Anna Karenina, Casino Royale
Finished Anna Karenina today, and also managed to read Casino Royale (by Ian Fleming – you know, James Bond) on a whim. It strikes me as interesting (and it struck me before, it should be noted, I even considered reading Casino Royale) that for a novel that’s meant to be the epitome of realism, it has very little sex in it. (I talk of Anna Karenina, obviously.) Surely there was a kiss or two, but I’m having trouble remembering when.
And as much as I have been impressed with some of the scenes in it, I found that I was, if not slightly underwhelmed, then certainly not powerfully moved by Anna’s death moments, where she throws herself under the train. From the matter-of-fact conjuring of the complex of emotions that happen at certain events – Levin’s baby being born, Sergei Ivanovich deciding not to propose, and so on – I imagined that it would be much the same for Anna’s death, but it wasn’t – it was more stream of consciousness, I think, than the others, and that possibly damaged the effect for me. (Though saying this, I wouldn’t be surprised that, if I ever read the novel again, I’ll have an entirely different opinion of the scene.)
Part Eight, the final section, where Levin (or, rather, Tolstoy, basically), describes his model for living: it rang true for me in quite a few parts. My current idea of least-despair tending towards filling one’s life with a balance of work and recreation, which, while not despair-fighters in themselves, nevertheless keep the mind engaged and so not constantly gravitating towards black thoughts – this seemed to be partially described by Levin’s theories (in that keeping one’s mind off existential despair is generally a good thing). Something like that. (Isn’t it interesting that one needs to be still to despair, in general, as if it’s like a mouse that waits until it comes out of hiding. (And then you can trap it in the microwave!)) Even as I type this I feel that I’m utterly misrepresenting what I read Levin think earlier this afternoon, and that I’m not remembering it correctly at all. I do know that the majority of it was to do with God, which I wasn’t talking about in this paragraph. I suppose it’s basically a Christian life-view that he was espousing.
On the whole, though, I was somewhat resistant to the idea, perhaps because it all didn’t entirely ring true with me, and also because anything that sounds like preaching is bound to make me withdraw. Though, compared to the horrid speech by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged – which I was consciously reminded of as I was reading Part Eight – it was much, much better. (It probably helps that it was a philosophy of living for others, rather than the cold selfishness of Objectivism, or whatever it was that Ayn Rand was into.)
As for whether Anna Karenina is the great novel in the world, as I’ve read quite a few times – no. No, I don’t think it is. I’d much prefer to read, for instance, Infinite Jest again, before I read Anna Karenina again. Indeed, I feel that I got more out of Infinite Jest. Hmm. What other books do I think were better? Ulysses, maybe? Then again, I’m no doubt saying that these two are better because they’re more mysterious, more the-word-I-can’t-remember-that-means-not-transparent (and now I’m going to look it up), more opaque (there we go) than Anna Karenina, and therefore I think they’re deeper. Perhaps that’s the reason. Let me see if I can’t think of another non-modernist book…
But while I think – I was reminded of Madame Bovary as I read Anna Karenina. I gave up on that a hundred or so pages in, from memory. Anna Karenina sustained my interest more. I can’t remember why I gave up on Bovary – presumably because I was bored, but that’s not usually a reason why I give up. Life must have got in the way.
I think I’m enjoying Proust more than I am Karenina.
But why this obsession with ranking things, Adam? Just get on with life already. Aye, aye. I’m glad to have read it and can see what all the fuss is about. And I’ll read it again someday, anyway.
The thought occurs that if any novel proves the quote from Auden that I gave yesterday (on boredom being required in great works of art) then it certainly is Anna Karenina, though. Not that there were particularly boring bits in it – more that it was suffused with many moments of minimal interest.
My mind is suddenly reminded of Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare, and Orwell’s subsequent analysis of it. I always find it interesting, when writers are interviewed and so on, that – and perhaps I only notice this because I know the psychology of a writer better than any other profession – they often have disparaging things to say about other writings that aren’t their own. Genre writers will rail against Literature, while Literature will rail against genre. People who write short books will be convinced of the unappealing nature of long books, and so on. Not that everyone does this, of course. But it’s so simple to see why it happens, because these writers, having chosen – or having been forced to by their skills/talents/dispositions to write the way they do – need to convince themselves that their way is the best, and if they can convince others of it, then that reinforces their own views.
Orwell was more of the mind, in Tolstoy’s particular case, from memory, that it was to do with his life choices, rather than his literature, that set him up not like Shakespeare. But does it come as no surprise that one of the highest exponents of realism should not like the heightened nature of Shakespeare’s verse? Or something like that. (I thought I had something more intelligent to say about Shakespeare/Tolstoy – apparently not.)
And so, having finished Anna Karenina, I breezed through Casino Royale, and now, after having read that too, I think I will buy all the James Bond books. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a thriller, I think. At least a few years. (The Graham Greene novel I read this year would be the closest I’ve come.)
Actually, I tell a lie – I think I read the latest Dan Brown this year. Bugger. Or not. Why should I not like the fact that I’ve read a thriller in recent memory? My snobbery towards them only stems from my own wish to write something more long-lasting – this does not mean I can’t enjoy them for what they are. Casino Royale wasn’t the best thing I’ve read – the plot left a bit to be desired at some points, I think, but it certainly convinced me to read more. The part where Bond loses a fortune on the baccarat game was particularly suspenseful, I found – surprisingly suspenseful, actually.
Anyway, I started reading Cloud Atlas tonight and am convinced it will be amazing from the first scene.
And…I think that’s it for tonight. I’m always left with a feeling of incompleteness when I write a long blog post, when I try to delve into my thoughts and pull out something I wasn’t aware that I thought. There’s an urge to keep going on. Squeeze that extra bit of toothpaste out of the tube. (There was just an ad for toothpaste on the TV – so no mystery where that analogy came from.) But stop I must. A bit like life, really.