than to any one else.”
This reminds me of the strangeness of the man being killed in the railway station right after Vronsky and Anna meet. The seeds of discord and tragedy are being sown even as Vronsky and Anna fall in love.
There is one more scene I have to quote because it is the kind of scene at which Tolstoy excels, the kind in which a person who has been seeing things in one way, suddenly sees how things really are. (Hawthorne was pretty good at this too.) This happens in the first chapter of the novel when Stepan wakes up from a happy dream and realizes his domestic situation. It also happens when Kitty realizes at the ball that Vronsky does not love her as she thought (which is why she has said no to Levin).
“Vronsky joined Kitty, reminded her that she was engaged to him for the first quadrille, and expressed regret that he had not seen her for so long. Kitty, while she was looking with admiration at Anna as he waltzed, listened to Vronsky. She expected that he would invite her; but he did nothing of the sort, and she looked at him with astonishment. A flush came into his face, and he hastily suggested that they should waltz; but he had scarcely put his arm around her slender waist and taken the first step, when suddenly the music stopped. Kitty looked into his face, which was close to her own, and for many a long day, even after years had passed, the loving look which she gave him and which he did not return tore her heart with cruel shame.”
In a way this reminds me of Joyce’s short story, “Araby,” one of my favorites, which ends with an adolescent boy realizing his love for a young woman is hopeless. I can see why Joyce admired Tolstoy because I think that Dubliners is written in a Tolstoyan way, that is, when he wrote in a realistic way, Joyce often wrote straight pure realism, though he got a bit fancy there at the end of “The Dead.” But the feeling of Dubliners reminds me a lot of Tolstoy, that sense of disillusionment.
I had meant to transcribe some more quotes from a travel book, maybe from Bloom’s introduction to Emile but now I want to end with the last sentence of “Araby.”
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”