Friday, July 26, 2013

interim cluttered desk


Anna Karenina in the car (Librivox); listened to it all the way through, entranced; now I'm listening to it again, a bit more fitfully. 

When I grew up it was axiomatic that this is the greatest of all novels. Perhaps that's still a widespread belief, but scratching around for modern commentary I've little real sense of the commitment,  the study, the excitement and the debate that surrounds e.g. Moby-Dick, Ulysses... Not, indeed,  that this is a definitive measure of greatness.- even if I believed in "greatness".

F. R. Leavis did. He also approved of Anna Karenina. He said: "It is, surely,  THE European novel." You wonder what he meant by that and who were the other candidates. Europe is such a big place, and there are so many novels! Of Spain alone, to take only one country as an example, what a vast and proud sequence of novelists! Libro de Buen Amor, La Celestina, Lazarillo, Cervantes, Galdos, Azorin, Perez de Ayala, Pio Baroja, Valle-Inclan, Gabriel Miro, Jesús Fernández Santos --- just thinking of what I've got lying around at home.  You don't think of Leavis as having much sympathy with any of these writers' work, what I know of them. You don't think of him, really, as bothering with sympathy. But how could this narrowness of focus do anything but disable him from comments on the European novel? And then, unjustly maybe, you perceive that what he means about Anna Karenina is: "It is, surely, the best choice of token continental novel for an English reader."





And following this unjust line of thought,  I recall how Tolstoy was so fervent about English novels. Yes, it's true: sometimes Tolstoy does sound a bit English; and even in a limiting way. Dickensian readers of Anna Karenina will be reminded of the railway symbolism of Dombey and Son and the sterile Italian wanderings of Little Dorrit.*  But these features don't have a lot to to do with what is really characteristic and  amazing in Anna Karenina. In its bones, it is antipathetic both to portentous symbolism and to atmospheres supercharged with moralistic judgment. In the more intimate region of the book's workings, the English novelist that Tolstoy most often reminds me of is (surprisingly) Trollope. For instance, I'm thinking of those chapters, often somewhat comic in tone, in which Tolstoy describes the ponderings of his characters: Karenin trying to decide what he should do in response to his wife's outright confession of her passion for Vronsky; or Anna, the morning after that confession, trying to decide whether to run away with her son. But Trollope, I would say, likes to portray the inner debates of his characters as honourable attempts to negotiate life's little difficulties; he intends them as discourse that is expressed clearly and from which we can learn a good deal, even if the limitations of the thinker are sometimes spelled out. Tolstoy, on the other hand, portrays his characters' anguished inner debates, as being tragicomically vain; they are the manifestations of an emotional drama that the sufferer does not understand. It is what Karenin thinks he is thinking; and the same with Anna. Tolstoy invites us, not to notice their solid logic and shrewd discriminations, but to compare our own experience of such inner debates.

[* And even, unfortunately, the sentimental repetitions of the Nickelby period. Compare Book 4, chapter 15.] 

So much of Tolstoy is about the inner life, about body language, about people's experience underneath the level of language. Anna Karenina is striking, as someone wrote, for the concentration on people's smiles. Had there ever been a book in which, so often, people are said not to have listened to, or not understood, or not attended to, the surface meaning of what other people say to them? Always they are responding to something else. They become aware, regardless of what is being talked about, that someone is in sympathy with them, or understands something, or makes them feel unhappy, they don't know why. Anna Karenina is well on the way to being a roman fleuve, it has numerous characters but it doesn't really have a cohesive plot with well-defined causes and effects. Tolstoy sets Anna on a downward course and Levin on a level course and then just registers their experience and the scenes they pass through.

Thirsty for commentary, and remembering Leavis' essay, I searched for it online, but it isn't there. Partly, I suppose, this reflects the widespread indifference that has succeeded the hectic fever of Leavis' influence; a society healing itself. Partly it shows how copyright does manage to protect itself, even today. Reasonable and articulate demolitions of Leavis appeared in quantity after his death, but at some point we will want to read his own words again. I'm toying with the idea of spending good money to buy an old copy of 'Anna Karenina' and other essays.

