Gloomy Russians Looking Awkward at the Beach

Liz Hand closed her summer reading LJ post the other day with an ironical apology for the absence from her list of any Proust, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. What means this? thought I, who happened to be reading Anna Karenina. I’ve heard of War and Peace referred to as the end-all antithesis of mindless beach reading. And I have no doubt at one point or another performed similar pseudo-intellectual self-flagellation with Crime and Punishment. But I didn’t exactly pick up Anna Karenina for that purpose—it was more just one of those spur of the moment things, at a loss for reading material before a bookshelf assembled for other tastes than my own. And you know, I don’t actually feel particularly oppressed by it. Granted, I haven’t attempted to get anywhere in the book while using it as a sun-shield on the beach. But for someone who reads as slowly as I do, it actually has been flying right by. No comparison to Dostoevsky, really, either for the bleakness of the material or the density of the prose. It might even be easier to decipher than somebody like Jane Austen, who among ye classic 19th century novelists is much more likely to be stereotyped as a beach reading option.

I’m not very well-versed in Tolstoy. I’ve read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” a few times, which strikes me as being much more tongue-in-cheek satirical than Anna Karenina, more influenced by Gogol. The main intent in Anna Karenina, rather than sending up the ills of a society as a whole or attacking its hypocrisies, seems to be to illustrate, in painstaking nuance and verisimilitude, the series of core character types and variations on the core that make up society and cause it to function as it does. So we get a lot of extensive, internal character sketches, an incredible number of and an incredible willingness to shift between POVs. The elements of plot and conflict seem very deliberately designed to provide opportunities to show us these characters in all possible lights and from all angles. Which I guess makes it less titillating, less of a page-turner, than say a Pride & Prejudice or Crime & Punishment, if either of those works can be said to possess any such quality. But it also means reading Anna Karenina requires less vestedness from the reader, allowing it to be picked up and laid aside with surprising carelessness. And since what I’m reading for isn’t the next twist in a gothic romance, but rather the next facet of a wise and exhaustive survey into human nature, I feel much freer to dally and skim as suits the moment and my mood. So—not your typical summer reading in the usual sense, but for me, at least, it works really well.

My favorite parts are the occasional, brief tidbits of generalization Tolstoy interjects to explicate a character action or tendency we have just been shown, but which in almost every case can be applied with equal ease to every situation ever encountered, in real life or in fiction, among people of the type being discussed. Because Tolstoy is just that perceptive.

This, for example, is the reaction of the tortured, true artist Mihailov to the idle hobbying of the bored, wealthy Count Vronsky. One of the bitterest instances I’ve come across, but I like it.

He knew that Vronsky could not be prevented from amusing himself with painting; he knew that he and every other dilettante had a perfect right to paint what they liked, but it was distasteful to him. A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll, and kissing it. But if the man were to take his doll and go and sit down in the presence of a man in love, and start caressing his doll as the lover caressed his beloved, it would be distasteful to the lover. Mihailov had just such a feeling of distaste at Vronksy’s painting: he was amused, irritated, sorry, and affronted.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been on both ends of that feeling.

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