Just a quick update on my reading over the past week. I tried to finish The Age of Innocence, but wasn’t really into it anymore, so I went for the book that was really calling me: Anna Karenina. I’ve read over half of it now in my week off school and I’m loving it even more than I did the first time I read it almost four years ago. Yesterday I finally had to buy my own copy of the Richard Pevear & Larissa Volkhonsky translation, since I was reading a library copy before and it’s such a beautiful book that I needed my own copy! Along the way, I couldn’t resist getting Pevear & Volkhonsky’s new collection of The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories also by Tolstoy (here’s an interview on The Millions with P&V after that book came out) and some of Chekhov’s short stories too. (The bookstore was having a sale and I’m wanting to read more Russian literature now, so I couldn’t resist.)
I must admit, I was suspicious of Tolstoy before because he had some very wacky ideas on how to run his personal life (like attempts at post-marital chastity and always reading his wife’s journals and getting her to read his), but his writing has won me over at last. The last time I read the book, I was a fan of Anna, but found Levin (Tolstoy’s alter-ego — much like a Woody Allen movie, Tolstoy keeps inserting himself and all of his doubts, questions, and insecurities about life into the narrative) to be a bore. This time, however, I am liking Levin and his search for a meaningful life a whole lot more. Maybe because I am slightly older myself on this reread and am wanting more out of life than Anna’s simple passion. I found the introduction Richard Pevear writes to be helpful in understanding Tolstoy and the novel itself better, as well as Harold Bloom’s chapter on Tolstoy in his book The Western Canon.
I love the simple pleasure Levin finds in nature, while he’s farming and hunting (the very parts that bored me before!). Reading this book has increased my own pleasure in walking through the snow that continues to fall here on the Canadian prairie, which after all, isn’t that different from the landscape of Russia. Reading Tolstoy is like climbing a mountain and breathing the fresh, pure, bracing mountain air as you ascend. There’s very little like it, hence my interest in reading more Tolstoy (I intend to get all the way through War & Peace at some point, but his shorter stories might be easier to go to next) and in exploring more Russian literature in general. I’m also curious about Russian history, since although Canadian students do learn a bit about it in school, I don’t remember many specifics. Russia seems to be such a huge country of contrasts, with such a tragic and haunting past, that I am eager to learn more about it. To me, Britain is cosy and France is fashionable, but there is something else about Russia, something beyond either of those things. Something beautiful and mysterious maybe (as Levin thinks of Kitty’s life), something about the Russian soul. Even the Russian names seem beautiful, although I still trip over them almost every time!
I’ve also been reading some poetry by Anna Akhmatova, who began writing before the Russian Revolution and had to carry her poems around in secret in the Soviet era.
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.