Guide to the Classics: Anna Karenina


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An illustration from a 1914 edition of Anna Karenina.
Zahar Pichugin/Shutterstock.com

Judith Armstrong, University of Melbourne

“In order for a book to be good,” said Leo Tolstoy to his wife Sonya on March 2 1877, “one has to love its basic, fundamental idea. Thus, in Anna Karenina, I loved the idea of the family.” These words Sonya copied into her diary on March 3.

This “idea” plays out through the plot of Anna Karenina, published between 1874 and 1876, and often acclaimed as the best novel ever written. It begins with one of the most famous first lines in fiction:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina (2003 edition).
Penguin Books/Goodreads

The first of the novel’s two major plot lines relates to the irresistible Anna, who “had not known family life”, being brought up by an aunt and married off to the considerably older Alexei Karenin.

The second depicts the landowner Konstantin Levin (a frontman for the novel’s estate-owning author) who loves, loses but ultimately marries Kitty Shcherbatsky, the youngest daughter of parents devoted to their children and each other.

The two strands are linked by the lovable womaniser Stiva Oblonsky, who is Anna’s brother, Levin’s best friend, and Kitty’s brother-in-law. Anna travels from St Petersburg to Moscow to patch up a hiccup in Stiva’s marriage to Dolly (Kitty’s older sister).

At the station she finds herself instantly and mutually attracted to the dashing army officer Alexei Vronsky, who is collecting his mother from the same train. The enthralling narrative follows all three couples and finally results in one happy marriage (Levin and Kitty), one that just jogs along (Stiva and Dolly), and the infamous relationship that ends in the titular character’s suicide (Anna and Vronsky).

Tolstoy, the youngest of four brothers, was always going to be a writer, but having inherited a large family estate, became a landowner as well. He was crankily opposed to romantic love and conflicted about sex. Only after much procrastination, at the age of 34, would he marry 18-year-old Sonya Behrs and see her raise eight children – though she endured 16 pregnancies.

His sometimes tortured personal views – the 1889 novella The Kreuzer Sonata is little more than a diatribe against sex, love and marriage – provide the unifying context for Anna Karenina.

The bigger picture

Yet “family” is far from the only theme in the novel. Both Tolstoy and his writing are striking for their preoccupation with significant issues affecting humanity, then and now: nationalism (which Tolstoy foregrounded in War and Peace), spirituality, pacifism, brotherhood, agriculture and modernisation (read: technology).

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s lifelong concern with spirituality is at the heart of Levin’s struggle with the church’s requirements for confession before marriage. Levin, like Tolstoy himself, objects to the Russian Orthodox Church both in principle (its hypocrisy, wealth, authoritarianism, nationalism) and in practice.

Nikolai Ge, ‘Portrait of Leo Tolstoy’, painting (circa 1870).
Wikimedia Commons

The author’s opposition to industrialisation is also recognisable in the narrative. The fact that Anna meets her lover Vronsky on a train platform, and ultimately dies under the wheel of a train, reflects this opposition.

Tolstoy struggled with these themes on a daily basis and explored them in both his long and shorter writings, embodying their effects in characters we feel we know intimately – certainly enough to love or loathe them.

That we do react with such a sense of total immersion is due to Tolstoy’s deep understanding of human nature and his ability to draw us into any one of an infinitude of emotions. He admitted that when he “wrote” a character, no matter how antithetical to himself they might be, he felt convinced that for those moments he was that person. The result then reads as if he had actually lived every one of their desires, aspirations and faults before laying them before us.

A conflicted moralist

Yet, perhaps because it was a genuine and essential aspect of Tolstoy’s own world view, moral judgment is always present in his writing. Though not spelled out, this judgment is implied by unavoidable cause and effect in human actions.

In Anna’s case her passion for Vronsky results in a sexual liaison that leads to the breakdown of her marriage, separation from her son, and almost complete isolation from society. Clinging to her (unlicensed) liaison with Vronsky, who tries helplessly to make up for these losses by being everything to her, she moves from emotional dependence to unfounded jealousy to final, self-destructive despair.

At the start the reader feels, with Anna, that what she does is wonderful and romantic, but it then becomes counterproductive and, finally, a disaster. This is Tolstoy in both his guises: the empathetic writer and the moralist, determined to show that family values must triumph over personal gratification.

A timeless narrative

Anna Karenina has generated four ballets, six stage plays, ten operas and 16 films. English-language versions include a 1935 black-and-white film starring Greta Garbo – much treasured despite the incompatibility between Garbo’s signature languor and Tolstoy’s emphasis on the title character’s “suppressed animation”.

More recently, a 2012 British film with Keira Knightley was ridiculed by Russian film critics, mainly due to Knightley’s performance. There have been seven television adaptations, including two by the BBC. In Australia we had a television version loosely based on the novel, The Beautiful Lie (2015), which was set in the present day.

New translations of the novel are steadily brought out, but no final agreement on “the best” can ever be arrived at. Opinions differ as to how far the translator should divert from fidelity to the text’s language in order to achieve greater closeness to the “spirit” or “intention” of the author.

Some critics still champion Constance Garnett’s dubious translation of 1901, despite mistakes made in the text (many of these were corrected in a revised edition by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova in 1965). Others prefer that of Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) who, living in Russia, were able to go over each line with the author.

Both translations are still available, but many contemporary critics prefer newer ventures that aim for a more “with it” vocabulary or a trendier style. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s waiving of his translation rights ensures that a stream of forever-new versions will always reflect inevitable changes in language usage and social perceptions.

The ConversationThis superb novel will never gather dust because, while mores and attitudes – like translations – change with the times, desire in its various manifestations will always be with us, as will the conscience that must decide whether any of them ought to be reined in.