*

.. at which point in my ruminations, I did. No-one seems to know when Leavis addressed the Slavonic Society, nor what they thought about e.g. his substanceless kick at Dostoyevsky; it looks like it was supposed to raise a laugh, but I can hardly imagine that it did. Tolstoy's novel plays a part in Leavis' developing admiration for a more liberated and spontaneous form: the kind he did not find in James and supposed he did find in Lawrence. I think this was the late 1950s and, in a curious way, Leavis' developing vision had analogues to the vision of "open form" that was growing up in other parts of the literary world.

Of course when we read Leavis we partly read him to follow his own adventure. But he really has things to say about Anna Karenina too. He is pretty good on Karenin's forgiveness, a difficult thing to characterize accurately. He says some good things - usually not said - about Vronsky, the Italian episode, Varenka, and the misunderstandings between Anna and Vronsky. When he writes about horses or social life we remember - usually we would not think about this -  that the Leavises maintained elegant and warm-hearted At-Homes. The essay gets a bit bogged down in the novel's ending and Levin's conversion. It's easy to lose sight of Leavis' main thread, which is about personal responsibility.

When I mentioned that I was listening to Anna Karenina, the most common feedback that people confided to me was "I liked that other chap, but I couldn't stand her." And this really takes us to a profound part of the novel, the Anna-question. I wrote recently about George Sand's Indiana, and in that book there's no doubting our strong sympathy with Indiana, the heroine; and our conviction that Indiana's happiness is ruined by her husband and her lover, both of whom we detest. Anna Karenina, which is based on the same kind of triangular situation, makes a completely different impression. Whereas the enduring impression of Indiana is of the heroine's own suffering, Tolstoy contrives to set things up so we acknowledge Anna's suffering (how could we fail to?) but immediately want to comment affrontedly on how she makes everyone else around her suffer, in particular Karenin, Vronsky and her son Seryozha.

What my friends were unguarded enough to admit was that they got annoyed by Anna. They were uncomfortably conscious of feeling irritation, anger, repulsion towards the character with whom (as they also felt) they ought to be identifying. Why is that? We remember the way Anna first appears on the scene of bourgeois Oblonskyville: a beautiful peacemaker, deeply sensitive to others' feelings, beloved by the children. Tolstoy offers us that snap-glimpse of a perfectly lovable and untroubling Anna in order to snatch it away from us.

It certainly isn't because either Karenin or Vronsky are especially lovable persons; true, they are not brutes, they do not punch Anna in the face like Colonel Delmare punches Indiana; nevertheless their weaknesses/egotisms are clear to see. No, that doesn't account for it. The real explanation is to do with the way Tolstoy manipulates the presentation of Anna.

Example 1, when Karenin goes into Anna's room (Book 4 chapter 4), boiling over with rage and determined to cause her pain, which he does. Despite this, despite the very definite fact that Karenin is not attractive and Anna is, we actually find ourselves identifying with Karenin in this conversation, because Tolstoy has prefaced the scene with an account of Karenin's intentions, and there is a kind of comedy in the difference between what Karenin thinks he will say and what he does say, his awkward behaviour, and so on.

