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All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?
But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?
Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.
For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!
Now to the plot:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead:
Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.
The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.
Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.
Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).
The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.
The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.
To read the novel, click here.
Nikolai Gogol is usually overshadowed by other great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Chekhov and even Pushkin despite the fact that Gogol was as talented as them. Some well read Indians (and other well read readers) might remember Gogol from the book ‘The Namesake’ which pretty much revolves around Gogol’s most famous short story, ‘The Overcoat.’ Some may as a result have even read this particular story. Gogol is known for his short stories yet some of his other works like ‘ The Inspector General’ are as thematically varied and critical as his short stories.
‘Dead Souls‘ is one of his ‘other works’, a novel in fact that encompasses Gogol’s vision to depict ‘all of Russia’ in it. Reading the ‘Dead Souls‘ can be difficult as it has layers of meaning that can be unearthed slowly with every other reading. Yet at the same time it is very rewarding as the novel reveals a clear image of the 19th century Russia and Gogol’s own thoughts about his own country.
‘Dead Souls‘ was classified by Gogol as a ‘poema’ (a poem) rather than a novel as he believed that a poem and an epic poem to be precise could take in all of life. The novel has two parts. The 2nd part was burnt by Gogol himself and only fragments (which are still comprehensible) are left. The poema’s hero is Chichikov who goes to the fictitious town of N to buy ‘dead souls.’ Souls (dusha) in Russian also meant the serfs. 19th century Russia was still predominantly agricultural which was controlled by landlords who had serfs for themselves. It was in a way a feudal agricultural society. At that point of time, serfs that died were still counted as alive until the next census was taken which would happen every 10 years. Chichikov’s idea was to buy these ‘dead souls’ from the various landowners like Manilov, Korobochka,Nozdrev,Sobakevich and Plyushkin and use them as a mortgage to buy land and then himself become a landowner which would enable him to buy actual living serfs and gradually pay the loan as well. Chichikov’s methods were not entirely legal. Instead, he was taking advantage of the loopholes in the Russian law system to further his own interests.
This plot summary completely oversimplifies the story. The layers of meaning emerge only when one peruses the novel and sees Gogol’s critique of contemporary Russia in a satirical manner, how Chichikov convinces the 5 landlords in part 1 to sell their dead serfs, how hellish the entire legal and bureaucratic system is in provincial Russia, how beautifully Gogol merges this human misery with the vast, endless, limitless landscape of his beloved Russia. One of the major highlights of the novel or the ‘poema’ is the skillful juxtaposition of the wretchedness and corruption of the Russians with the beauty of the Russian landscape. Another major highlight is the numerous similes like that of the ‘troika’, the journey, the road, the unique comparison of the men of the town of N with flies at the governor’s ball in chapter 1 itself. The novel is full of numerous new possibilities that the reader will discover. S/he will discover the Russia of Gogol’s time with all its ugliness and artificial glamour and rich natural beauty . The reader will get acquainted with certain typical Russian character portraits in Chichikov and in the guise of the many landlords.
‘Dead Souls‘ may not be the easiest to read with a unique narrative style ( the naive narrator which shows Gogol’s use of the skaz), the numerous digressions (the most lyrical of these are addressed to Russia itself), the detailed descriptions etc. but giving up on this novel will be like giving up a chance to experience Russia itself.