by Lisa Appignanesi
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
All novelists wish they had written the first line of Anna Karenina – and not only because of its aphoristic brilliance. Tolstoy's opening cuts straight to the heart of much of 19th and indeed 20th century fiction. The novel is, apart from all the other things it may also be, the complex and variegated story of the making and breaking of families. Most novelists highlight only one or another aspect of this intricate process. Jane Austen emphasizes courtship and seduction. George Eliot, in Middlemarch, focuses in on the pitfalls of marriage. Dickens, in David Copperfield, on the fate of the orphaned child. Balzac, in Le Père Goriot, on the subverted authority of the father. Flaubert, in Madame Bovary, on infidelity. Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, that novel of novels, does it all and a lot more besides.
By linking the individual's happiness or unhappiness to the state of the family, Tolstoy underscored what was to become a major preoccupation for the Freudian century. And like Freud who said, after all, that he had gone to school to the novelists, Tolstoy located one crucial barometer for that happiness in the condition of women. Both Tolstoy and Freud are severe critics of their epoch's sexual morality and see in the conflict between the constraints of marital duty and passionate extra-marital desire a source of misery not only for the suffering individual but for the family – that cornerstone of society - as a whole. Tolstoy may have become, like Freud though with a very unFreudian recourse to religion, a social conservative. But in Anna Karenina, he is so alert to the plight of 19th century woman that we could say for him as Flaubert did for his adulterous Madame Bovary - Anna Karenina, c'est moi.
Needless to say, when I first read Anna Karenina as a seventeen-year-old I was far more interested in Anna's tragic infidelity than in anything else in this great, baggy novel which seems so artlessly to encompass the vast geography of Russia, not to mention the individual's relations to the land, to society, to change, to ideas and to God. Anna, for me, was the quintessential heroine, the woman love brings to life and then to death - that suicide which is the acme of romantic destinies. Maybe it was the superabundance of vitality that Tolstoy endows her with which blotted out much of the rest of the book for me. Her entrance into the novel may not come until the 13th chapter, but then he writes of her: `It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.'
This is seen from the point of view of Count Vronsky, her eventual lover, but there is always a `surplus' in Anna, an excess, something which escapes her conscious control. Without being told, we know it is her passionate nature, her sexuality. It manifests itself in her quick, white hands, her gleaming rounded shoulders, her dark, curling hair, even in her intensely physical relationship with her small son. She has the passion which fuels transgression. In contrast, her husband Karenin is a desiccated bureaucrat with veined hands and a high-pitched squeaky voice, perhaps physically repulsive to his creator and to us even before he becomes so to Anna. Tolstoy sets it up so that we want Anna and Vronsky to come together whatever the social cost and whatever ominous portents herald their fate.
In retrospect I suspect that Anna and Vronsky's story took over the novel for me, so that for years I had no accurate recollection of the parallel and equally important story of the courtship and marriage of Kitty and Levin. Most of my reading until then had been in the 19th century English novel or what we could call the tradition of the great renouncers. Women's passion was either a question of property or locked up in the attic - certainly not something to be given into unless one wanted to be a stray, subsidiary character. Indeed, with many of Henry James's heroines, like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, the greatest passion goes into the act of renunciation. Tolstoy may have embraced faith and traditional religion as Levin, his fictional alter-ego, does by the end of Anna Karenina, but he was no puritan. Sexual desire, rampant jealousy, the humiliations, the bondages, the power plays of passion were all part of his fictional vocabulary. In Anna Karenina he diagnoses and illuminates them so that the lives of his characters at times become more vivid to us than those of the people we know.
Reading Anna Karenina after a hiatus of some twenty years I am struck by more things than I can list here. The new Penguin translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has a wonderful ease and matter-of-factness about it so that the comedy of manners comes to the fore. As a result, Anna's brother Prince Stepan Oblonsky, an ebullient, kind-hearted philanderer who can never say no to life's delights takes on a striking vivacity and emerges as a worthy comic foil to his tragic sister. It is Stepan's family who is unhappy in its own fashion at the start of the novel. His wife Dasha has learned of his affair with the children's governess. She is on the point of leaving him when Anna arrives to attempt to patch up the marriage. By one of those perverse ironies that rupture life's course, Anna stumbles into her own adultery, one society will not tolerate because its passion is too transgressive, while smoothing over her brother's acceptable one.
