November 09, 2012

Anna Karenina The First Time


Anna Karenina The First Time

In this, the second of two posts on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Bob Blaisdell recounts his discovery of the greatest novel of all time. (See the first post: Reading Anna Karenina Every Day).

I first read Anna Karenina when I was eighteen, because my writing teacher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the literary critic Marvin Mudrick, said that if we were serious about writing fiction (I was!), the most important novel to read was Anna Karenina.

I remember shopping for it in a bookstore and being intrigued that there were three or four different paperback editions, and I debated whether to buy the one with the most beautiful imagined Anna on the cover or the cheapest one. (Tom Stoppard’s 208-page screenplay of the new movie Anna Karenina has Keira Knightley on the cover and that alone will sell a few copies.) Thirty-four years ago I took the novel with me to Mexico, where I was going for a month with my friend Charlene to stay with her cousins. After she and I found our way to Colima, I read the book in three or four days, and, though Montezuma’s revenge made me weak as a kitten, I remember my first time with Anna Karenina as my best experience of the year.

I had never lived a book as I lived Anna Karenina. That first time through, I was in love with Anna and I loved Oblonsky. I sympathized in everything with Levin. All of Tolstoy’s reservations about Vronsky were my reservations about him. I had no sympathy for Karenin. Whatever Tolstoy said, that’s what I believed and felt. It seemed he treated as well and as deeply as possible every possible theme I could ever imagine. There was nothing left to write, in the sense that as far as I was concerned he had already done it all as well as possible. And yet at the same time he opened up everything as a theme. It is the most important book I have ever read, and each time I read it, I expect something of the revelation I used to expect from each new class with Mr. Mudrick. I have always ever since associated Anna Karenina with Mr. Mudrick, and Tolstoy has always been the literary colossus with whom I associate my personal colossus. They were authoritative, they were moralistic, they were interested in discussing everything about human beings, never mind whether it was a literary topic or not; they were headstrong, they were independent and accustomed to upsetting the apple-carts of literary and pedagogical convention. While I am usually mild-mannered, they were not. They would have their say. They were my champions.

So from my initiation as a fiction writer, I understood Tolstoy as Mr. Mudrick’s touchstone. Though he believed Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion were greater novels than Anna Karenina, he never said, in enthusiastic response to one of our short stories, “Jane Austen couldn’t have written that better!” He didnot say, “Chaucer could not have written that better!” His customary comparison of sublimity was, as he laid his hand atop the story that one of us had written, “Tolstoy could not have written that any better!”

So while he would have said that both Chaucer and Austen were greater authors than Tolstoy, he also would have said there was no one who had Tolstoy’s stature as a writer of fiction; additionally, there was Tolstoy’s presentation of material—its “transparency”—which was, Mr. Mudrick seemed to feel, a useful model for us. We could not write like Austen or Chaucer, I guess because Austen’s personality is so much in the tone, and Chaucer’s style is, obviously, poetry first, and secondly so divine and rich and sparkling that it couldn’t be imitated. But what Tolstoy did as a novelist could serve as a model for us because it was not, usually, an outward style. It was the experience we were aware of. What we imitated in Tolstoy was focus; there were characters and they were real to themselves, as big to themselves as we are to ourselves. Furthermore, as a writer, Tolstoy seemed to suggest that you were not to intrude or to call attention to your art. It was not Hemingway’s communication of experience, where we were aware of Hemingway’s tight grip on the writing itself. Tolstoy’s style disappeared, and Mr. Mudrick thought it was the best style—though not the only good style. But it was attainable by all, and Tolstoy himself would have argued the same thing, I think, not in admiration of his own work but as to his idea of the primary goal of art being communication.

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