Tag Archives: Greatest books ever written

Anna Karenina: the ball scene

“The ball had just begun when Kitty and her mother stepped on to the central staircase, which was bathed in light and embellished with flowers and powdered footmen in red livery. From the interior came a steady rustle of movement which filled the rooms like bees buzzing in a hive, and while they adjusted their hair in front on a mirror between the potted plants on the landing, the delicately clear sounds of the violins in the orchestra could be heard striking up the first waltz in the ballroom. An old gentleman in civilian dress who had been adjusting his grey whiskers in front of another mirror, and exuded the smell of cologne, bumped into them on the staircase and stood aside, clearly admiring Kitty, whom he did not know.”

While a reread is sometimes a disappointing mistake, picking up Anna Karenina again was a rich experience, and this time I appreciated the novel’s cinematic qualities. But first a word on the initial structure. The novel, in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett, opens with a family in chaos due to the discovered infidelity of the father, Oblonsky, Anna Karenina’s brother. Is Tolstoy telling us that there’s something wrong, a bit of moral code missing in Oblonsky and his married sister, the beautiful Anna Karenina? We can imagine that it may have been perfectly normal and acceptable in society for an affluent, upper class married man to maintain a mistress or have the occasional affairs, but Oblonsky really went over the top when he carried on with his children’s governess under his own roof. Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly, is deeply humiliated and while Oblonsky knows he was ‘wrong, ‘ he’s wrong on his terms:

‘And the worst thing of all is that the blame is all mine, all mine, and yet I’m not to blame. That’s the whole tragedy of it.’

and

He had even thought that, as a worn-out ageing, no longer pretty woman, wholly unremarkable, ordinary, simply the good mother of a family, she ought by rights to be indulgent.

Enter Anna to the rescue–that respectably married woman-a woman who married for status and is playing her role as the wife of the much-older Karenin well. She sweeps into her brother’s home and with a few token phrases of understanding, she swiftly restores order to the marriage. So we’re back to ‘happy families again’ –a phrase that is so important to this particular novel. When Anna arrives at her brother’s home, she’s already met Vronsky, of course. They set eyes on each other at the train station, their hearts are racing, the chemistry is undeniably there, and Anna’s obvious fluster whenever she sees the dashing Vronsky just adds to the steam.

Vronsky, we’re told, is a bit of a player. He flirts with young society girls and gives their families reason to think he’s serious, and this is exactly the situation involving Kitty and her silly mother; both of them misunderstand Vronsky’s intentions; they think he’s about to propose and he thinks his attentions to Kitty are just fun and enjoyable. But then again, perhaps there’s something wrong with Vronsky’s moral compass too. After all, his mother had a scandalous number of love affairs during her marriage.

Onto the ball–that fatal ball in which Kitty’s hopes are dashed and Anna and Vronsky are magnetically drawn towards each other. I didn’t like Anna much at this point because of Kitty who’s about to have a complete meltdown, and for her part, Kitty adores Anna. Kitty begged Anna to wear lilac; it was a naïve request, for Anna knows the colour that showcases her beauty.

Slowing his step now, Korunsky waltzed directly over to the crowd in the left corner of the ballroom, repeating ‘Pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,’ and after navigating through the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons without catching on a single feather, he spun his partner round sharply, exposing her slender legs in their lacy stockings, and causing her train to spread out like a fan and cover Krivin’s knees. Korunsky bowed, straightened out his shirt-front, and proffered his arm in order to escort her to Anna Arkadyevna. Blushing deeply, Kitty removed her train from Krivin’s lap and looked round for Anna, her head spinning a little. Anna was standing talking, surrounded by ladies and men. She was not in lilac, which Kitty had so set her heart on, but in a low-cut black velvet dress, revealing her curvaceous shoulders and bosom like old chiseled ivory, rounded arms, and tiny slender hands. The entire dress was trimmed with Venetian lace. On her head, in her black hair, which was not augmented by any extension, was a small garland of pansies, and there was another on the black ribbon of her sash, between pieces of white lace. Her hair arrangement was inconspicuous. Only those obstinate little locks of curly hair constantly escaping at the nape of her neck and on her temples were conspicuous, and they enhanced her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her strong, chiseled neck.

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had pictured her definitely in lilac. But now she had seen her in black, she felt she had not understood the full extent of her charm. She now saw her in a completely new and unexpected light. She realized now that Anna could not have worn lilac, and that her charm consisted precisely in the fact that she always stood out from what she wore, that what she wore could never be noticeable on her. The black dress with its sumptuous lace was indeed not noticeable on her; it was just a frame, and all that was visible was her simple, natural, elegant, and yet also light-hearted and vivacious self.