One of Tolstoy's many, almost uncanny talents as a novelist is the way in which he allows his character's unconscious desires to peak or poke through the fabric of everyday life and disrupt their best intentions. Although Anna Karenina begins with Stepan Oblonsky’s dream in which carafes of wine are also dancing women, it is not only in his characters’ dreams that these desires emerge. Levin often says what isn't on his mind. Kitty's blushes and eyes betray her wishes in advance of her knowledge. Vronsky-in-love pursues Anna with an animal look of blind obedience which turns into a murderer's mastery the moment passion is consumed. He inadvertently breaks Anna in the way he has broken his thoroughbred's back in the ardour of the race.
Tolstoy's psychological intelligence remains astonishing. Without belabouring any points or losing a narrative beat, he shows us how Anna's guilt vis à vis her husband Karenin only makes her hate him more, until she denies his presence altogether. Meanwhile, his visible magnanimity weighs down on her like a sadistic act, aimed solely at her humiliation. Later on in the book when Karenin finds solace in fashionable piety, Tolstoy lets us see that Karenin clings to this `born-again' faith, this imaginary salvation as if it were real because it allows him, `despised by everyone', to despise others.
The double-backed beast of jealousy is one Tolstoy knew only too well and it plays a prominent role in Anna Karenina, moving contagiously between the characters. At once sign and signal of love and potential destroyer, jealousy haunts Levin's courtship of Kitty and almost prevents their union. Once engaged, Levin, like Tolstoy himself had done with his fiancée, gives Kitty his diaries of past exploits to read thus engendering her jealousy which continues to move between them, eternally demanding reinvention and assuagement. When Anna and Vronsky return from Italy to set up together in the Moscow which ostracizes her, her social abasement feeds the tortured jealousy she suffers at Vronsky's continuing freedom. She half knows that her scenarios of other women are projections of her own imprisoned state, her own wish to move and think freely if only she could. But she is utterly tied, utterly dependent, more so than her sister-in-law Dasha ever was in her betrayed, jealous state at the start of the novel.
Virginia Woolf called Tolstoy `the greatest of all novelists'. She might almost have added the greatest writer about women at the cusp of a new century. I can think of no earlier descriptions of childbirth in fiction than that of Kitty and Levin's son and none more poignant. Experienced from the uxorious Levin's point of view, it nonetheless encompasses the ravages, the fears, the pain and finally the sense of miracle which attends the new life.
When Dasha, mother of five living and two dead children, in a bleak moment does her mental accounts of fifteen years of marriage, they read like a feminist litany:
`pregnancy, nausea, dullness of mind, indifference to everything, and, above all, ugliness. ...then nursing, the sleepless nights, the terrible pains [from cracked nipples]. Then the children's illnesses, this eternal fear; then their upbringing, vile inclinations… And all that for what?'
Despite all this, in what must be the first frank conversation about birth control in fiction, Dasha repudiates the methods Anna, ever the transgressor, uses. Tolstoy, we know, was on Dasha's side yet his sympathy for Anna is palpable.
He astutely depicts Anna's conflict over her children, the first by Karenin, the second by Vronsky. The choice between love for her son and passion for her lover is no real choice, since it only becomes clear once she has given in to her passion that a choice had to be made and by then it is too late. Anna is bound to Vronsky. It is almost as if she represses her love for her son, blinds herself to it, puts it into abeyance until it surges forth to make her loathe her lover. At the same time, Anna cannot bring herself to love her daughter by Vronsky because the little girl is the very sign of her bondage, her fall into an abject state.
A woman who is not a wife to one man or another is nothing. The inner monologue which accompanies Anna's last desperate journey towards Vronsky (who is, ironically, with his mother) and death is a howl of pain, lurching between love and hate. In its opium-induced discontinuities, its random juxtapositions of the mundane and the profound, it harks forward to James Joyce and Woolf, herself.
In its sprawling flow, Anna Karenina may seem as artless as life itself. And that is the greatness of Tolstoy's art.
Lisa Appignanesi's latest novel is Sanctuary (Bantam). Her family memoir Losing the Dead, is available from Vintage. She is also the co-author, with John Forrester, of Freud's Women (Penguin).
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