Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1873; trans. Rosamund Bartlett, 2014)
Near the end of Anna Karenina, in Book Seven, there’s an extraordinary passage that concerns the birth of Russian landowner Konstantin Levin’s first child. Tolstoy depicts how Levin experiences his wife being in labor with great power and precision, giving both visceral details and a sort of stream-of-consciousness unfolding of Levin’s inner state. It’s an amazing scene to encounter in a nineteenth century novel, and encapsulates what I think causes so many to find this one of the greatest of all novels: Tolstoy’s ability to embrace and meet the great questions of life head-on, exploring them from all sides and bringing them before us with vivid particularity.
But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the book about Anna and her doomed affair with Count Vronsky? Who is this Levin person? Knowing only the bare plot summary that is surely familiar to anybody with any acquaintance with world literature, I was surprised to find that Anna herself takes up less than half of the book named after her. The thread concerning Levin — his love and marriage, his struggles with work and family, his spiritual transformation — has more weight and substance, and most significantly it ends in hope rather than despair. I also felt that we came much closer to Levin’s inner life. We never really know why Anna attaches herself so desperately to Vronsky, except that she must have a man to love, even if that love quickly turns into poisonous jealousy. While Levin’s every thought and decision is presented in great detail, we see Anna more often from the outside than the inside.
So why is the book not called Konstantin Levin? Or, as Tolstoy called it in an early draft, Two Marriages? I wondered about this all through my reading. Towards the end it becomes clear that Levin shares Anna’s inner quandary, her inability to live without understanding “what I am and why I am here.” But being a man, he is saved by his work, by his involvement in a world outside of the home. This sustains him until eventually he comes to a kind of epiphany that gives him the power to move into the future. Anna, on the other hand, has abandoned her child for a man whose love dissipates under the force of her need of him, leaving her with nothing. Some see her fate as a patriarchal punishment for that “unwomanly” act. But it can also be seen as representing what will come to us all if we turn away from the living, growing potential within us, and pursue illusory satisfaction elsewhere. This denial of our true self leads to a fragmentation and alienation that again feels startlingly modern in a family chronicle of the late nineteenth century.
Tolstoy lets us into Anna’s mind in her final, desperate, half-crazed moments, in which her loss of self becomes complete.
“Oh yes, is my hair brushed or not?” she asked herself. And she could not remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, I did have my hair brushed, but I have no idea when.” She could not even trust her hand, and went up to the mirror on the wall to see whether her hair had really been brushed or not. She had brushed her hair, but she could not remember who had done it. “Who is that?” she thought, looking in the mirror at the swollen face with the strangely shining eyes which were looking fearfully at her. “Oh, it’s me,” she suddenly realized…
By naming his novel after Anna, perhaps Tolstoy meant to ask us to try to understand her plight, not to condemn and dismiss her as so many other characters do within the novel, but to consider that her story is our story too. We can all make errors and take wrong turnings in life that lead us to forget who we are. What causes one person to rise up against those circumstances, and another to fall? That’s one of the great mysteries that Tolstoy causes us to ponder in his great novel, in the way that fiction most fitly can: not through abstract arguments, but through pictures, through people who become real and living to us as we read.
Quite a few different English translations of Anna Karenina exist. I read the new version by Tolstoy biographer Rosamond Bartlett, which seemed to me a very fine and scrupulous rendering. Bartlett states that she tried to retain some of the seeming verbal awkwardnesses of the original, which have sometimes been smoothed out in other translations, but I found hers highly readable and not at all convoluted or ponderous. Her aim was “to produce a translation which is idiomatic as well as faithful to the original,” and as far as I can tell she has done well. The one exception was her frequent use of the word “jolly,” which sometimes sounds forced to me, but maybe that’s just my American ear. I would love to read another translation for comparison, if you have one to recommend.
Since reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? I’m ever more fascinated by the challenges and benefits of translation, and more appreciative of those who take on that important, difficult, exciting task. In an interesting article about some of the details of her translation, Rosamund Bartlett concludes, “Translators will keep ascending the towering peaks of world literature, just as there will continue to be assaults on Everest.” I’m grateful that they do, and that they can take us along with them.