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How to Know Who You Really Are: Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
(Or: Don't throw yourself under a train)
'All the charm, all the beauty and all the diversity of life are made up of light and shade.'
I came across Anna Karenina when I was in my early teens. It coincided with a time in my life when I was becoming desperate to know more about my origins. As a child, I do not remember a time when I thought that my name was anything other than profoundly weird, unexplained and, ultimately, unexplainable. To come across people with similarly odd names was, to me, deeply comforting. I was never put off by the strangeness of the names in Russian literature. They felt familiar. I felt solidarity with them. I did not mind that I couldn't say them aloud with any confidence because I had grown up not speaking any language other than English. But I had, however, lived with an unpronounceable name, and I knew it was not that big a deal, even if other people said it was. 'Viv Groskop. What kind of name is that?'
Growing up in Somerset in the south-west of England, I come from a family that considers itself ordinary, normal and British. Definitely British. I was told this repeatedly as a child. There was nothing in our family history to suggest we were remotely foreign. My grandad was born in Barry, in South Wales. My grandmother was born in Manchester. My dad was from London. My mother and all her family were from Northern Ireland. No one was born abroad. Did I mention there were no foreigners in our family? My great-grandparents on my mother's side were all from Northern Ireland. On my father's side, they were born in Wales or the north of England. As a young child, I knew some of my great-grandparents. There were no foreigners. As you can see, I think I have made it clear that there were no foreigners in our family.
Everything we did was British. Or English. Best not to ask the difference between the two. Mostly British, as my grandad liked to emphasize his Welshness on occasion. And no one wanted to make my mum, born in County Antrim, feel left out. I spent a lot of time with my (paternal) grandparents as a child. My grandad, a grocer for thirty years, had a pathological dislike of all things foreign, especially food. Things like lasagne, minestrone and garlic were 'foreign muck'. Favourite foods in our house were the sorts of foods you would worship if you were the owner of a grocery shop that prided itself on its selection of processed foods: Angel Delight, Bird's Custard, tinned marrowfat peas. These were much safer than foreign muck.
The only thing to disrupt this picture of canned, processed, unquestionable Britishness was the small matter of our name – to me, quite a puzzle: to be undeniably British and yet be called Groskop. Early on, it struck me that something didn't quite add up. This was even before I found out that most of my grandfather's family had changed the spelling of their name from Groskop to 'Groscop'. Now, we were the only people called Groskop. Another mystery. You are not fooling anyone, Groscops, I would think to myself, careful to change the spelling when I was addressing Christmas cards to elderly relatives, at the same time thinking how odd it was.
The Groscops' cunning disguise always struck me as rather desperate. They had changed their name from something foreign-sounding but plausible to something foreign-sounding and implausible. Meanwhile, we, the Groskops, bore the title with some quiet measure of pride – we hadn't sold out and become Groscops! – but, seemingly, zero curiosity.
My family had no sensible answers about the origin of our name. My grandad would talk about it, if pressed, from time to time, only so that we could tease him about the name 'definitely not being German'. He was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and was happy for the name to come from anywhere at all on the face of the earth so long as it was not Germany. I soon gravitated towards languages at school and quickly worked out that he was right: it couldn't be German. We would be Grosskopf. ('Bighead.') And we were not Grosskopf. This, at least, I decided, was some mercy. Then Dutch was mentioned as a possibility. But again, the spelling didn't seem right. There was even a crazy idea that we were South African. The name came from Afrikaans, supposedly similar to Dutch. I struggled to believe this.
The lack of information made me obsessive about origins and names. When I was four years old, we acquired a cat, a cute little tortoiseshell thing. I was allowed to name her. I called her Jane. She brought me a lot of comfort, even though I later became aware that I had saddled the cat with a feline name just as unlikely for her as my human name was for me. (Who calls a cat Jane?) For years, I dreamed of having the surname Smith. This to me was a wonderful, beautiful name, one no one would ever mispronounce or spell incorrectly. And no one would ever ask where you came from.
It wasn't until I was about twelve or thirteen that I picked up a copy of Anna Karenina. I got it in a charity shop, I think, in the mid-1980s. It was an old Penguin Classic. The cover features the painting that has come to be the most frequent stand-in for Anna Karenina: Ivan Kramskoi's Portrait of an Unknown Woman of 1883. I loved that picture, but the name sold the novel to me first. Karenina. A name that is simple and yet one that people hesitate to pronounce. I knew some people said it as 'Carry Nina', but you should say it 'Kar-ray-ni-na', with the emphasis on the 'ray'. I fell in love with her name. And then I fell in love with her face. The moment I saw this stunning woman, all velvet coat, alabaster skin, fur-trimmed beret and air of mystery, my spotty, chubby, insecure adolescent self thought: 'This is the me I have been looking for. Definitely not German, Dutch or South African. But why not Russian?' It was a half-thought that was to change the course of my life.
