March 21, 2011

Anna Karenina (#111)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What I said then:

I’ve steered pretty clear of the weighty Russian masters, but I thought I should give at least one of them a go. Wish me luck.

What I say now:

When I was at Uni, I was briefly forced to study the short stories of Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov, and I absolutely hated them. Ever since then I've had a major phobia about the 19th Century Russians. If I didn't like the short stories, what chance I'd dig the 800 page novels? It's probably unfair to tar them all --- Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc. --- with the same brush, but hey, life ain't meant to be fair.

Nevertheless, I'm a pretentious enough jackass that when a damaged copy of Anna Karenina arrived at the store, I decided it'd look nice on my shelf and brought it home. Fast forward two years, add a dash of foolish-personal-challenge, and suddenly I was actually going to have to read it, something that I can truthfully say I would never have done otherwise.

And lo and behold, it was ... not terrible. I'd love to say that it was wonderful, and elements of it certainly were, but there was also a lot of fluff. Essentially, Anna is a beautiful, vivacious woman married to a much older, utterly loveless man. When she meets the handsome, charming Count Vronsky, she falls in love with him. Society is enjoyably scandalised, shit hits fans all over the place, teeth are gnashed and hearts broken. It's like a whole season of Days Of Our Aristocratic Russian Lives, without the eye-patched villains and insomnia victims.

At the same time, a second, (very) loosely related story involves an aristocrat farmer(!) named Levin trying to snare himself a wife and hopefully figure out the best way of living his life, and how to be happy within it.

My relationship to this book is an odd one: I feel like I should have hated it, because there was so much about it that annoyed me. Almost without exception, the characters are vacuous morons, and I despise the bloody lot of them. Things which have assumed enormous importance are dropped in an instant, when the character decides that it's not that important after all (Levin is a master of this). Very little ever even happens; for the most part, people mope about in sitting rooms having minor crises of the psyche. The whole thing kicks off with Anna and Vronsky having one of those 'locked-eyes-and-immediately-fell-for-each-other' moments that shits me in fiction because, frankly, I see it as the writer taking the easy way out (and it never happens in real life, does it?).

These are things that, given my preference for books with strong plots, should have had me raging.

But no, Tolstoy's writing is good enough that a character spending fifty pages pondering the state of Russian agriculture can be as gripping as any thriller. Okay, maybe not any thriller, but you get the point. Anna's disgrace, and the effect it has on her relationship with Vronsky, and how they try and fail to counter their increasing disillusionment, is recounted with a dispassionate, perfectly accurate eye. Levin's struggles for meaning in his closed little world, and his increasing desperation as he cannot find it, are, at times, incredibly moving.

Two sequences, one on either side of the story, stand out, both of them involving death: Levin and his wife nurse his brother as he passes away; Anna grows frantic at Vronsky's increasing coldness, and her disjointed, harried thoughts eventually lead her to a train station where (spoiler alert!) she throws herself under the 4.27 to Hurstbridge. In both passages, the thought processes the two characters undergo as they grapple with death, and with the fact that no-one living can ever understand it, are pieces of writing of immense beauty and skill.

Also, in places it's actually pretty funny. It's clear that Tolstoy himself is not a fan of the hoity-toity milieu in which most of the novel takes place, and there's a lovely snide tone to a lot of his writing. I can't get sarcasm into a text message, but he can get it across two languages and one hundred and forty years.

I didn't love Anna Karenina, I only loved elements of it. However, this novel has done me a great service: it's forever banished my fear of the Russians. I'm coming for you, Crime and Punishment!

Just not any time soon ...

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (the big dumb epic fantasy sequel I threatened you with in my last post ... and a damaged copy showed up at work last week, so I didn't even have to buy it)
books to go: still 111

March 10, 2011

Cheating just a smidge ...

Okay, I totally cheated the other day. I bought a book. It wasn't a gift for somebody else or anything, it was for me.

I feel dirty.

But, like any lapsed addict (I'm keeping Brendan Fevola company in a Venn Diagram somewhere), I've got a reeeeeeeally good excuse, I swear I do.

There's this author named David Mitchell, who wrote a book called Cloud Atlas that I read and loved a couple of years ago. I've got another book of his called Ghostwritten sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read; it's one of the 111 books I've got left. Anyway, his most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, sounds really interesting to me: it's set in Japan during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when Japan was closed off to all foreigners. A Dutch clerk at a little trading post (the only contact Japan has with the outside world) falls in love with a Japanese girl, and I'm guessing that complications ensue.

Since it came out I've just kind of assumed that I'd buy it in a couple of years, after my read-everything-I-own challenge is done. 

There's also the added benefit that it's a really beautiful book. Okay, I'm even sounding effete to my own ears here, but let's take it as a given that I'm the kind of person who gives a rat's arse about stuff like that. Because I do.

This picture doesn't really do it justice, but the three-tone palette of cream, black and a vivid cyan kinda thing ... it just works.

But recently, Thousand Autumns has come out in a new, smaller format. And they've changed the cover. And the new cover fucking blows.

It's like someone in the art department at the publisher had the bright idea that because, hey, there's a guy and a girl in it, they were going to go after the elusive middle-aged-woman demographic (I'm probably being unfair to middle-aged women) by giving it a totally nondescript, 'romance-y' cover.

Now it looks like a Memoirs of a Geisha knockoff, or something. Or like a fucking Paullina Simons book.

(Again, I feel like this photo isn't doing justice to the new version's ugliness. That grey is darker in real life and so much more ... grey. And UGLY!)

Anyway, that's my excuse. Once we got the new version in, we were going to send back all of our copies of the original, and I nabbed one before they got returned.

So now The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is sitting under my bed, where it will gather dust for another couple of years and make me feel extremely guilty every time I remember it's there.

Meanwhile, Anna Karenina is coming along. I'm roughly three-quarters of the way through it, and not hating it anywhere near as much as I feared I would. In fact, it's kind of great in a way. But more of that soon.

Also, once I finish the Tolstoy, I get to buy a book, but I already know what I'm gonna get, so I won't mess with you by asking for recommendations (hint: it's a big, dumb, epic fantasy sequel ... and I can't wait!).

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
books to go: 111