Motion to de-canonize Anna Karenina

(That's Tolstoy on the dock, awaiting the verdict. I wanted to do this without spoilers, but I found I could not. If you haven't read it and plan to, stop reading!)

I finished this book a week or so ago. Took me a about a month. The only things I knew about it going in were the things you just know: 1. Anna Karenina has an affair and commits suicide, and 2. It is supposedly, along with War and Peace (which I have not read), one of the greatest novels -- if not the very greatest novel -- ever written.

A little pre-reading Wiki-ing revealed almost ridiculously fulsome praise from the pantheon.
Isaac Babel: "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."
Gustav Flaubert: "What an artist and what a psychologist!"
Virginia Woolf: Tolstoy is "...the greatest of all novelists."
Jame Joyce: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical."
Anton Chekhov: "...Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature."
Thomas Mann: "Seldom did art work so much like nature."
Even Nabokov, that snarkily harsh critic, "...placed him above all other Russian fiction writers, even Gogol, and equalled him with Pushkin among Russian writers."
And indeed, the first hundred or so pages were stellar, a real pleasure to bathe in Tolstoy's natural, knife-through-butter style. I was all, Mr. Babel, you nailed it! Mr. Joyce, right on, bro! Mr. Mann, you were, like, so right! This is the way to write, throw out all adornment, make the writer invisible, make the reader see it like a movie, like a documentary without commentary.

Oh, but then... then...! When the plots settle in -- the dual structure of alternately following Anna and following her sister-in-law's husband, Levin -- seven hundred pages slowly plod by without a single surprise. My initial enthusiasm for the beautiful simplicity and naturalism dwindled as I learned, at length and in massive detail, just how Levin's farm was running, just how Princess So-and-So felt about Duke So-and-So. I was treated to I don't know how many aristocratic dinners, I don't know how many gossipy conversations, I don't know how many tearful scenes involving Anna and her husband, and then Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Whereas I once licked my lips when I picked it up, soon I simply cleared my throat and tried to open my eyes wide to pay attention, and eventually I was frowning at the book, and sighing, and impatiently measuring with my fingers the stubborn thickness of the unread part, and the farther I got, the less slack I was willing to give, and by the dreary end I was ready to throw that pathetic fallen woman under the train myself.

Could it be a translation thing? Tolstoy's contemporary, Dickens, is still wickedly funny and brilliant -- is that because I read his very words, with the exact sound and pacing he chose? Would I like AK were I able to read it in Russian? But that is probably not the problem, because I loved Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc. etc. Was it the editing, or lack thereof? Certainly the ungainly, sprawling work needed an editor -- but so did Moby-Dick, yet truthfully I was not complaining as I read about the remarkable properties of whale oil because Melville made the darned stuff so interesting.

No, no, with Anna Karenina it was the writing, the novel itself that did not work for me. I'm not sure it even qualifies as successful fiction. Aren't all the pieces supposed to fit together? Aren't I supposed to have needed everything that was in my backpack when, at last, I gained the summit? Shouldn't the two main plots connect somehow, be complementary in theme or something? Sure, Anna is slowly being extricated from a difficult marriage, and Levin is slowly being drawn into one. But -- as my 9-year-old Irish cousin-by-marriage, Paul, said about Babe, after we had praised it -- "Yes, but what was the point of the film?"

What is the point of Anna Karenina? Marriage bad, marriage good, marriage ... hey, can't live with it, can't live without it! Agricultural reform good, agricultural reform bad, agricultural... [here the blogger yawns like a cat]. Peasants joyful and happy, peasants miserable and sad! Reform needed everywhere: in divorce, in society, in farming, in capitalism. All well and good. But does it support a story anymore? What does it say for a book that its plot would be rendered moot if a certain law had been passed? Anna couldn't get a divorce, therefore it's a tragedy? Shouldn't a novel -- let alone one of the greatest novels ever -- work for other reasons, too?

As for the sexy bits, there are none. Still, I can well imagine how brave it was for an aristocrat like Tolstoy to write about such scandalous subject matter back then. I can see how the taboo topic of adultery would have supplied plenty of excitement and energy back then. But I hate to say it: the world has moved on, and it seems to me, from the luxury of today's vantage point, that the book has outlived its usefulness and should be reclassified as propaganda, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that also was heaped with praise and sales for years and years, but which has faded in terms of artistic worth as it becomes clearer and clearer that the characters were little dolls manipulated by Ms. Stowe for her own soapbox purposes -- which were worthy enough, heaven knows, but which were not artistic. Just because there is injustice doesn't mean shoving it into the vehicle of a novel and smacking the horse on the ass is good enough.

Furthermore, the canon can't keep expanding forever, can it? I mean, what do they teach in college fiction courses nowadays? You can only teach so many novels per semester. What is not being read by English majors today? Is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in yet, for example? To get fresh blood in there, old blood has to be drained out. I say it's time to apply the leeches to Anna Karenina. There's too much vibrant literature published from, let alone since, the mid-19th Century that is not being read, praised, or discussed.

You may disagree. But while we're at it, what else can be pitchforked out the door? We are now seven years into the 21st Century. Can we clean house yet -- or at least fantasize about it?


possum said...

I read AK last summer while mostly by myself in Maine. I loved it. I loved it! Sometimes I think we have to be in the right place for things to BE right. I had nothing to do but move lumber, mow the grass, read on that stony beach, write, watch Alice chase waves and wild turkeys, and make dinners from delicious local produce. And play softball every once in a while. I was alone and hanging out with my good dog. That's what made AK work for me -- I think I could have read any very long thing and stuck with it because it felt like the whole summer had one long, slow beat.

Now that I think that sentence over, though, I realize that passages of the novel are still in my head. There's one where Levin describes himself as being happy as a dog who has learned to jump through a hoop and "leaps in rapture on to the tables and windowsills." There's a moment when Varenka looks up from picking mushrooms and Sergei is moved by the beauty of the oats and the sky and her movememnt. The writing in those parts struck me and stuck with me. They made me feel something. I'm not willing not to have read Anna Karenina. I'm not willing not to have been moved.

I am willing, however, to have not read The Bluest Eye, or at least one of the Morrison books I read in college.

Chuck said...

How one can graduate from a major university and never come in contact with Dickens, Tolstoy, Ellison, or Vonnegut but have to read In the Lake of the Woods and Mao II (which I'm still trying to finish, ten years later) I'll never know. But I did.

I haven't read AK but having gotten through Resurrection -- "lesser" Tolstoy, I'm sure -- I understand what you mean about AK losing its fizz.

Also, totally agree about Morrison. And I could sleep just fine if Salinger were deleted too.