One of my favorite novels is Dos Passos’ ‘Manhattan Transfer’. That book was structured very much like (then) modern art – it was disjointed, characters melted in and out of the story, there was not a single, strong narrative but rather a mood to the story. It was jazz.
This book feels like the first notes of that modern movement. This could almost be a stage play too; it’s hardly a novel.
Not many (good) books can be read in one sitting, fewer of them should be read in one sitting.
One Day In The Life is an unusual book for other reasons too. First of all, nothing really happens. Oh, sure, plenty does, yet this is the brilliance of the novel. Just out of sight from our hero is a menace. We feel it in everything that does happen and we know, we just know something terrible is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something will, even should, go horribly wrong. And we know the consequences of a 10 day stint: no recovery and certain death.
More unusual is that without a few dates in the book, we would never really know when this book takes place. We could easily replace the tommy-guns with some other weapon and set the novel in the 18th century. Hell, Egyptian slaves probably didn’t fare much better 3000 years ago except they had to deal with heat and sand instead of cold and snow.
By the end of the novel we are relieved but on edge. I really felt like I had lived in that terrible place and I really did feel cut off from all life. And, of course, that is the point. And to know this was a factual account of life in the Gulags, that it took place during my parents generation, that it’s a microcosm and damnation of the failed Soviet communist experiment makes the whole book a terrifying masterpiece.
Yet it’s not the typical bleak Russian novel. There is hope on every page, in every action. There is beauty in the desolation of the camp, the ice on the window, the moon, even in the job of laying the bricks. There is humanity here and while there might not be a hope for a better and different future, there is hope for a good enough now.
It’s easy to condemn Anna, especially since she’s always being compared to Levin. The whole structure off the book is Tolstoy’s attempt to show how different these two people are. And while Levin is, as Anna’s husband would turn the phrase “beyond reproach”, what are we to make of Anna? Was she a bad person? Was she evil?
For me, Anna truly lived. Unlike Levin who suffered doubts about everything under the sun, she was led by her passions. Her eyes would half close when confronted with some harsh reality or other while Levin instantly become introspective and longed to do the right thing for the right reasons.
But who had more fun in life? Levin almost missed his opportunity to find live with Kitty (or any other woman for that matter) and even when they were married, as as he was, he was repulsed by the birth of his child; he had to grow to love that pink, wriggling thing. He never seemed to have any convictions about anything and those that he did have seemed to surprise him and never were what he expected them to be like. Nothing was what he expected it to be life be it the symphony, politics and political theory, city life – he was always uncomfortable.
Yet Anna just rushed into every experience and dealt with the fallout later. She knew who she was and even more who she wasn’t. She was’t tormented by the inner-demons of Levin, she only had to deal with the demons of society instead, and all of them were petty people anyway.
In the final scenes of the novel, Levin has taken up beekeeping and I couldn’t help but thinking that Tolstoy was using this activity to show how bees can either sting you or make you honey. Levin got the honey, but he had to wait for it whereas Anna got stung, but that’s because she had stolen some honey already. She was like the kids cooking berries over the candles and squirting milk into each others mouths; she lived for that pleasure now and didn’t even care to question if the pleasures would continue. She would deal with the terrible sting later.
And she did, too.
But I don’t think she was any better or worse than Levin. She merely sought her rewards in life immediately whereas Levin discovered he could have them after death.
Yet they both had one thing in common: they didn’t put much stock in reason. For her she was impulsive and for him he put aside intellect to explain life and the universe. The both found meaning in the spiritual.
And I don’t want to hang morality on either character because who is to say who really lived life better? True, Anna hurt everyone she ever met, but she lived for herself and if this life is the only life we have then I think she had the right idea. But if you believe there is a life after this one then Levin might have the right idea.
But who is to say is right? Or better?
It’s a wonderful question to ask, and this novel presents this dilemma brilliantly.
The title of this book should be Kostya Levin. He’s such a perfectly drawn character that I can’t think of any other character in literature who equals him; except maybe for Pierre in War and Peace.
After all his discomfort with society, with politicians, with the clergy, and with art; discovering that the meaning of life was in none of those things but is just in the fact of being alive is so beautiful.
When I compared Anna’s life to being a glorious train wreck I didn’t realize how literal that analogy was going to turn out.
Anna’s end is a bit too tidy (no pun intended) for me. That dream she had her whole life, while beautifully vivid, is too convenient. And we already had the same thing happen when she first arrived in Moscow.