Judith Armstrong, Honorary Associate Professor in Arts and Languages & Linguistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America



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A Soviet-era stamp depicts a scene from Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’
Wikimedia Commons

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.” The Conversation

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America


Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.”

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Beautiful Lie: a radical recalibration of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina


Yvonne Griggs, University of New England

Let’s deal with the timeworn adage that has haunted screen adaptation studies since the birth of the moving image. Can any screen version be as good as the book?

Is the new ABC miniseries The Beautiful Lie, the latest screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), as good as the book?

In short, the answer is yes. But the question, I would argue – and it’s one that film and TV critics in particular pose with tiresome regularity – is redundant. Why? Because, as with The Beautiful Lie, screen adaptations of the novel take us into very different creative territory.

Television adaptations of canonical texts invariably take the costume drama route, presenting us with safe, predictable genre fare that’s usually rolled out on Sunday evenings in serialized drip-feed.

From the BBC serializations in 1961 (starring a pre-Bond Sean Connery) and 1977, to the 1985 TV movie and the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries adaptation in 2000, Tolstoy’s tale of doomed obsessive love plays out in all of its predictable period glory, accompanied by the prerequisite dose of reverence for the canon.

But The Beautiful Lie is anything but predictable.

Given a contemporary makeover by writers Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, this Anna (played by Sarah Snook) and her husband, Alexander (Rodger Corser), are sporting “nobility”.

Sarah Snook in The Beautiful Lie.
ABC TV Publicity.

Their status as modern day tennis celebrities ensures their transition from Tolstoy’s 19th century Russia to 21st century Australia within a familiar context, while Vronsky’s military potency is translated to that of indie record producer, Skeet (Benedict Samuel), the sexy outsider whose star momentarily enters the gullible Kitty’s orbit. It is difficult to see how this seemingly radical recalibration of Tolstoy’s narrative can possibly work. And yet, it does.

The Bell/Gavin script has a particularly Australian flavor to it and earlier television dramas they’ve penned clearly influence their treatment of Tolstoy’s story. Rather than replicating 19th century Russia, Bell and Gavin create a contemporaneous Australian family drama of compelling energy for their 21st century audience.

The heady story of love and obsession is of relevance to all times but what’s achieved in this adaptation is a similarly telling critique of a society at a specific moment in time. Layers of family drama unfold, exposing the same levels of dysfunctionality, the same preoccupation with matters of infidelity.

Bell’s award winning work on two earlier TV drama adaptations Puberty Blues (2012), The Slap (2011) feeds into her depiction of sexual exploration and familial disputes. Gavin, a co-writer on Puberty Blues, is also an award-winning writer of relationship dramas including Offspring (2010).

All play out against a decidedly Australian cultural and geographical backdrop. But what’s handled with aplomb in this modern take on Anna Karenina is the humour that is so often left out of adaptations of Russian realist literature. The marital strife of Anna’s brother Kingsley and his wife Dolly is infused with gentle comedy, and Kitty’s adolescent angst strikes a familiar chord.

The success or failure of screen romance rests with the chemistry of its lovers: casting is as important to screen narratives as the prose on the page is to the writer.

In The Beautiful Lie, Sarah Snook and her Vronsky, Benedict Samuel, convince us of the inevitability of their union. But the series takes us one step closer to the heat of the affair in a most unusual reversal of narrative “voice”.

Sarah Snook in The Beautiful Lie.
ABC TV Publicity.

To adapt a first person narration from prose to screen is traditionally viewed as problematic: how does the visual storyteller translate first person narration through the apparatus of an all-seeing camera lens? Voiceover is employed sparingly on screen if at all in most instances, even when the text that’s being adapted is a canonical coming of age narrative like Jane Eyre or Great Expectations.

In this adaptation Anna’s dominant voiceover positions us with her from the outset, filtering our experience of the drama as it unfolds, and creating a pseudo confessional intimacy with the viewer. It speaks to the precursor text and yet it isn’t constrained by it: it takes the drama into different but universally similar emotional territory of relevance to a mainstream 21st century audience.

As with the majority of TV adaptations of canonical 19th century realist novels, film adaptations of Anna Karenina tend to follow the heritage cinema treatment: the camera lingers on period detail and is awash with wide angled panning shots of country mansions and rolling hills.

Screen legends Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh have both starred as Anna (1935, 1948) in period renditions and there have been numerous adaptations (1927, 1997, 2012) since the first silent Anna Karenina in 1911. But like The Beautiful Lie, the latest film adaptation written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright dares to do things differently.

Yes, it’s a costume drama, though a costume drama with a difference and one that tells the story in a manner that departs from Tolstoy’s realist mode of narration. Wright’s film frames the narrative as a piece of theatre; it takes us away from the heat that’s so central to the viewing experience of The Beautiful Lie and into Brechtian territory that places the audience outside the moment as onlooker rather than participant.

For some, this and the textual interventions of Bell and Gavin are a betrayal of the original text. For others, they are inventive ways to prolong the dialogue with a narrative that’s of universal, long-lasting potency.

Just as “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, adaptations re-vision Anna Karenina in their own way but some, like The Beautiful Lie, thankfully take a more audacious approach than others.

The Beautiful Lie screens on Sunday nights at 8.30pm on ABC.

The Conversation

Yvonne Griggs, Lecturer in Media & Communications, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: All of Tolstoy’s Works Are Online for Free


The link below is to an article reporting on the works of Leo Tolstoy and how they are now all available for free online.

For more visit:
http://en.rian.ru/russia/20130905/183191485/All-of-Tolstoys-Works-Are-Online-for-Free–Descendant.html