The identity of the model in the Kramskoi painting is unknown and, to protect the blushes of my twelve-year-old self, we will overlook the fact that she was most likely a prostitute. Although Kramskoi never said the woman was meant to be Anna Karenina, it's entirely possible that he read the novel and had her in mind when he painted the portrait, whether consciously or not. He had painted Tolstoy in 1873, when the novelist was just starting to write the novel. We can't know for sure, though, that this is her. Nevertheless, it says a lot that many people have wanted to see Anna Karenina in this picture. We want the Unknown Woman to be real. Especially those of us who have wanted to be her.
This isn't a great ambition, incidentally, as it is doomed to failure. On first reading, I became obsessed with the thickness of Anna Karenina's eyelashes. Tolstoy loves the details of women's faces. He writes of Anna having eyelashes so thick that they make her grey eyes look darker. Inspired by this bewitching beauty, I started using an eyelash curler to achieve a similar effect. If you've never seen an eyelash curler, it's like a miniature medieval torture instrument and must be employed with great care and skill. One day, I got a bit distracted and sneezed while using it. I had pulled out all my eyelashes on one side, giving me a naked eyelid and a lopsided squint. It took about a year for them to grow back. Much later on, I discovered that, in an earlier draft, Tolstoy had given Anna Karenina a hairy upper lip. That would have been easier for me to work with, and a lot less painful than the accidental eyelash removal. Liza in War and Peace also has a moustache. Clearly, Tolstoy had a fetish.
The desire to identify with Anna Karenina as a character – to believe her to be 'real', to believe her to be 'us' – is understandable. It's one of the most attractive things about the novel. Although, on the surface of things, Anna Karenina seems to be a morality tale about a doomed, beautiful but adulterous romance, really this is a book about identity, integrity and our purpose in life. Who are we and why are we here? These questions are deeply embedded in it. They are questions that tortured Tolstoy and, almost as soon as he had published Anna Karenina, they caused him to renounce his work and retreat into himself. It's partly this feeling of crisis that has made me feel bound to this novel my whole life. It's a fantastic meditation on identity and what we're doing here. But it doesn't really answer any questions. To such an extent that it's enough to drive you mad. In fact, it almost drove Tolstoy to suicide.
However, it's easy to read Anna Karenina without becoming a tortured religious maniac. Because it is a cracking story. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is the wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a government minister. She is a woman in her mid to late twenties. Her husband is two decades older. She is bored and disillusioned with her life. She finds herself drawn to an extremely attractive young officer called Vronsky, who is not a particularly unpleasant person but does not have much more than his looks to recommend him. Their love affair is passionate and tender but, ultimately, Anna cannot enjoy it because she feels guilty, not so much because of her irritating husband, Karenin, but because of her maternal responsibilities to her young son, Seryozha, whom she loves very much. (Diminutive alert: Seryozha is short for Sergei.) In the moment that she resolves to divorce Karenin and risk no longer being a part of her child's life, she loses her nerve and disappears under the wheels of a train. Bad times.
In the course of the novel, Tolstoy weaves the parallel tale of Levin, a principled, intellectual young man whose character is – surprise, surprise! – not unlike that of our esteemed author (who, at the time of writing, has already had success with War and Peace and is no stranger to Great Literature). Levin is a friend of Anna's brother Stiva. There's another link, too: Stiva's sister-in-law Kitty has attracted the attentions of both Levin and Vronsky (initially, before he becomes involved with Anna). Levin's emerging relationship with Kitty, one that represents contentment and peace but also (potentially) boredom and predictability, serves as a point of comparison for the romance between Vronsky and Anna, whose union symbolizes anxiety and the breaking of trust but also excitement and risk. This parallel between the two couples is something that is not often noted but it is crucial in understanding the point Tolstoy is making about the nuances of happiness and knowing who we are. Without Anna's seduction of Vronsky (or vice versa), Kitty might not have been free to go off with Levin. One person's happiness is often dependent on the unhappiness of another. And what we think of as unhappiness may ultimately lead to happiness. (Kitty is not supposed to end up with Vronsky. They would not have been good together.)
On the surface, Anna Karenina is about relationships and, more importantly, about the perils of infidelity. But Tolstoy messes up his own message by falling in love with Anna Karenina and by making her supposedly 'unhappy' life more ambiguous than perhaps he had intended. There's a moralistic thread running through the book, certainly. And Anna Karenina herself receives the most severe punishment. But the way Tolstoy writes about her, you can sense that he sympathizes with her. The lesson in the novel is that we must try to know who we really are in order to live an authentic life. Anna realizes that her life with Vronsky is authentic but unachievable, and feels she has no option but to kill herself. If you wanted to read something revolutionary into the novel, that is definitely an option. Instead of a comment on how 'wrong' Anna is, her death could represent a judgement on the morals of the society of the time. 'Look what you've made her do, when her only crime was to fall in love and be who she really is.' If anything, the message Tolstoy imparts in Anna Karenina is a compromised one. Levin's way of life seems the 'correct' one. And yet it is Anna who appears to be truly alive, even though she is ultimately doomed to punishment.
