The Dark Kansas of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina – Section Three, by Leo Tolstoy


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So now we’re into what I call the “Kansas” of a novel: the characters are defined, the plot underway toward the opposite coast; i.e., the crisis point and denouement. But first to bring you up to date.

Tolstoy spends a lot of time in this section with Lévin on his farm, mowing hay, managing the place, and navigating his brother’s personal dramas – all in an effort to put sweet Kitty out of his mind. But as time passes, Lévin grows a case of the blues.

Meanwhile, Anna’s husband, Alexéi Alexándrovich, is brooding, too. He’s determined to hate Anna, so punishing her for her affair is a must. In the end, he decides her torture is to remain his wife. Thus, Anna and Vrónsky’s love for one another will remain incomplete. And still in a dark mood, Alexéi Alexándrovich takes on a professional mission to subjugate minorities, the Poles in particular. Due to political trickery, his plans are foiled.

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This section must have been a tricky one for Tolstoy to write. He has to advance plot and continue to unearth character traits that supply the plot its fuel, and the section is largely in narrative. This is where his narrative writing ability sparkles. Narrative is often used to create a bit of emotional relief from scenic intensity. But Tolstoy’s gift here is in conveying mood and emotion for two of his primary characters – Lévin and Alexéi Alexándrovich – without the impact of scene. In a novel as long as this one, and serialized to boot, that was no small feat.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars





Who Says Baseball Is Boring?

The missus and I decided we had to make one last baseball game before the Asheville Tourist season is over, so we hurried through chores and made it just in time for the first pitch tonight. For us, our baseball nights are ones of decadence, filled with hot dogs, Yuengling, pulled pork sandwiches, peanuts, and a scoop each of "Dippin' Dots" in plastic cups shaped like  baseball caps.

Oh, and the game…

ImagesTed E. Tourist

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Asheville has played mediocre ball in the season's second half season: fourth place with a 34-29 record, but on a three game winning streak. Their pitching staff is better than most years – almost everyone throws in the low 90s, and they have several standout players. Among them is one Dustin Garneau (wait for it, Dave Frauenfelder…wait for it) a catcher from Torrance, CA, who reminds me a lot of San Francisco's Buster Posey. 

The "Ts" jumped off to a ginormous start, 5-0 in the first inning, but those pesky Hagerstown Suns just kept chipping away at the hometown fireballers until they were wallowing all over the "Ts," 11-6. 

Then the "Ts" woke from their snoozefest with two runs each in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings to take the game 12-11. It wasn't exactly the pitcher's duel I so love – what with 37 hits between the two teams, but there was a lot of ash wood meeting horsehide, and that made for a night of near-cardiac arrest for this Class High-A baseball fan.

With that done, the missus, who doesn't care so much for baseball but loves ballpark food, turns to me and says, "Want to see the season closer tomorrow night?"

No, I say, not after all this. But then I think, well, maybe.

Tales of City and Countryside

Anna Karenina – Section Two, by Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy doesn’t change horses as one might expect of an authorial dividing line between sections of this story. Keep in mind that serialized stories must be written so that each segment clings desperately to those on either side in order to keep readers enthralled. So we see Kitty in emotional agony over Vrónsky’s “who cares” attitude toward her. Of course, he’s smitten with Anna, and she with him, and their affair grows more public as time passes. Alexéi Alexándrovich, Anna’s husband senses the liaison, but he seems more concerned with decorum than with the violation of the marriage. Thus Anna comes to despise her husband.

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Meanwhile, Konstantín Lévin returns to his farm life, and he slowly wishes Kitty from his mind. The wheels to Vrónsky’s professional life begin to show signs of coming off over his insistence in hovering closely to Anna. And at a cavalry horse race, it becomes clear to Alexéi Alexándrovich that his wife’s heart lies elsewhere – Vrónsky’s horse tumbles, breaking the horse’s back and injuring Vrónsky. Alexéi Alexándrovich attempts to calm his upset wife, but she won’t have any of it – she admits to being Vrónsky’s lover.

And the section closes with Kitty receiving a bit of tough love from a new friend over her loss of both Vrónsky and Lévin.

Tolstoy more or less alternates cityscapes and their consequent drama with Lévin’s pristine rural life. Tolstoy’s purpose here is to depict good human qualities thriving in such a rural environment, with city life perhaps bringing out some of the worst in people. But he’s savvy enough as a writer not to make this too clear-cut. In a final scene, he argues with half brother Sergéi Ivánovich over the liberation of the serfs, Lévin taking a somewhat self-serving view of both the serfs and the prospect of their liberation.