 

And here’s the same passage from translator Joel Carmichael:

And Korsunsky waltzed off directly toward the throng in the left corner of the room, slowing down and repeating “pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,” tacking about in the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons; and without touching a feather, he turned Kitty round so sharply that her slender ankles in their openwork stockings were exposed as her train spread out like a fan and covered Krivin’s knees. Korsunsky bowed, squared his open shirt front, and held his arm out to take Kitty over to Anna. Kitty flushed and took her train off Krivin’s knees; a little dizzy, she looked around in search of Anna. Anna  was not in lilac, which Kitty had set her heart on, but in a black, low-cut velvet dress that showed off her full shoulders and bosom, which looked carved out of old ivory, her rounded arms and tiny slender hands. Her dress was completely trimmed in Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a small garland of pansies, which were also in the black band of her sash, among the white lace. Her coiffure did not catch the eye; the only thing noticeable about it were the willful little tendrils of curly hair that always escaped at her temples and the nape of her neck, and added to her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her sturdy, chiseled neck.

Kitty had been seeing Anna every day, was in love with her, and invariably imagined her in lilac. But now, when she saw her in black, she felt she had never realized her full charm before. She saw her now as something completely new and unexpected. Now she realized that Anna could never be in lilac, and that her charm consisted of just that–she always stood out from her dress; it was never conspicuous. The black dress with its rich lace was also unnoticeable on her: it was merely a frame, what was visible was only herself, simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and full of life.

review copy

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Tolstoy, Leo

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

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.

anna kTime 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…

Review copy

27 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Tolstoy, Leo

Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“There is something horrible, dirty and bloody on your soul.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky based his powerhouse novel Demons on a real-life murder case that occurred in 1869 involving a student named Ivanov. Dostoevsky’s brother-in-law was personally acquainted with the victim who was lured into a park and horribly murdered by a group of his fellow revolutionaries led by Sergei Nechaev. Nechaev, ostensibly dedicated to revolutionary activities, used a range of tactics–including blackmailing friends–in order to rope them into his revolutionary organization.

Demons is a vast, complex novel that examines Russian society through a large cast of characters. Dostoevsky’s novel begins with the introduction of Stepan Verkhovensky–a middle-aged, would-be intellectual whose early claim to fame is that he wrote an inflammatory, revolutionary tract or two decades early. Stepan fancies himself as a scholar and a radical, and he’s encouraged in this idea by his wealthy patroness, Varvara Stavrogin, the widow of a general. The relationship between these two has worked quite well for years, but when the novel begins, the relationship is about to enter a tumultuous stage. After a visit from a St. Petersburg friend, the indomitable Varvara has illusions of herself as a society hostess and she drags Stepan off to St. Petersburg. Here, she “invented a costume” for Stepan, her resident pet dissident, with the intention of holding radical meetings in her salon, and she eventually even establishes a radical political magazine. After Varvara’s endeavors fail abysmally, she returns to the provinces, and her disgruntlement falls squarely on Stepan.

Varvara’s son, the elegant and cold lady-killer Nikolai Stavrogin returns to his mother’s estate after some years of absence. At the same time, Stepan’s estranged son, Pyotr also shows up, and these two young men are part of a secret circle of conspirators whose radical ideas include plotting the deaths of the Tsar and his family. Absolute abandonment of all moral codes of behaviour, and total blind obedience is demanded from the group’s members. Pyotr is a master manipulator who convinces his followers that one of the members of the secret society, Shatov, is about to inform against them. While Pyotr has his personal reasons for destroying Shatov, he enjoys playing the puppet master and manipulating everyone else to commit the crime.

Demons is not without its problems. It’s wildly discursive, and Dostoevsky is not concerned with standard forms–as a result there are some loose ends. Most of the characters are extremely unlikable, and while the first section of the novel is surprisingly funny, the novel soon assumes dark, ominous tones. Varvara is a major character for the first part of the novel, and then, frustratingly, she all but disappears from the pages until the very end, but in the meantime, Dostoevsky ‘replaces’ her with a doppelganger in the form of the character of Yulia, the vain wife of the new governor. But in spite of its flaws, it cannot be denied that Demons–with its intricate demonstrations of the complexities of human relationships–is anything less than brilliant, and the new smooth translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is pure joy to read. Dostoevsky seems to delight in illuminating the absurdities of his characters’ many weaknesses. There’s Kirillov, the structural engineer who frets about exercise and health while being obsessed with the notion of suicide as the ultimate act of free will, and there’s the new governor who is alternately flattered and manipulated by Pyotr’s attention. But above all the absurdities and pettiness of human nature, Pyotr–one of the greatest literary personifications of evil ever created–is seen as a chilling precursor of the Bolsheviks–a man who contemplates the deaths of millions as a political expediency, and who, with perfect ease, ensnares everyone with an intricate net of deceit. If you are interested in reading more about Nechaev, I recommend Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich.

2 Comments

Filed under Dostoevsky