Self had unprecedented access to “the classics” while she was growing up in Manila. In fact, not just the classics: Her family had the complete set of Encyclopedia Brittanica as well as the complete set of the Book of Knowledge. There were whole sets of Colliers classics – all the books like Heidi, Black Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, etc etc. Yup, self got her grounding in world culture (minus the Asian culture – bwah ha haa!) right there in Manila.
She somehow missed the Russian writers. Why? Were there not any Russian classics available for Colliers? Was it some remnant of Cold War shenanigans that kept Tolstoy and Dostoevsky away from impressionable American (and Filipino) youngsters? Or perhaps self was too distracted by her passion for Georgette Heyer, Mills & Boon romances (She had an aunt in Bacolod who had a library full of just Mills & Boon romances; self could hardly wait for summer vacations to start devouring these paperback romances)
Anyhoo, self got to the Russian writers when she got to Stanford. She was majoring in East Asian Studies and discovering Lao She and Lu Xun at about the same time she was reading Gogol and Dostoevsky. She finally got to War and Peace when she was several months pregnant. She just knew she had to finish before she gave birth! And what do you know, she was able to finish the book, well ahead of her delivery, and she was even able to get a start reading Dickens’ Bleak House. And then – kaboom! – son arrived. So that was that. For a few years, anyway.
So here she is now, reading Anna Karenina for the first time. Perhaps it’s a good thing she didn’t get to see the Keira Knightley movie. Because now she can picture Madame Karenina as something other than Keira Knightley. And she has pictures in her head of Vronsky and Levin and Kitty, and they are not delineated by the actors who played them in the movie (Self has no idea why Kitty and Levin are in this book. She expected it to be about two people only. Well, just goes to show how much self under-rated Tolstoy. A master of panorama like Tolstoy can never present his two leads in a vacuum.)
Now, then: Tolstoy gets quite into the heads of these two — Kitty and Levin. And they present us with quite beguiling head spaces. Kitty goes with her mum to a German spa and develops an “infatuation” with a young Russian ward of a high-society personage. She isn’t allowed to become friends with this other woman until her mum has done a little digging to ascertain that the Russian Mystery Woman isn’t unsavory. Levin, meanwhile, returns to his farm, and there are chapters and chapters of country life. Does self ever love these chapters! She realizes Tolstoy must have been a hands-on landowner, someone knowledgeable about all the myriad chores that need to be done to keep a farm running smoothly.
And what she expected of the novel turns out to be false. For instance, she thought the arc would follow something like the movie Dangerous Liaisons, and self thought that Anna K, like the tragic Michelle Pfeiffer character, would take the whole novel to submit to Vronsky, and then would have that famous death scene lying down on the rails of an approaching train.
But here’s what’s happens instead: Madame K falls in love with Vronsky without realizing it. Her husband begins to suspect the affair, but it’s when he begins questioning his wife that she realizes she wants to lie, and is in fact very good at lying – as they say, a “natural” — and thereby is forced to acknowledge that she does possess feelings for Vronsky. Somewhere about a third of the way in, Tolstoy writes that Vronsky has achieved his desire. My goodness, Tolstoy certainly didn’t waste any time. But now, now, what happens now? Apparently, all of Moscow society knows about the affair, and if you didn’t know you would certainly know after the horse show, when Anna K grows almost hysterical when she thinks Vronsky has been seriously injured. And then her husband takes her home, and she tells him in the carriage that she loves Vronsky, that she is his mistress and can’t stand her husband. And then the husband exits the carriage and continues behaving in a most decorous fashion. And then self realizes that she still has approximately two-thirds of the novel to read through. Then she wonders exactly how bad it’s going to get for Anna K (It’s not going to be bad for Vronsky, no matter what. Self is sure of this because, after all, Vronsky is a man.)
Self is completely awestruck by the scenes in which Anna K continues to elicit compliance from her servants. She thinks a woman who is known to be having an affair would surely lose all credibility, beginning with the people she spends most of her time with – i.e., the servants. But none of them treat her with anything except the greatest deference. So this is an extremely lucky thing, because you know and she knows and the servants know that Anna K is a bad, bad woman. Self wonders why Tolstoy couldn’t show even a servant’s raised eyebrow, or when Anna K tells the coachman to drop her off somewhere and come back for her later, why can’t the reader see a glimpse of the coachman’s poker face? And what about the nanny of Anna K’s son? The son is completely at a loss, nervous as all get-out, and here comes his mother, blithely entering the nursery, singing him lullabyes, blah blah blah, and of course the nanny knows what she is, but everyone is just extremely, extremely poker-faced. In fact, some members of the Moscow aristocracy seem to even be aiding and abetting Anna K’s affair, as they run interference for her with her husband, and send her updates on the condition of her lover, and so forth. Cruel, gossipy accomplices! Is it boredom that drives their behavior?
The novel is fascinating, simply fascinating.