Rereading Anna Karenina in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett was a marvelous experience. I had thought that I’d remembered the novel well, but for this read, so many fresh elements of the plot and the exquisite intricacies of the characters surged to the surface. In the introduction, Bartlett mentions an interesting point when she discusses how our feelings towards some of the central characters shift:
Rather than take responsibility for her own actions, Anna alights on omens–the accident at the railway station, her recurrent dreams–and prefers to blame fate. Just as there are times when Karenin is not an unsympathetic character (as when he is filled with compassion after the birth of Anna’s daughter, for whom he feels a tender affection), there are times when the reader’s identification with Anna is challenged by her wilful and egotistical behaviour. If Tolstoy’s characters change during the course of the novel, it was because his attitude towards them changed as his own thinking developed. It is, therefore, not wholly surprising that Anna Karenina can be seen ‘as an array of readings that contradict and diverge from each other, and that cluster around an opposition between personal truths and universal truths’ as Vladimir Alexandrov has shown in his examination of the novel’s many possible meanings.
I’m not going to talk about the plot; if you don’t know it, read the book, but instead I’m going to concentrate on a couple of scenes as, for this read, the thing that hit me the most, is what an amazingly cinematic novel Anna Karenina really is.
Time and time again, Tolstoy creates the most breathtaking scenes. Whether it’s domestic discord, episodes of gastronomic excess, the first stirrings of sexual attraction, the frantic tension of a horse race, or the excitement of a ball, Tolstoy’s words paint, with bold strokes, the incredible world of human emotions exposed through the social interactions between a dazzling array of wonderful characters.
Early in the novel, Anna’s married brother, bon vivant Stepan Arkadych Oblonsky dines at a Moscow restaurant with his friend Levin. Meanwhile Oblonsky’s home is in an uproar over the discovery of Oblonsky’s affair with his children’s’ governess. How perfect that the novel began by showing how an extra-marital affair destroys the harmony of the Oblonsky home and the subsequent desperate necessity to restore order. It’s also through Oblonsky’s affair we see how extra marital relationships can be tolerated if they are discreet. Just as Oblonsky cannot pass over a plate of rich food, he could not pass over the pretty little governess, and while he realizes that this was bad form, and he feels a tinge of regret, he also thinks that his wife, whose looks are fading, should understand.
So here we have a man of robust appetites; we know he couldn’t control his sexual appetite under his own roof, and then we see his appetite for food in a scene with the aesthete, Levin. Oblonsky owes money to his two favourite restaurants, the Angleterre and the Hermitage, but choses the former as that’s where he owes the most. An interesting choice as it tells us a lot about Oblonsky who considers it “bad form to avoid that hotel.” So with his hat on a “jaunty angle” he enters the dining room “giving out orders to the obsequious Tatars carrying napkins who were dressed in tails.” Oblonsky is the sort of man who lives lightly and is popular with his peers and underlings; he’s a man whose privilege and position suit him.
Poor, lovesick Levin, who’s in Moscow to propose to Kitty is about to discover that there’s a formidable rival, Vronsky, on the scene. Levin would prefer to eat “cabbage soup and buckwheat kasha,” but Oblonsky, whose appetite isn’t dampened by moral matters, orders up enough gourmet food to feed an army:
“I’ll say! Whatever you say, it is one of life’s pleasures.” said Stepan Arkadych. “So, my good fellow, we’ll have two dozen oysters, or maybe that’s not enough–let’s say three-dozen, some vegetable soup…”
“Printenière,” prompted the Tatar. But Stepan Arkadych clearly did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.
“Vegetable soup, you know? Then turbot with a thick sauce, then … roast beef: but make sure it is good. And capons, I think, and some fruit salad too.”
Remembering Stepan Arkadych’s practice of not naming dishes according to the French menu, the Tatar did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the whole order from the menu: “Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, Poularde á l’estragon, macèdoine de fruits…’ and then, as if on springs, he managed in the blink of an eye to put down one bound menu, pick up another, the wine menu, and present to Stepan Arkadych.
“And what shall we have to drink?”
“I’ll have whatever you want, but not too much, maybe some champagne,” said Levin.
“What do you mean? To begin with? Actually maybe you’re right. Do you like the one with the white seal?”
“Cachet blanc,” prompted the Tatar.
“Well, give us some of that with the oysters, and then we’ll see.”
“Certainly, sir. What table wine would you like?”
“Let’s have some Nuits. No, a classic Chablis would be even better.”
“Certainly, sir. Would you like your cheese?”
“Oh yes, Parmesan. Or is there another that you like?”
“No, I don’t mind what we have,” said Levin, unable to repress a smile.
And the Tatar hurried off with his coat-tails billowing out over his wide haunches, only to sprint back five minutes later with a plate of shucked oysters in their pearly shells, and a bottle between his fingers.
Stepan Arkadych crumpled up his starched napkin, tucked it into his waistcoat, rested his arms comfortably, and made a start on the oysters.
“They’re not bad, he said, prising the slippery oysters from their pearly shells with a small silver fork, and swallowing one after the other. “Not bad,” he repeated, looking up with moist and shining eyes, first at Levin and then at the Tatar. Levin ate the oysters too, although the white bread and cheese was more to his liking. But he was in awe of Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, after uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparking wine into shallow, slender glasses, was looking at Stepan Arkadych with a distinct smile of pleasure as he straightened his white tie.
And here’s the same quote in a translation from Joel Carmichael:
“I should hope so! No matter what you say that’s one of life’s pleasures,” Oblonsky said. “Well then, my good fellow, let us have two–no, that’s too little–three dozen oysters, vegetable soup—“
“Printanier,” murmured the Tatar, but it was plain that Oblonsky had no desire to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.
“–vegetable, you know, then the turbot with a thick sauce, then roast beef, but make sure it’s all right, and then capon, eh?” Oh yes, and stewed fruit, too.”
The Tatar, taking note of Oblonsky’s way of not referring to the dishes according to the French menu, did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the satisfaction of repeating the whole order according to the menu: “potage printanier, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde á l’estragon, macédonie de fruits…” then instantly, as though on springs, he put aside one menu in a cardboard cover and took up another, the wine list, which he held out to Oblonsky.
“What should we have to drink?”
“Whatever you please, but not too much–champagne!” said Levin.
“What, to begin with? But of course, please, let’s. D’you like the white seal?”
“Cachet blanc,” the Tatar chimed in.
“Well, let’s have that with the oysters, then we’ll see.”
“Yes, Sir. And the table wine, sir, what would you like?”
“Let’s have the Nuits. No, the classic Chablis–that would be better.”
“Yes sir. And your own special cheese, sir?”
“Why yes–the parmesan. Or would you like something else?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” said Levin, who couldn’t help smiling.
The Tatar darted off, his coattails flying; five minutes later he flew back with a dish of opened oysters in their pearly shells and a bottle between his fingers.
Oblonsky crumpled his starched napkin, put it inside his waistcoat, and settling his arms comfortably on the table set about the oysters.
“Not bad at all,” he said, tweaking the quivering oysters out of their pearly shells with a silver fork and gulping them down one after another. “Not bad at all,” he repeated, raising his moist, glistening eyes first toward Levin, then toward the Tatar.
Levin ate the oysters, though he liked white bread and cheese more. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, as he adjusted his white tie after drawing he cork and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, looked at Oblonsky with a smile of obvious pleasure.
I read a few comments about yet another translation of Anna Karenina being on the market, but personally, I think it’s wonderful that publishers are still printing new translations. But apart from that I much preferred the Rosamund Bartlett translation to the one I had on my shelf. In the quote, the personality of the Tatar seeps through. Another scene to follow…