It is not surprising that Anna Karenina is frequently described as the greatest novel of all time, precisely because of the way it approaches these big questions but without finding easy answers. William Faulkner held this view, as did Dostoevsky. Nabokov – who was an incredibly grumpy person and did not suffer fools gladly (even less so than Dostoevsky, which is really saying something) – said the style was 'flawless magic'. Tolstoy himself considered it a better novel than War and Peace. In fact, he did not even consider War and Peace to be a novel. He thought it was episodic fiction, a series of short stories. Anna Karenina, however, was a novel and – initially – he thought it was good. I often wonder what Sofya, Tolstoy's wife, thought about him considering the 2,200-page War and Peace 'not a novel'. She had to copy it out repeatedly. I imagine she had some other words to describe it, and probably quite diminutive words at that.
Of course, there are many answers in the novel to the question 'How should you live your life?' You could choose a simple, unquestioning life of luxury like Anna's brother Stiva, a man who only drinks champagne with people he likes (and he drinks champagne with everyone). Or you could choose Levin's path: self-sacrificing, righteous, spiritual. Levin is supposed to be the prototype for happiness – for example, with his steady, even rhythm of life – but he doesn't in fact seem that happy and frequently tortures himself about whether he should be spending more time ploughing fields.
There is an intriguing mix of hedonism and self-flagellation in Anna Karenina. Before the author, in the early chapters, has even invited us to the Anglia Hotel for a slap-up meal of oysters and turbot with Stiva (Anna's brother) and Levin, Stiva's best friend, Tolstoy has already casually dropped in the Epigraph of Doom: 'Vengeance is mine. And I will repay.' It's a quotation that suggests that, in life, if there is any revenge to be taken, God will sort it out in his own way. You had better not do it yourself. It is an incredibly powerful and disturbing choice of words to slap on the page next to the title of your novel, and one that marks Tolstoy out as someone who is obsessed – or beginning to be obsessed – with God and with the idea that it is foolish to imagine we are in charge of our lives (because we're not in charge, God is). It sounds very much like the voice of God himself. And it doesn't exactly mark Tolstoy out as Mr Fun Times.
The heavy-handed, preachy tone of that scary epigraph is a harbinger of the sort of writing Tolstoy was to specialize in later in life, after he more or less disowned Anna Karenina. Even at the time he was writing the novel, he was already tortured by a lot of the philosophical ideas that came to dominate his thinking and led him to a monk-like existence as a teetotal vegetarian, committed consumer of boiled eggs and serial avoider of pastries. (So often, I've wanted to travel back in time and get him to try a jam doughnut. I feel sure he would have written more novels. The man just needed sugary carbohydrates.)
But it's also a strange lesson in wishful thinking. I can't help feeling that Tolstoy wanted God to take his revenge on Anna Karenina (for being a dirty, filthy adulteress) but, at the same time, the human being in him (who had committed a lot of dirty, filthy adultery himself) sees her fragility and attractiveness as a person and wants to forgive her. The contradictory nature of the epigraph is a clue as to why Anna Karenina is such a complicated novel and does not deliver a clear, unambiguous message about how to live. On the one hand, Tolstoy sets out to write a didactic novel where no one dares challenge God's laws without terrible consequences and where Levin (the 'good' Tolstoy) is the hero of the piece. And yet, on the other hand, and almost in spite of himself, he ends up drawing a beautiful portrait of Anna Karenina, infused with empathy and compassion. There's a way of looking at Anna not just as a character and a woman but as an extension of Tolstoy himself: the 'bad' Tolstoy, the foolish side of himself that he wishes didn't exist.
It's this contradiction that makes Tolstoy the best guide to life. He is both flawed and honest, and these qualities are not always intentional. In fact, he tries to cover them up. But that only makes him more likeable. Even the most cursory glance at his life shows that he was an immensely and amusingly complex character. That is why – with reservations – I love him. He is a tricky bugger, with many bad character traits and psychological inconsistencies, which plagued him his whole life and which he tried desperately to overcome. But aren't these very much the qualities anyone should seek in a lifelong friend?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Anna Karenina Fix"
Copyright © 2018 Viv Groskop.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Sources, Translation, Transliteration and Those Funny Russian Names, 9,
1. How to Know Who You Really Are: Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy (Or: Don't throw yourself under a train), 17,
2. How to Face Up to Whatever Life Throws at You: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Or: Don't leave your wife while she's pregnant), 36,
3. How to be Optimistic in the Face of Despair: Requiem by Anna Akhmatova (Or: Don't wear tight shoes on prison visits), 55,
4. How to Survive Unrequited Love: A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev (Or: Don't fall in love with your best friend's wife), 73,
5. How to Not be Your Own Worst Enemy: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Or: Don't kill your best friend in a duel), 90,
6. How to Overcome Inner Conflict: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Or: Don't kill old ladies for money), 107,
7. How to Live with the Feeling That the Grass is Always Greener: Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Or: Don't keep going on about Moscow), 128,
8. How to Keep Going When Things Go Wrong: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Or: Don't forget to take your spoon to prison with you), 141,
9. How to Have a Sense of Humour about Life: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Or: Don't get run over by a tram after talking to Satan), 157,
10. How to Avoid Hypocrisy: Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Or: Don't buy non-existent peasants as part of a get-rich-quick scheme), 173,
11. How to Know What Matters in Life: War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy (Or: Don't try to kill Napoleon), 188,
Recommended Reading, 207,