Now contrast what led up to this, Anna's letter to Vronsky begging him to come to her house: she is ill, she can't come out, she simply has to see him. This, of course, is just what Karenin had forbidden. Vronsky knows this but decides to go anyway, with a certain military coolness under fire. But can anyone doubt that, when Vronsky feels angry with Karenin after they've met in the doorway, his exasperation is really with Anna? She's rocked the boat, and Tolstoy refuses to let us into her thoughts and feelings directly prior to rocking the boat. Was she ill and unable to come out? Apparently not. We can certainly imagine her feeling of total desperation, but we do have to imagine it, it is not presented to us. It seems that both men, despite being somewhat miserable in their own ways (Book 4 chapter 1), are content to tolerate the position in which Anna lives with Karenin and meets Vronsky elsewhere. But this situation is worse for Anna than it is for them. They still keep their reputation in the world*, but she is tortured by guilt, dishonour, jealousy, a sense of being trapped. Perhaps, in fact, a sense of being shared. (Leavis, unreliably but interestingly, interprets Anna's motive as a Laurentian instinct for integrity.)

[*To be fair, public knowledge of Karenin's situation is already damaging his career.]

The point is, at certain crucial points Tolstoy occludes Anna's thought-processes; he switches off the omniscient narrator. He portrays her only through others' eyes; he risks - does he indeed encourage? - the exasperation-response. The reader who already knows that Anna's story will end in suicide is not likely to take a positive view of e.g. her boat-rocking when her own thoughts are not available for inspection, when they are judged only by their results. On the other hand, her male companions' willingness to "put up with" things can seem like good, thoughtful, socially responsible, civilized, flexible behaviour.

You could interpret this manipulation of point of view as evidence for Tolstoy's own disapproval of his heroine and her adultery. I'd prefer to see it as an intuitive way of expressing Anna's isolation and her condemnation by society at large. Tolstoy makes us behave, uncomfortably, as a part of that society; we become exasperated and want her to act more sensibly, to keep up appearances. All this without real understanding, at crucial points, of what she is going through. At these crucial junctures the book denies her a voice.

(And sometimes we do love this society, too. Remember the effortlessly elegant way in which Oblonsky seats Levin next to Kitty. Remember all those strangers and servants who, as the enraptured Levin imagines, understand his happiness and bless him for it.)

*

Example 2, Book 4 Ch 19. Again Karenin provides the point of view, and this time it's an exceptionally sympathetic Karenin. In the previous couple of chapters, he has been witnessed overcoming his rage and forgiving - sincerely forgiving - Anna and even Vronsky. And now his scale is even more virtue-laden: we see him tenderly concerned for the infant with the saffron-red face who is not his own child but his wife's love-child. Through Karenin's eyes, we share his loathing for Princess Betsy and his experience of an irritated outburst from Anna that seems (in the light of her baby's illness) incredibly self-centred. Karenin's inner judgments (even the ones he won't admit to himself) control our experience of all this. I am ignoring one of the most important things about the chapter, how Karenin's generosity is - in his own opinion - misunderstood and mocked by a society which, on the contrary, is forcing him to do "what is wrong".  I won't go into that now, though it's a moot point whether Karenin's tenderness for his own precious forgivingness conceals from him that he doesn't really forgive Anna completely. And as soon as Karenin uses that phrase "I imagine" we can, to a certain extent, understand Anna's repulsion; he uses it dishonestly. But I want to come back to the bad impression that Anna makes in this chapter. Within this chapter in which she appears in such a negative light, there is one sentence that lets us into HER experience: the bitter thought about it not being in the least essential for the man she loves to come and say goodbye to her. The flame of an entirely different perception of events (i.e. from Karenin's)  flares up in that moment. Immediately we feel also her despair. Vronsky, we see, will never be able to match her ingrowing disappointment. And then her own feeble weakness; her established belief, regardless of the facts, that her behaviour is controlled by Karenin and by his household; it's all been done to her, and there's no point her doing anything ever. But all this is her surface, not her real inner experience. Only that flame is real - the occluded insight that we, because of Tolstoy's careful presentation, are not really allowed to share with Anna, or she with us.

