When I posted about Madame Bovary a few months ago, I remarked on the oddity of reading a very famous book for the first time–it is, I said, “intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time. . . it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.” My posts on Madame Bovary show me trying to come to terms with “the thing itself,” trying to see for myself just what kind of thing it is. What a foolish thing to attempt, after one reading. How presumptuous! And yet there it was, and there I was, reading it, and a blog post is not, after all, a pronouncement but an encounter. What a relief, for an academic, not to even pretend to be definitive! In that case, too, what a good conversation ensued. If one way to measure the worth of a book is by the quality of the conversations it inspires, Madame Bovary (for all that I didn’t actually like it) is way up there.
One of the many comments that stayed with me from those conversations is Tom’s observation that “I consider Anna Karenina to be a novel of comparable merit that works as a blend of the Eliot & Flaubert approaches, that wants to keep the meaning generated by the full, precise physical world while also finding ways to comment.” Anna Karenina is of course one of those novels I always meant to read, and yet, as with Madame Bovary, somehow I had always deferred actually reading it. You couldn’t make a better pitch for it than Tom did, though, and so I confessed my Anna-less state to my supplier and he set me up with the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which I am now about 100 pages into. But if it’s presumptuous to say anything on a first reading, what could I possibly dare to say after my first reading of just 100 pages?
Not much, actually. For one thing, I’m eager to read more tonight, so I don’t want to use up all my remaining energy here. For another, I hardly know what I think yet. I’m just observing a few things at this point, feeling my way along. My very first observation is that the novel is briskly paced — that surprises me. It is possible that only someone who reads a lot of 19th-century fiction, for work and for pleasure, would think this, but here’s a bit of very scientific evidence on my side. When I was trying to choose what book to read next, I took a stack of options in with me when I joined my daughter for our ritual reading time before her ‘lights out.’ I read her the first few sentences of each of them, and then she and I each scored them out of 10. Of all my options (and they included The Master, The Line of Beauty, A Time of Gifts, and Winter’s Tale), it was Anna Karenina that got the most points. (Mind you, the overall results were somewhat skewed by Maddie’s giving the opening of A Time of Gifts a scornful zero. She and I will take that up again another time!) With Anna Karenina, we knew right away what was happening and who was involved, and we were caught up in the buzz of activity and the stress of the domestic conflict. So far, at my modest 100 page distance, that first impression has held up. There is a light layer of exposition and commentary, but most of it is about the characters, rather than about context or abstractions, and the interpersonal complications just keep multiplying.
Of course, here too I can’t help but read knowing how it ends, and so the foreshadowing at every train station is a bit obvious (“She felt that there had been something in it relating personally to her that there should not have been”). But the other thing that’s obvious is that Anna is not Emma, and so I’m caught up in wondering how this very different woman will live out a plot that is in some ways so similar and yet that already feels so different. Keeping in mind that I don’t know Anna very well yet (we’ve only just had a few scenes told from her point of view, for instance), it’s striking that she enters the novel with a warmth and vitality that is totally missing from Emma – no nasty snaky tongue here! It’s true that she seems less benign and charming when she steals Vronsky’s attention away from Kitty (who then uses the unexpectedly harsh term “satanic” for her)–though it isn’t exactly her fault, she enjoys it all a bit too much. Still, the first active thing Anna does in the novel is to effect a reconciliation between Stiva and Dolly: she advocates forgiveness and love, and that seems like a good thing.
The other detail that stood out for me is that while we hear endlessly in Madame Bovary about Emma’s dangerous penchant for reading novels, Anna finds it “unpleasant to read, that is to say, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.” As a devoted reader myself, I can hardly endorse or sympathize with her position … and yet, again, this seems like a sign of her vitality. When she does settle in to her reading, it prompts her to reflections on her own life: “‘What am I ashamed of?’ she asked herself with indignant surprise.” Imagine the doctor’s wife (actually, either doctors’ wife!) asking herself this question. Self-reflection — another good thing. Whether it will lead to self-understanding, or, more important, to moral understanding, remains to be seen.