On Rereading Anna Karenina
7/7/2014 — WHY YOU SHOULD REREAD ANNA KARENINA — AT LEAST ONCE A DECADE
I have a confession to make. I don’t read long books—not even after e-books eliminated two of my complaints (hard to hold in bed and painful if dropped on a toe). The problem is that too many long books just aren’t worth the investment of time, often because of authors who don’t know what to leave out or editors too submissive to cut. I did try to read The Goldfinch to see what the fuss was about, but the laborious writing and the abuse of the semicolon (my favorite mark of punctuation) led me to give up after five pages.
Of course there are exceptions to my big book phobia—beginning with almost everything Tolstoy and Dickens wrote. And it’s one of those exceptions that I want to talk about today. I want to urge you to reread Anna Karenina at least once a decade. And if you’re a writer, make that a requirement, not a suggestion.
One reason I love reading the classics is that they tend to break all of the “rules” that modern writers are taught. In Anna Karenina, for example, the point of view is omniscient (mostly out of style today), and Tolstoy slips in and out of the heads of dozens of characters (even a dog), often switching within scenes (a complete no-no, one editor told me). Tolstoy fills his 900 pages with “telling” as well as “showing,” and he summarizes whole conversations instead of providing the dialogue that so many think is essential today. There are long scenes of seeming boredom that most editors would insist on cutting, such as when Levin works the fields with the peasants or enters a long discourse on agricultural policy. And the writing is plain and straightforward, with almost no similes or metaphors to try to impress a reader.
Tolstoy is of course wildly successful not despite all of this but, in part, because of it. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t need a slew of similes and metaphors because his prose is so precise you don’t need a comparison to picture what he is talking about. Consider the breathtaking race scene, one of the most exciting and horrifying in all of literature, in which Vronsky breaks the back of his mare running an obstacle course. Tolstoy, using strong verbs and nouns and hardly any adjectives, puts the reader in the saddle with Vronsky, letting us hear, smell, and feel every stride.
Similarly, Tolstoy gets away with telling because he does it so well and because he uses it to make his “showing” so much more effective. In the scene where Dolly tells Levin he shouldn’t let his pride stop him from giving Kitty another chance, Tolstoy tells you what Levin’s feeling even as he’s showing him acting on it, mixing it all seamlessly:
“Please, please, don’t let us talk of this,” he said, sitting down, and at the same time feeling a hope he had thought buried rising and stirring in his heart.
“If I didn’t love you,” said Darya Alexandrovna, and tears welled up in her eyes; “if I didn’t know you as I do…”
The feeling that had seemed dead revived more and more, rising up and taking possession of Levin’s heart.
Of course the real lesson Tolstoy offers is in his characters, each marvelous and multi-faceted in ways that make readers love them without overlooking the flaws that make them real. The characters you admire still have moments of evil behavior, and the more odious characters have scenes that make you feel sympathy for them. And while Tolstoy prefers the long form to give his central characters their depth, he has a marvelous ability to capture the essence of a minor character in a single sentence. In a brief scene in which Countess Lydia pumps Anna for gossip, he writes:
“But Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who was interested in everything that did not concern her, had the habit of never listening to what interested her. She interrupted Anna.”
What more do you need to know to about Countess Lydia to feel you’ve met her in person?
I know that thousands of words have been written to explain why Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels ever written, and the last thing anyone needs is a blog from me praising it. But I was so overcome with awe when I read it last month (reading it now as a writer as well as a reader) that I had to share at least a little of what I saw that I’d never seen before.
Many of my writing friends admit to being a bit jealous because I’ve retired from the 9-5 rat race and can now write as much as I want. In fact, it doesn’t really work that way, but they do have reason to be jealous. Now I have many more hours to do what really helps a writer. I can read a lot more.
Mark Willen’s novels, Hawke’s Point, Hawke’s Return, and Hawke’s Discovery, were released by Pen-L Publishing. His short stories have appeared in Corner Club Press, The Rusty Nail. and The Boiler Review. Mark is currently working on his second novel, a thriller set in a fictional town in central Maryland. Mark also writes a blog on practical, everyday ethics, Talking Ethics.com.
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