November 30, 2012

“All happy families are alike; …

…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.

In Tolstoy, the theatre is often something to be mistrusted, both as art-form and social occasion, a place of absurdity and vanity either side of the footlights.  So it is an interesting, even subversive idea for screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright to have contrived an adaptation of Anna Karenina set in one place: a theatre.

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


Alistair (from the Land of Calvin...) said...

It seems that the trope of the play within the play is here to stay—sadly.

The film is not a total waste of time. The screenplay is tight, the designs elegant, and at least it has a point of view, unlike so many over-padded, hyped-up costume dramas. If it disappoints, it does so with honor. It’s not one for the ages, but that’s all right.

After all, as you so eloquently noted, we still have the book.

one of your little urban hipsters said...

though i'm inordinately fond of russian writers (and any number of nonlethal soviet-era oddities) and took a few grueling quarters of first-year russian in college, count leo and i didn't cross paths until i saw the last station (the '09 movie about tolstoy's life at yasnaya polyana; it's excellent). truth be told, i didn't really understand the scope of his cultural significance; i knew he was a heavyweight, sure, but the idea that he was ben franklin plus jonathan franzen plus oprah plus, like, elmo to nineteenth-century russians...was new and thanks for your input ms edna.
readers, i got that now. one disappears into tolstoy's personalities and relationships: he separates his characters' interactions and reactions into their component urges, like, teaspoon by teaspoon. moscow, st. petersburg, and the russian countryside are plush settings, as satisfying in tolstoy's hands as england ever was in jane austen's - but his characters come to life in a way that's shockingly modern. here are anna and her husband, just after her admission that she loves vronsky:
'Perhaps I am mistaken,' said he. 'In that case I beg your pardon.' 'No, you were not mistaken,' she said slowly, … i'd have overturned my samovar and started a fight if i read that sort of thing in 1875; it's devastating, and it more than compensates for tolstoy's lengthy meditations on collective farming (which he supported quite energetically in his life beyond the page). it should be noted that the noodly agricultural solos had their fans; in an 1875 letter, turgenev wrote that
I don't like Anna Karenina, although one finds some truly magnificent pages (the race, the mowing, the hunt), but it is all sour; it smells of Moscow, of incense, of old maidishness, of Slavophilism, aristocratism, and so on.
more for me, turgenev; more for me. i've even arrived at a sort of peace about resenting anna at the end of the book because she reminds me of the overcooked heroine i imagined myself to be in my late teens and early twenties; meeting real people in one's reading, even and perhaps especially the sort of people who make one realize one was a shit, is the best sort of reading i know. the only thing keeping me from being unequivocally team anna karenina is the absence of an equally detailed account of anna's first days with vronsky; while we hear all about their affair's middle age and death throes, we're denied the delirious early scenes we get with charming foils like kitty and levin. where's the beef [tea], count leo?
see what you wrought ms edna?

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Well, afternoons at the library certainly have "tranported" your horizons!
Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

I just returned (did we go to the same midnight screening?) from two hours of Keira Knightly jaw jutting and pouting and she always has her mouth open like some filter feeding fish. Apart from that I find her very wooden.
The theatre setting was endearing but I got used to it as it also did not go away. At times it looked like they'd shot in Farley's prop hire warehouse, but that I quite liked. Very opulent, velvety and silky, dusty and musty and suffocating. Does that capture Anna Karenina's life? I haven't read the book [yet] but you have moved me to do so. Perhaps I will have a transporting weekend? Keep you posted.

Anja said...

I agree with you 101% about the Russian people and their affection for their writers. The best I can do for the movie, is, silence.

frenchtoast said...

Mom always said that you understood the Slavic temperament very well. I have to agree.
Lovely post thank you.

a fan said...

I have clearly wandered into a cultural realm far above my station. Although your post helpfully suggests that those of us from the witless masses (i.e. hadn't read the 1,000 page book), should see the movie and decide for ourselves. WILL DO. Perhaps your lovely write-ups could include symbols at the top which would be useful to guide the rest of us (ie happy face, sad face, machine gun, football, boobs etc) to give us a clue if it is worth seeing or not.
Thanks for the post. Always interesting.

Syl v O said...

Go read the book!
Yes it's long, but it's a masterpiece.

a fan 2 said...

