Thursday, August 16, 2018

Anna Karenina

Every 10 years or so, I re-read my favorite book, by Tolstoy.  It was written in 1877, and that is an amazing thing; that it was around the time of our Civil War, and the advent of expansion of railroads across the continent, and also mirrored the expansion of railroads across Russia.  Tolstoy's amazing skill at writing this book remains, in my estimation, without parallel. 
In my 20s, I loved the book, envied and admired Kitty, and wanted to find a spouse like Lewin.  In my 30s, I was absorbed with the worries about the scope of women's lives, and especially about women like Dolly, with several children and a husband who was both a spendthrift and chronically unfaithful.  In my 40s, I loved the passion in the love affair between Anna and Vronsky, but also I began to consider the change in the relationship to the land and the way the peasants were affected with the advent of railroads, and the thought that the book preceded the Russian revolution by at least 30 years, while they grappled with how to become a more effective government.  I had sympathy for Alexis Karenin.
In my 50's I could really feel like I understood all the characters, and what affected me most was the death of Lewin's brother Nicholas, of Tuberculosis, also called Consumption.  Almost no Americans have ever seen anyone dying of TB, but I have.  Because of my time in the Peace Corps, and travels, I deeply identified with Kitty trying to help this bitter dying brother of her husband's.  I admired Varenka, who is a prototype for women in medicine who are skilled and practical, and self-effacing, and very good at helping solve problems for patients. 
Now I am in my 60's, and my dislike of Vronsky has washed away, and I pity him, and admire that he built a modern hospital in his district, and tried to become an effective member of the political arm of the landlords, as he was also trying to become a good steward in managing his estate.  And I come to the book now with so much more admiration for the mind of Tolstoy, who could describe Anna's thoughts so clearly, as she descends into the hell of her self-obsessed, isolated, emotionally feverish attempt to hold Vronsky with her attachment, without any social ballast.   I admire his ability to describe the mind of a morphine addict.  I admire his ability to show the enormous 2-faced social miasma around Anna, and how it contributed to her suicide. 
There are many things in the book which bring big questions for reflection-- about how to educate people, what to do about governmental systems so that they are effective instead of burdensome tangles, the differences in the classes which Tolstoy presents so clearly, and we have not eliminated, although it is hard to speak truly about what we DO have, and the economic burdens of consolidated power and money in a shrinking upper class.  And there is Lewin's joy in working in the fields with his scythe, just for physical joy; and his hunting, and his attempt to be a better steward and make worthwhile improvements in the farming of his estate.  I LOVE this book.  If you haven't read it, I really recommend it, and I also love the audiobook format.  My eyes get tired now, and listening to it also is a pleasure.