*

Example 3. Anna's happiness in Book 5, Chapter 8, when she has got away from Karenin and is travelling in Europe with Vronsky. This whole chapter is pre-ironized by Tolstoy having already informed us that Vronsky finds his new life monotonous (Bk 5 Ch 7). Anna's inner experience is apparently not occluded here; we are told what she thinks and feels. But the thoughts and feelings we are told about, or rather the blandly generalized way in which we are told about them, makes them seem superficial and lacking in insight. It allows (risks? or enforces?) the judgment that Anna is rather stupid. And this is hardly likely to be corrected by the succeeding chapters in which Anna and Vronsky together are portrayed, through Michailov's eyes, as representative of the kind of silly good-natured ordinary people who know nothing about art.

This presentation is a problem. Everyone knows that Anna Karenina is not a feminist novel. It would be kind to insist that to say this is not to imply that it's a chauvinist novel. But is the posited neutrality really a possible position - considering that the material of the story bears so directly on themes that are central to feminism? I would have to say that the choices Tolstoy makes about how he presents Anna, Karenin and Vronsky do, sometimes if not always, reflect and encourage a sexist interpretation of the characters and their behaviour.

*

Leavis's argument for Anna Karenina being "THE European Novel" - this, by the way, is on the last page, which is somewhat of a coda to his main argument - is the breadth and intensity of Tolstoy's engagements with all levels of his society: since Russia was both a very archaic society and also - if you were an educated aristocrat - a very modern society, Russia for a genius like Tolstoy comprehended all the narrower spectrum (of, say, France...) and more.

Undoubtedly this breadth and this intensity are very remarkable aspects of Tolstoy; they feel, indeed, unexampled. Maybe that's because of the relatively unusual combination of his interests (for a writer);  farming, hunting, science, military life, psychology and behaviour, women and children. But it's wrong to suppose that the list comprehends everything there is. He was so much a countryman. The physical cityscape is, as others have pointed out, hardly ever described; the breadth of urban life, character, and occupation that is portrayed in Balzac, Dickens and Zola is merely absent here. Pathological behaviour is largely absent - violence, abuse, deviance. The working-classes are continually idealized (I mean, in the whole vast cast of characters there is no unpleasant working-class person, every one of them is sympathetic) ... That is to say, this is a vision that criticizes individual members of the ruling class but confirms (as a general rule) the happiness of society under that ruling class.

True, everything that is in the book is described with complete inwardness. But the above are just a few examples of why Tolstoy can only be called "the European novelist" if there is a blindness in one's conception of the novel.

*

But I'm overwhelmed with too many new books and with not enough time to read them. (Is that, perhaps, the true secret of happiness?). Since I came back from Sweden a couple of weeks back, I've continued to revel in my improved competence at reading books in Swedish; though I must admit, the only books I can read are somewhat simple books, for instance detective stories. Currently I'm reading a comedy thriller aimed at teenagers, Kevin och Schröder by Bernt Danielsson. The book contains a lot of slang, both in the teenage Kevin's narrative and in the dishevelled hero Schröder's outbursts. It seems very good to me. Bernt Danielsson (aka Bernt Daniel) has had a miscellaneous kind of literary career, without ever becoming established in any particular genre. He is also an artist, photographer, book-jacket designer and scriptwriter for radio and TV. His first publication, which I'd give a good deal to acquire, was actually a chapbook containing English translations of his poems, called To Be Continued (Blind Lion Books, London 1979).

The main reason for this improved competence in Swedish is one of those ridiculously simple things. I possess two Swedish-English dictionaries, one a pocket one (Niloe 1965) and the other a compact but hefty hardback (Esselte 1983) - both of them very precious and revered gifts from my grandmother Sigrid Gulliksson. And for the last quarter of a century, up until now, I've always used the latter. After all it has five times as many words! Since the whole idea is to look up words, how can this be a bad thing? The consequence of this false reasoning is that I've always tended to lurch between two states: at first diligently looking up hundreds of words (none of which I can ever remember five minutes later);  then, when I get fed up with this approach, throwing the dictionary aside and trying to grasp the general drift of my Swedish book without looking up any words at all; which means, of course, that I don't learn anything. But now, finally, it crossed my mind to try using the little pocket dictionary instead. This thought arose merely from concern with the weight of my backpack. The benefit I hadn't anticipated was that it's so much quicker to find the words, if only they're there at all. The only words I can find in it are quite common words; but these are just the ones I need to learn. After looking them up a few times each, some of them are really beginning to stick: fatta (understand), övertyga (convince), bry sig (worry about), vifta (wag), vansinne (crazy), leta efter (look for), minsann ("upon my word!").

