This is one of the books on my travel book shelf because it inspires me to remember how good a book about books can be. Miller can drive me crazy sometimes, but he is alive, quick. His two best books are The Colossus of Marousi and Black Spring, but everything he wrote is worth reading. He is obscene at times, but never pornographic. And I forgive him for not mentioning Tolstoy in this book, not even in his “Hundred Books That Influenced Me Most” section.
I am up to page 260 in Volume VIII (only XVI more to go!) of the Works of Tolstoy, or Chapter I of Part Fifth of Anna Karenina. These pages described how Anna almost died and how Karenin forgave her and repented of her wanting to die. Vronsky tries to kill himself but fails. Anna lives after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter but still finds her husband unbearable. His magnanimity crushes her.
What struck me in this passage was how sympathetic Karenin becomes by forgiving Anna and Vronsky, by breaking down and sobbing, by becoming human. And also how, in describing him, Tolstoy mentions more than once a “brutal” force that Karenin can already feel working against him:
“He felt that, besides the holy and spiritual force that guided his soul, there was another force, brutal, equally if not more powerful, which directed his life, and that this power would not give him the peace that he desired. He felt that every one was looking at him, and questioning his attitude, not understanding it, and expecting him to do something. Especially he felt the unnaturalness and constraint of his relations with his wife.”
Karenin, since he has forgiven Anna and Vronsky, has felt tremendous joy and he dotes on the baby daughter even though she is not his. This brutal force attacking this joy, Tolstoy never names, but it seems to me it is the world, as in the Biblical, the world, the flesh, and the devil. This force appears to want the best for all concerned. It tells Anna’s friends and her brother to urge Karenin to grant a divorce (and Karenin agrees, feeling both at the mercy of the force–he sees the divorce would be bad for Anna and their son because of the way society is but also because, I think, that they are one flesh whether they want to be or not–but he also plays the martyr feeling that he is turning the other cheek), it says Karenin, by his kindness and forgiveness, is crushing Anna and her chance for happiness. But there is another side to this brutal force:
“All through this painful period Aleksei Aleksandrovitch noticed that his society friends, especially the women, showed a very marked interest in him and in his wife. He noticed in them all that veiled look of amusement which he saw in the lawyer’s eyes, and which he now saw in the lackey’s. They all seemed delighted, as if they were going to a wedding. When people met him, and inquired after his health, they did so with this same half-concealed hilarity.”
This, I think, is the other side of the coin of the “happiness” wish. On a personal note, I have been a sinner in my time, but there were times when I tried to do good. And I always noticed that at those times, friends would often discourage me. Until one day I asked one of them, “Why don’t you guys want me to do the right thing?” He had no answer. Vronsky feels this same reality when Karenin forgives Anna and him; he is faced with something he has never encountered before, a spiritual reality beyond his ken. It seems to me that Tolstoy is saying there is a life-force, that old elan vital, that drives Anna and Vronsky together, and he gives it its full due, but he also says there is something above this, the spirit, and the life-force, the world, this ambiguous life-must-go-on drive, drops its weapons before it.
“After this conversation with Aleksei Aleksandrovitch Vronsky went out on the steps of the Karenin house and stopped, hardly knowing where he was and what he had to do. He felt humiliated, perplexed, and deprived of all means of washing away his shame; he felt thrown out of the path where till now he had walked proudly and easily. All the rules which had been the guides of his life, and which he had believed irreproachable, proved false and untrue. The deceived husband, whom he had considered a melancholy character, an accidental obstacle, at times absurd, happily for him had suddenly been raised by her to a height inspiring respect; and this husband on this height appeared not ugly, not false, not ridiculous, but good, grand, and generous. Vronsky could not understand it; their roles had suddenly been interchanged. He felt Karenin’s grandeur and straightforwardness, and his own baseness and falsity. He felt that this husband was magnanimous in his grief, while he himself seemed little and miserable in his deception.”
Anna’s brother comes and gets Karenin to agree to a divorce, so that everyone may be happy. What is amazing about Tolstoy is that in these pages he has portrayed everything so fully. He shows the brutality of the happiness wish and yet you also understand why people give in to it. He shows the superiority of the spiritual force, but also the subtle twistings of pride within it as when Karenin plays the martyr. You see both sides and equally sympathetically, except that Tolstoy says the spiritual is the higher. You see this when he has Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) talking with Karenin:
“‘Yes . . . .I would like . . . . I must . . . . yes, I must have a talk with you,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, surprised at his confusion.
“This feeling was so strange and unexpected to him, that he did not recognize in it the voice of conscience, warning him that what he hoped to do was evil. He recovered himself with an effort, and conquered the weakness which took possession of him.”
For Stepan is also an adulterer, and has been forgiven by his wife; yet he continues his infidelities. He doesn’t want a divorce for himself.
And in a way, Anna rises above both her brother and her husband. She does not ask for a divorce and she runs away with Vronsky, leaving her son behind.