The author’s project here, beyond the interweaving of his characters’ lives is a depiction of Russian life in its several facets. And toward this end, he already seems a master.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars




Smooth Interweaving in High Society

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Anna Karenina – Section One, by Leo Tolstoy

I always start a book slowly – I have to get a feel for the writer's style, the characters, setting, and some idea of where the book will lead me. But I've now finished Section One of Anna Karenina and have these comments:

Tolstoy clearly expected Anna Karenina to be a work of some length, so he was in no hurry to get to high drama. However, he didn’t waste time in titillating his readership. After his famous beginning line, he immediately got down to informing us of Prince Stepán Oblónsky’s marital infidelity with the family’s governess.  The Prince’s outing disturbed him to no end, but being a man of privilege, he had an obligation to strike an unruffled pose.

In order to accomplish this, Tolstoy allows us to see Oblónsky contrasted with a socially awkward, rural acquaintance, Konstantín Lévin, who is in love with the very young Kitty Scherbátsky. And to show how smoothly Tolstoy weaves his story among his characters, we see Kitty somewhat attracted to Levin, while being promised to a young military roué, Alexéi Vrónsky.

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The Russian uppercrust of this novel's time entertained regularly and grandly. And to make character introduction even more seamless, we see Oblónsky’s married sister, Anna Karénina, making eyes (in her fashion) at Vrónsky. And, of course, the attraction at this point seems mutual.

 While introducing his characters in such a smooth way, Tolstoy also begins to interlace a commentary on the rising materialist, socialist movement in Russia. Through the device of Lévin, apparently Tolstoy’s alter ego in this book, he also begins a commentary on this rising social and political tide.


My rating: 19 of 20




“My Chivalric Fiasco” Is, Sadly, One

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I'm always leery of stories, or novels, written in what's purported to be "a daring break from old-fashioned literary stylism," or "a new stylistic voice," and this is why:

All too often, one of two things happen in such stories –

  1. The style isn't thought through well enough to coherently complement story, or
  2. Said style overwhelms said story.

The September 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine carries a story, "My Chivalric Fiasco" by George Saunders, a story that obviously projects such a "daring new style." The story is a simple one, perhaps only a vignette; it's beside the point here, so I won't dwell on that.

"Fiasco" starts inventively enough – and entertainingly enough – in a style similar to the text of a play, and in the voice of a bleary-eyed totally radical duuude.  This works extremely well in scene, but when Saunders takes us to his form of narrative, the style quickly flounders. 

Then his primary character, protagonist, in this case, takes a chivalric pill of some sort. His voice enters a mental vortex for a moment and then takes on a faux-Shakespearean tone, which to this reader hardly works at all, i.e., the story becomes completely lost in Saunders' wordplay. This morphing of voice and style is clearly premeditated to play up the chivalric aspect of the story, but I have to wonder why the author chose this strategy over a stylistic one that worked so well at story's onset. 

And finally, the author goes on to more or less explain his story, and at this point the medieval style bcomes a complete shambles as the voice of a hyper-cynical, hard-bitten twenty-something takes over to carry us to the finish line. 

It's well and good for a writer to showcase his/her chops in a newly devised mode of storytelling, but I don't think it's overly conservative thinking to expect coherence of style in support of story. And I'm flexible enough to follow along as a style within a story changes radically, but it should (once again) be donein a viable way in the context of story. Further, it's to the beneficience of literature for writers to experiment, but all too often stories such as "Fiasco," become exactly that – because style isn't the thing – story is.

It’s Tome Time


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Being summer, albeit near-Indian summer this time, I’ve made a practice of pulling out a major volume to read within the afternoon’s refrigerated inside air.  This year I’m digging into a new edition of Leo Tolstoy’s second major work, Anna Karenina, by my fave translators, Volokhonsky and Pevear.


The book was serialized over some three years in Russian publications during the 1870s, and it caused as much of a stir as some of Dickens’ serialized work. Had Tolstoy written it within today’s genres and with today’s sensibilities, it would be publicized as a daring Russian literary novel of history, family, and personal failure – something similar to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Not surprisingly, it was considered a grandiose romance work by wags of Tolstoy’s time. (Remember, writers, once you have a bit of success, someone will come along to throw rocks at you – often in the form of some demeaning categorization or other.)

But where Madame Bovary (publ. 1856) focused almost exclusively on that woman's assets and emotional nature, Anna Karenina (publ. 1877) is much more. 


Since it’ll take a while to read Anna Karenina, I plan to blog on it, much as it probably appeared in the Russian publications of that day. That means: there are eight sections to the novel, and I’ll report back on the story, my general impressions of Tolstoy and his work here some eight times.


So stretch out, kick back and enjoy it with me.