With the same sense of prolonging my Swedish holiday, I also read Walter Marsden's Lapland, in the series The World's Wild Places published by Time-Life Books, Amsterdam (1976). I remember admiring these lavishly illustrated Time-Life books in school reference libraries back in the sixties and seventies. The books were put together by a team of staff writers and researchers. The photographic material was selected from numerous existing repositories such as Scandinavian magazines - which has a big advantage, the illustrations tend to be amazing. The emphasis is solidly on wildlife rather than anything else; the photos contain no people. Marsden's narrative is comparatively a subordinate element but it sometimes tells me things I didn't know (he was an expert on lemmings), and it sometimes tantalisingly hints at other things I still don't know. For instance Marsden describes the Pasvik valley in northern Finland as "taiga" and says this is unusual in Lapland. I understand him to be using "taiga" in a way that distinguishes it from the boreal forests of Northern Sweden, but he doesn't get round to explaining in what respects it is different. (Wikipedia is a little more helpful, describing it as Siberia-like taiga, noting the domination of old-growth pines, the lack of spruce, and listing several bird species and a few plants that are unusual elsewhere in Scandinavia.)

I also have here a book that my mother, like all Swedish children of the 1940s, is very well acquainted with: Sjung Svenska Folk! For people who grew up in Britain the nearest analogy would be a hymn-book, but this is a nationalistic collection of wholesome folk songs, spring songs, summer songs, Christmas songs, student songs, patriotic songs, songs celebrating different regions of Sweden, or nature, or home life etc. There are also the anthems from other Scandinavian countries, and a few songs from further afield. Drinking songs (even "Hej, Tomtegubbar") are conspicuously absent; the temperance movement was very influential. I know quite a few of these songs - the melodies, anyway - and when we get together my mum and I open up Sjung Svenska Folk!  and have a sing-song. But until now I've never possessed my own copy.

The world does not wait for me to get over Scandinavian obsessions. Other books arrive; the latest two publications from Reality Street, and both look fairly formidable and cry out for some serious attention: these are major poetry collections by Andrea Brady and Peter Hughes. Something has, indeed, already whispered to me that I ought to be climbing back into the poetry saddle. But it's Tim Allen's books (I've acquired several of them) that I'm unsteadily focussing on. The "anti-poetry" of The Voice-Thrower absolutely demands that you stick with it.

And then Laura, doing a summer tidy-up of her bookshelves, passed on to me old selected editions of Arnold and Browning. Annoyingly, this Browning, like the one I've already got, redistributes the poems in Men and Women, Dramatic Romances, etc. Browning himself made this irritating rearrangement as early as 1863, even though it makes nonsense of the opening lines of "One Word More". And now I've spent 50p at a Swindon boot sale on Essays of Goldsmith, which is immediately gripping (though, it turns out, the first page is not really representative). 

I don't know whether it is just a kind of petrol-on-the-flames perversity, but I also seem to have properly begun reading Galdós' enormous novel Fortunata and Jacinta.

*

[This post carried straight on into a longish piece on Tim Allen, which I've now moved to Intercapillary Space. As usual I've removed it from here, to save the bother of making corrections in two different places. If you read the essay, you'll see that the opening couple of paragraphs make slight references to what originally preceded it, which hopefully in the new context will pass unremarked. Think of them as a little extra gift for the three readers who link to it from here!]


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