…each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
~Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
All writers wish they had written the first line of Anna Karenina – and not only because of its aphoristic brilliance. Tolstoy's opening cuts straight to the heart of much of 19th and indeed 20th century fiction. The novel is, apart from all the other things it may also be, the complex and variegated story of the making and breaking of families.
It is an interesting film, alas, and this has been true of all visual translations, the subtlety of Tolstoy’s characters is lost.
I recalled, as a sat and watched the movie, that in Russia, writers have always had a unique status. For more than 180 years, laboring under censorship and repression, they’ve came to be seen as special transmitters of essential truth; the voices of the people’s spirit, its government-in-exile.
When I traveled in Russia between 1960 and 1990 I thought that nowhere on earth, perhaps, was there such a reverence for literature (and for its truth) as there was in Russia. The queues to renew subscriptions to literary journals were longer than those for vodka. New literary novels and volumes of poetry sold out in a matter of hours. Poets filled sports stadiums; writers talked nightly on television to millions of people; and out-of-print books routinely fetched more than a week’s salary on the black market.
The great Russian writers of the past, too, are still worshipped today in a way unknown to us in the West. For they are the cartographers of the national identity, the creators of the country’s alternative-and therefore living-history. Their graves are banked high with the flowers, and their apartments and country houses are places of pilgrimage, where the workrooms have been meticulously preserved and the clocks have been set to the exact times of their death. What you feel most when you visit these places is how near, how present in Russian life, these writers actually are: from Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s Shakespeare, on whose lips the modern Russian language was born; to the novelist Maxim Gorky, at a party in whose flat in 1930 Joseph Stalin is said to have invented the term “socialist realism.” A Ukrainian novelist at the turn of the 19th century wrote: “My country is not Russia; it is Russian literature.”
may you have a transporting weekend