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Tolstoy Journal, April 11, 2017: “This abyss was actual life.”

According to A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy, when he was older, would say Dickens was his favorite writer and David Copperfield his favorite book, but I know also he loved Dombey and Son, which was a huge hit in Russia in 1847. I consider this a travel book but who knows if I will be able to read it this year; however, I have read David Copperfield.

I have not been writing this blog because I have been preparing for a Pecha Kucha tomorrow night. This is an event that features speakers who present 20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, that tell something about themselves or their work. I will be talking about this blog and am starting to get nervous. I have been writing a note-card for each slide–thanks to my wife who helped me put the slides together–and have now done two drafts of 20 cards each.

But I have been reading Anna Karenina. (I have had to overcome some major resistance a couple of times however.) I am currently on page 241 of Volume VII of the Works or up to Chapter XXII of Part Two of Anna Karenina. I guess what has struck me most is Tolstoy’s insights into human beings, how they think, what makes them tick; and even though he is a misogynist at times, when he writes from the point of view of a woman I think he is a genius. It’s not that he just has insight, though, into the psyches of human beings, it’s that he shows you how it is to be yourself from the inside, how one experiences things and thinks about things while living through them.

“Aleksei Aleksandrovitch [Anna’s husband] was now standing face to face with life, with the possibility that his wife was in love with some one else besides him, and this seemed to him very senseless and incomprehensible, because it was life itself. All his life he had lived and labored in a round of official duties concerned with the reflections of life. And whenever he came in contact with life itself he was revolted by it. Now he experienced a sensation such as a man feels, who, passing calmly over a bridge above a precipice, suddenly discovers that the arch is broken, and that the abyss yawns beneath his feet.

“This abyss was actual life; the bridge–the artificial life which he had been living. The idea that his wife could love another man occurred to him for the first time, and filled him with terror.”

That was Anna’s husband’s situation before he confronted his wife and tried to warn her against flirtation with Vronsky. Then she comes home and they talk and Anna has just talked with Vronsky in such a way that they both know they love each other.

“‘Anna, I must give you a warning.'”

“‘A warning?’ she exclaimed; ‘why?'”

“She looked at him so innocently, so gayly, that any one who did not know her as her husband did would have noticed nothing unnatural either in the tone of her voice or in the meaning of what she said. But for him, who knew her, who knew that when he was five minutes later than usual she always remarked on it, and asked the reason, for him who knew that her first impulse was always to tell him of her pleasures and her sorrows, for him now to see the fact that Anna took special pains not to observe his agitation, that she took special pains not to say a word about herself, all this was very significant. He saw that the depths of her soul, hitherto always opened to his gaze, were now shut away from him. Moreover, by her tone he perceived that she was not confused by this; but as it were she said openly and without dissimulation, ‘Yes, I am a sealed book, and so it must be, and will be from henceforth.’

“He felt as a man would who should come home and find his house barricaded against him.”

These passages emphasize her husband’s perplexity and hurt, but there are others that show her own. When she gets off the train to meet him, he is sardonic and unaffectionate, as always. He is always busy. He lacks passion. You can see why she would be tired of him and love Vronsky. And yet Aleksei is her husband; Tolstoy makes you feel that, feel that she should stay true to him, feel nevertheless her love for Vronsky. He also shows you the hypocrisy of the society around them, how a truly passionate and devoted love affair, as opposed to an affair not taken seriously, is looked down upon. The affair is known by everyone and it hurts Vronsky in the service and Anna in society. There is a sort of hierarchy of value in the novel: Kitty and Levin are at the top as devoted man and wife with a family; Anna and Vronsky are in the middle because even though they are committing adultery, they are still passionately in love with one another and, in that sense, unselfish; and then society which cares only about money and advancing up the ladder.

I picked up A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy again and here is passage I underlined:

“But, as something to fall back on, Turgenev’s companionship was welcome [on a trip to France]. The older novelist showed the younger all the sights. They saw the forest and castle of Fontainebleau. They went to Dijon and explored all the churches. ‘Turgenev doesn’t believe in anything, that’s his trouble; he doesn’t love, but loves to love.’ They played chess together in cafes, chatted and idled away the days. In Dijon, Tolstoy recorded, ‘Turgenev is a bore; I want to go to Paris, but he can’t be left alone. . . . We almost quarrelled.'”

The trouble with Tolstoy, I have to say, is that he saw truly into people, saw that Turgenev believed in nothing and was a bore, but he did not have compassion on him. He has more compassion on his characters than on the real people around him. I was dipping into Talks With Tolstoy and found a very sad passage in which it was written that everyone who stayed with the Tolstoy family realized after a while that there was little joy in the family. I think part of that was the division between him and his wife, but I think it also had to do with the asperity of his character.


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