Non-fiction By Bob Blaisdell
The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was eighteen and it took me a little less than three days. I mention that not as a matter of speed but of appetite.
Decades later, when I read it in Russian, I had the same appetite, but it took me a year and a half. That’s not counting the several years I spent learning enough Russian so that within a couple of passes I could take in the original language.
A few years ago I kept a diary about my Russian journey through this greatest of novels. I noted what I was seeing this time around, what I remembered having been there, and among other things which of Tolstoy’s psychological or artistic choices I was loving or appreciating again seemingly for the first time. I noticed details the Russian revealed that the English may not have and I recorded the bumps I hit because my Russian wasn’t agile enough. Anna Karenina was a familiar yet newly realized place, showing me where I’d been and giving me my early joys again and showing me it was still the most important book of my life.
Of course having read it in English twenty times made it a lot easier. I knew everybody, I knew what they would say; I could adjust my Russian because I knew from context and memory that what Stiva was saying could not be what the Russian confusingly seemed to be. Knowing I had made a mistake, I could pursue the clues further in my various dictionaries. As a guard against cheating, I didn’t let myself look at any translations. Like a musician who plays by ear, I played Tolstoy by ear. I made so many mistakes I became habituated to unraveling them.
Because I teach English at a community college in Brooklyn to grown-ups who struggle with reading and writing, I continually see that I, as a reader of Russian, move at a pace that in English would be laughable, at a pace that certainly is not laughable to my students. When I compare myself to Pei, an immigrant from China, who claims she spent two hours a chapter reading Oliver Twist (whose fifty-three chapters I had assigned over four weeks), she is faster than I.
One advantage of my hard-won reading is that if I don’t read Russian with super attention, I don’t get it! I can thoughtlessly cruise in English, but not in Russian. When it flows, I’m in heaven—but it often stumbles on pebbles or wanders into corners. Gliding or stumbling, in Russian I feel myself in that eager state of wanting to take in everything. I look up anything I don’t understand. I’m on the hunt. It’s as if my own life is unrolling itself before my eyes. I’m used to Anna’s entrance coming not until eighteen chapters in, but in Russian, having been reading so hard, having encountered so much resistance, I get particularly excited as the scene approaches. It’s like the difference between arriving at one’s beloved and well-known destination on foot instead of by car.
Here’s the very moment of our first sight of Anna (in my clumsy-footed, post-reading translation) …
Vronsky walked past the conductor to the car and in front of the entrance to the compartment stopped, in order to give way to an exiting lady. With the habitual tact of a society person, at one glance at the appearance of this lady, Vronsky determined her place in the highest society. He excused himself and was going to the carriage, but felt the need to look once more at her—not because she was very beautiful, not by her refined and modest grace, which was apparent over her entire figure, but because in the expression of the sweet-looking face, when she walked past him, there was something especially affectionate and tender. When he looked around, she had already turned her head. The shining–seeming dark from full eyelashes–gray eyes in a friendly careful way stopped on his face, as if she already knew him, and she then carried herself through the exiting crowd, as if she was looking for someone. In this short look Vronsky succeeded in noticing a held-back liveliness that played on her face and flitted between her shining eyes and barely noticeable smile, which had bent her red lips. It was as if the plenty so filled her essence that against her will was expressed her radiant look and her smile. She intentionally extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will and on her barely noticeable smile.
The most thrilling moment in this thrilling paragraph came when I understood from the Russian that her smile bends her lips.Tolstoy gets us to not only see her lips but to feel from within her mouth the lips being involuntarily bent into that smile.
I was so thrilled to understand, to experience this moment again—her radiance, her attractiveness, her life, but I found msyelf wondering why in that last sentence she “intentionally extinguished the light in her eyes.” Then I found myself in that awkward anxious state of knowing someone’s fate before she does. Anna doesn’t know yet how fragile her life is, or that it will be tragicbecause she has so much life. We have the terrible knowledge that she will extinguish her own life … at the train station!
After I was so knocked out by this paragraph I wondered how could I not have been captivated by it before?
But I had. We all have. It just happens so perfectly quickly when we’re reading it in our native language. I can’t deny, however, since I did have to crawl over it, that it was a new pleasure, a thrill to take in the reading in slow-motion, to experience, at life-speed, not reading-speed, the bending of her lips by the smile.
Hundreds of pages later, I experienced the same vanity that Tolstoy’s alter-ego hero Levin does upon meeting Anna for the first and only time—that he knew her better than anyone else. There are two marvelous sentences that strike me as absolutely revelatory of the author’s relationship to his heroine:
He listened, spoke and at the same time thought about her, about her inner life, trying to guess her feelings. And before so severely had he judged her, he now, by some strange path of thoughts, justified her and instead pitied her and feared that Vronsky did not fully understand her.
Levin and Tolstoy are right—Vronsky doesn’t know her as well as Levin does. Vronsky will live with her and sleep with her, but we outsiders, including each one of us who reads the novel, will know her better than her lover seems to. Her character has been and is Tolstoy’s continually readjusted artistic assessment of her. We think about her and her inner life, and we try to guess her feelings.
That, anyway, is one of the things I noticed in my Anna Karenina diary.