She died a very literary death, but not a very real one. Still sad, however.
I’ll buy a train, very nice and stylish train with first-class amenities, posh decor, brass everythings, and run it along the finest, straightest track money can buy.
This track I’ll lay along smooth, flat ground through beautiful scenery. On a crisp winters morning, I’ll start up the train and let it run all the way down the line and off the cliff waiting at the end.
Kitty and Levin are the most manic-depressive couple in the history of literature.
She I can at least understand since she’s so young and is still learning about herself but he’s filled with self-doubt one moment followed by confidence the next; he’s introspective in the morning but then by night his philosophy is ‘it can’t be helped’.
Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is to self analysis as Hamlet is to indecision.
He really is a tragic figure. He’s so imprisoned by decorum and what’s expected of a man of his position that I find myself rooting for him to get free, though usually in the way I rooted for Hamlet to kill his uncle already.
I always get such satisfaction when I read how people act so similar from one era to our own. It’s so easy to assume people even just 100 years ago were so grave and were never amused by the things that amuse us. Yet people are people and have always been the same and that’s comforting to me somehow.
The scene where Levin and Kitty write to each other in code is so wonderful. There is such a childish innocence to their love in that game but also they way Tolstoy handles how to speak that which is difficult to express.
Then the next day as he stays up all night, catches sight of the people on the street, the loaves of bread … and then her! My god, so beautiful.
As I started reading this I assumed the story would be about everyone’s reaction to the death of their ‘friend’. Tolstoy does such a great job of highlighting the selfishness of people and how wrapped up they can be even in the death of their ‘friend’ that I figured he would carry that thru-line all the way to the end.
And that’s what he did, only by backtracking and giving us a look at Ivan through the course of his life and miserable death.
Tolstoy really had it in for the ‘middle-class’ in this story. He saw them as unimaginative, hangers-on, helpless, and in love with the little power that they were allowed to possess. He sees their dreams as mundane, their routines little more than rat-like, and their fate horrible. In fact, were this story not conceived and written by a great master of literature, I could easily see a similar theme being explored by a teenager in high-school; such is the disdain for (the 19th Russian equivalent of) ‘suburbia’.
Luckily, we’re instead treated to a masterpiece of well thought-out and brilliantly realized storytelling.
The death scene is something that is remarkable and terrifying that I actually felt a little closer to understanding what death could be like just from reading this. Anyone who reads this and does not question their own mortality and the point of their own existence should get their wandering kidneys examined.
The Overcoat is my introduction to Gogol and I’m very excited to read his other works. I have to admit that there is a strong comparison to be made between this story and the works of Kafka. The oppressive office, the dirty streets, the bewildering bureaucracy, and rigid and obtuse authority figures are something Kafka lovers can immediately identify with. Yet unlike Kafka, there is more humanity here. Kafka’s characters were never what I would call ‘deep’. In fact, most of them were barely human (The Metamorphosis, The Hunger Artist, The Burrow). Gogol is more interested in the pathos whereas Kafka saw mostly absurdity.
I love how Tolstoy handles the passage of time in his stories. He’s able to make it seem as if the events you’re reading are playing out in real-time right before you. It’s almost eerie.
But just when you think you’ve got his clock figured out, he manages to stretch out the afternoon steeplechase sequence over 4 different characters. It’s like getting to watch a reply of every tragic rider one-by-one.
The genius of this novel really lays in how we are introduced to the characters. It’s very easy to condemn nearly everyone in the story, Anna and Alexei especially – but that’s only because we don’t know then at the beginning.
How easy it is to judge someone we don’t know, whose shoes we haven’t walked in. How important it is we see Levin cut the grass with the peasants to show us how to see the rest of the cast.
Konstantin Levin’s inner monologues can hit a little too close to home.
Tolstoy’s genius isn’t in his beautiful descriptions or his rich characterizations, but rather in his ability to put into words the thoughts and doubts we’ve all felt but were unable to put into words ourselves.
Reading Tolstoy is like reading something very, very true. Sometimes it’s even a little painful, but you’re glad you did it.
Tolstoy does not use description of place the way he did in War and Peace. Here scenes play out in rooms that are hardly described with only the ice skating park given a clear description.
The cinematic quality is something I loved about War and Peace and so I do sort of miss it here, however, Anna Karenin more than makes up for it with depth of emotion and he does much less telling and more showing too.