I read Anna Karenina when I was 20. I'd grown up in provincial Scotland, a long way from the centre of things. I immediately identified with the Levin character – like him, I was more confident with books than I was with parties, and constantly losing the girls I was interested in to slicker, hunkier Vronsky-like characters. Levin's concern in whether to live in the town or the country was something I could completely relate to; I was at university and enjoying all the liveliness and intellectual life that Cambridge had to offer, but I loved going back to remote Scotland. The tension in the novel between the boredom, rootedness and loveliness of the countryside and the excitement but vapidity of urban life was something that spoke to me at that age in a way that might not make much sense to kids who were brought up in a town. Weird little pockets of late-Edwardian Scotland survived into the 1970s – I even knew a few people who had been brought up by governesses – so Tolstoy's Russia was not an unfamiliar world to me. Tolstoy has that way of introducing characters who we recognise from our own experience, which is always the mark of a great novelist. I expect if I read the book again now, it would be a very different reading. That said, south Asia, where I live now, also has recognisably Tolstoyan characteristics, and the kind of feudal characters who appear in modern Pakistani literature – especially the short stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin – seem to be first cousins of those in Tolstoy.
Thanks for the post, it was much appreciated.

Charles said...

Ah yes, a fan 2, ditto!

Mona said...

“But man is a fickle and disreputable creature and perhaps, like a chess-player, is interested in the process of attaining his goal rather than the goal itself.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Spot on Ms Edna!

Dr. Bunsen (and gaggle of fans) said...

“At one time, a freethinker was a man who had been brought up in the conceptions of religion, law and morality, who reached free thought only after conflict and difficulty. But now a new type of born freethinkers has appeared, who grow up without so much as hearing that there used to be laws of morality, or religion, that authorities existed... In the old days, you see, if a man - a Frenchman, for instance- wished to get an education, he would have set to work to study the classics, the theologians, the tragedians, historians and philosophers- and you can realize all the intellectual labour involved. But nowadays he goes straight for the literature of negation, rapidly assimilates the essence of the science of negation, and thinks he's finished.” ― Leo Tolstoy

How up-to-date.

Great post Ms Edna.

Ms Capshaw and Co said...

Dear Ms Edna,
take us to a movie
and tell us what you're thinking
whilst you're watching.

C and C (LT) said...

“Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.”
– Tolstoy
So true.

Ones Kings Lane said...

Today at 11am EST, One Kings Lane kicks off a 72-hour flash sale of pieces straight from the set of Anna Karenina and additional items inspired by the film (in theaters now). Victorian furniture. books and artwork, curtains and light fixtures, and accessories like opera glasses and gloves are all part of the vast selection of goods, with prices ranging from $15-$2,000.
Previous One Kings Lane movie set sales have been pegged to Jane Eyre and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but reps for the site tell us that, with more than 700 items up for grabs, the Karenina event is their biggest to date.

Anonymous said...

German art historian Arnold Hauser described film art as "picture-book of life for the illiterate". I tend to agree. Movies are essentially inferior re their power of expression, especially when compared to great literary works.

Andrew (Land of Calvin 2) said...

Too thin to be a comely lass,
A chance to ogle I still won't pass.

Apropos Keira

Anonymous said...

Vladimir Nabokov did an analysis of Anna Karenina in which he suggested that the genius of Tolstoy, and what made the novel great, was the precise embedding of the novel in reality. Nabokov pointed out that a person knowledgeable of Russian culture and history could place every scene in the novel to the day and the hour and to exact locations. Anna was drawn in such a way as to be more "real" than most of the women in readers' quotidian lives. The curl of hair on the back of her neck is more erotically real than our everyday amours. The ham-fisted theatricalism of the film's director utterly destroyed this aspect of the novel.
Also in the novel Tolstoy was much more ambiguous about the morality of Anna's husband's behavior. He starts with a cold Enlightenment rationalism, achieves a temporary Christian acceptance that Tolstoy thought was the ideal, and ultimately lapses into the fundamentally immoral treatment of Anna demanded by society.
I was very disappointed by the movie although the acting, sets and cinematography were all excellent. As a final note, the trailers for this movie were extremely misleading in that they suggested that the movie would use a standard narrative/dramatic form instead of the ultra-theatricality the director (and writer?) actually used.

Anonymous said...

American Tolstoy lovers who have any of the thousands of DVD players that will play a Region 2 PAL disk should consider investing thirty bucks (chez the UK amazonian branch) in the late-seventies BBC version starring Nicola Pagett, Stuart Wilson, and Eric Porter (as Karenin). Utterly superior to the present silly film.