Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A favorite book

Laura wonders idly whether the love of Anna Karenina (trans. David Magarshack, other translations are inferior and not really useful) is, well, reality-based, or whether those of us who call it a favorite have no deeper reasons than the love of Mr. Willems and IB English. I'm not going to recapitulate everything she wrote, but that's the gist of it.

My short answer is that it's really that good. It's held up through several rereadings. Did I ever reread Hard Times? Ummm, no.

(Digression: on my shelf are a couple of other translations by the same guy: The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, by Dostoyevsky. So you might try those. I too feel lost when trying to choose one out of several translations of a foreign author.)

As I glance at my favorite books (in the profile; when I moved to Utah, I brought my top 100), I notice a couple of newer ones that I've only read once, by Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. All the rest are things I've picked up again and again over the years. I haven't read Anna Karenina for a couple of years, but I picked it up again the other day and it seemed really fresh to me, a cut above even the great stuff I've been reading lately. I have ten library books to read, and then I'll do it. That's a broad clue, this great staying power over almost a decade.

Anna Karenina affected me a lot personally. In 1995, when Chris Tyni killed himself, life got very weird for me. I mean, in one sense I forgot quickly, or submerged my grief beneath school and activities and instantly falling in love with every girl I met (and that particular compass swung around so much, you would've thought I was at the North Pole). In another sense it was time to be an adolescent and feel out of place. But it was also time to go home at night and stay up late writing unhappily, to lose my religion, to really bang my head against life and death and "Vanity of vanities and all is vanity."

Those are basically Levin's questions, too: "He saw death and the approach of death in everything." We read a lot of great stuff in that IB English class, but this was the one that really spoke to me: a white guy whining about how life has no meaning. I wrote confused essays about how Anna lived in a deterministic universe and she couldn't move outside the box of her inclinations because the author was controlling her (obviously, way off). I projected all of my outside concerns into that sprawling novel, and it was big enough to hold them.

I didn't understand exactly why Levin changed, why he became satisfied in Part VIII. I felt like his last epiphany was not good enough. The meaning of life was inculcated from childhood and he might as well continue in what he'd heard first? "He lived (without realizing it) by those spiritual truths that he had imbibed with his mother's milk... Now it was clear to him that he could live only thanks to the beliefs in which he had been brought up." I call BS on this total cop-out. But I think I did come to understand that these questions were worth wrestling down, and I understood with Levin that I shouldn't just give up on them.

I also think the book grows as you grow. Like I said, the story's big enough for a teenage boy, but it becomes a behemoth in the hands of an awake, adult reader. To take a bald-faced example, I haven't reread it as a married father of one. All that life has given me a whole new perspective on the Oblonsky crisis that begins the book, on the sacrifices and compromises anyone makes for the sake of a marriage. And what I saw fresh in those first ten chapters or so was Tolstoy nailing it, over and over.

Anyway, I say read it again.


rebecca said...

I have to agree with you on this one. Although I'm sure I got more out of it for having read it with Mr. Willams (and I'm sure I developed more warm and fuzzy associations with it from doing so!), I actually fell in love with it and read through it very quickly right at the start, far ahead of whatever pace we were supposed to read it at in class - and I certainly didn't do that with every book. Madame Bovary, for example. Now, it was fine and all, but - I'm not sure I've given it much of a second thought since... um, well, a decade ago when we read it. Anna K, though, became like a lense through which to view and interpret large chunks of my life for years to come.

I think you're right on in describing why this is so, also: it's "big" enough. For example, when I went away to college, and my best girl friend from HS went away to another, very different, very far away college, we would write each other emails about our new experiences and the new people we were meeting. How did we convey those new experiences and people? Shockingly often, through comparisons to events and feelings and thoughts and characters in Anna K. While many of my issues and thoughts and fears and ideas and hopes were similar to yours, Dan, many of them were different - and yet that book somehow seemed to hold them all (despite my own similar frustrations with the ending as I read it - I had SUCH high hopes at that point that the ending was going to tell me the answer. THE answer. And then... no! I was still questioning! Ah, the pain and disappointment!).

The other thing that amazed me about the book was again the other thing you mentioned: the ability of that man to somehow, sitting in a distant land in a different time, writing in a different language, write descriptions of how I, as a teenage American girl, felt at certain points that was better than I'd ever understood them myself up to that point. I know of nothing else like it in any book I've ever read. And, having just been inspired by our recent st louis storms and roof/flooding problems here to fill out an insurance inventory... well, lets just say I may well have more money invested in books at this point than I do my Roth IRA.

Ok, I guess I should get back to my own work. Just got excited to see a theme so close to my own heart!

Dan Lewis said...

Everything you're saying sounds very familiar to me. I don't have much time at the moment, but I'll come back to what you wrote.

For some reason your comment made me think of this poem by Galway Kinnell, "How Many Nights". I have to admit I don't entirely see the connection burbling up out of my unconscious, but I'm just going to type it out anyway.

How many nights
have I lain in terror,
O Creator Spirit, Maker of night and day,

only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world
hearing under the creaking of snow
faint, peaceful breaths...
bear, earthworm, ant...

and above me
a wild crow crying 'yaw yaw yaw'
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.

Charles Olney said...

Hi Dan. Long time...

So...you're married, and have children. Wow. I was visiting Ron (you remember Ron? my partner my senior year) last week and it got me all nostalgic for old friends. So I started googling, and here I find that you're already linking to me. These internets are pretty amazing.

Yeah, Anna K. It's still my favorite book, ever since Geraldine insisted that I absolutely had to read it. In fact, reading this has convinced me to bump it into the on-deck circle of my reading list.

Send me an e-mail sometime, if you get a chance. olneyce (at) gmail (dot) com.