November 20, 2010 Baby’s First Tolstoy
I am reading (and reading and reading) Anna Karenina. I downloaded it to my Kindle. There are advantages and disadvantages to reading it on a Kindle: it certainly weighs less than the book would, and is much easier to handle. But I can’t actually see where the heck I am in the book. I can’t mutter, “Holy cow, I’m only a third of the way through it!” as I’m reading. There are no markers.
I keep trying to figure out where I am in the narrative based on plot pacing, and I can’t. The book is following no pattern that I can perceive. It just goes on and on and on. People do this, people do that. They go here, they go there. We spend a while in one character’s POV, then switch to another, then another, and then another. Tragedies occur and are recovered from, first by this character, then that one. I’m utterly mystified as to why the book is titled Anna Karenina and where it is going. Perhaps at the end, Anna Karenina — one of a whole boatload of equally-important characters, as far as I can tell — will blow up Moscow or something. Then I’ll say, “Aha, THAT’s why he named the book after her.”
Or perhaps he named it Anna Karenina because, of all the characters, hers was the only name that would fit on the spine. Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya just wouldn’t have the same ring.
If you know, don’t tell me.
The Kindle has a little fill bar at the bottom of the screen that informs you, sort of, how much of the book you have read. According to the little fill bar, I’m only about halfway through the thing. I can’t tell you how tempted I am to stop. We are at the scene of a singularly beautiful wedding, and I’m so happy to see poor old Konstantin Dmitrievitch finally marrying the girl he has loved for years and never thought he’d win — the romance novelist in me is screaming, “Stop! Stop right here! This is the happy ending!” But no, according to the little fill bar, Tolstoy plans to go on. And on and on.
People who sneer at romances often claim our books are unrealistic, but that’s not true. Our books are just as realistic, or unrealistic, as everyone else’s. We just wrap everything up at the happiest point. In what is loosely referred to as “real life,” every love story is a tragedy because they all, without exception, end in separation or death. In life, you have no choice. In fiction, you do. So don’t go there. Awful things will happen to your beloved characters eventually, so stop at the proposal, or the wedding, or the birth of a longed-for child, or whatever. If you’re writing a mystery, solve the crime and wrap that sucker up. If you’re writing a Western, run the bad guys out of town and ride off into the sunset. If you’re writing horror, kill the monster and let the sun rise. If the monster comes back, let him do it in the sequel. Those are the rules, O spinner of tales. Break them at your peril.
Tolstoy had the advantage of writing before the rules were carved in stone, so I have no earthly idea where he is taking this thing. He’s got so many plot-balls in the air, all being carried by characters with unpronounceable polysyllabic names, that I marvel at his ability to keep it all so clear. Apart from the political conversations and Russian farming theories, that is, which I am skimming — I hardly ever skim anything, but I guess everyone has limits.
I do wonder what it’s like to read it in the original Russian. If this were my first experience with Russian literature, I’d think this was a lousy translation, but actually it’s very like the Chekhov plays I encountered in college. People seem to have different names depending on who is in the room, and they burst out with odd exclamations that ring completely false to an American ear. “Ah, my dear Darya Alexandrovna! I understand you perfectly. No, no, we mustn’t speak of it.” (OK, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. We’re left muttering, “What? What do you understand, and why can’t you speak of it?”) People burst into tears or laughter for no discernible reason. You know, the usual. The usual Russian stuff.
And my goodness, there’s a lot of snow.