Thursday, January 3, 2013

Winter Reading: Anna Karenina

(In Tolstoy's day, readers thought that this painting, "Unknown Woman" by Ivan Kramskoy, could be a likeness for Anna.)

A couple of months ago, when I first heard that a new movie of Anna Karenina was coming out, I emailed my sister-in-law, Mary Jo, asking her if she would like to see it with me.  She responded right away, "Yes! And I'm downloading the book right now!"

It had crossed my mind to read the book, but Mary Jo's comment prompted me to get to it. Bill downloaded Anna Karenina onto his tablet, and I also reserved the hard copy at the library.  It would take a while to read 900 pages!

Mary Jo and I have a tradition, now in its third year, of going to movies together that have accompanying books.  It's a fun way to read a book we might not otherwise, go out for an evening together, and make a stop for ice cream at Emack & Bolio, just up the street from the Spectrum Theater.

Thanksgiving was approaching, with Christmas right on its heels.  It would be hard to read such a long book with the holidays looming.  I knew Mary Jo would be busy fitting family life and holiday festivities in with a demanding work schedule, so, in my next email, I said, "should we figure on going to the movie after the holidays?"  "Let's go in December," she replied, "when Emack & Bolio might have holiday flavors."  Now there was a thought to take seriously.  We put December 13 on our calendars.

(Poor Anna, incredibly wealthy, nothing much to do, and desperately unhappy)

I hated to admit that, as a literature major, I had never read Anna Karenina, but as I told people about reading the book, I discovered that many of my friends had not read it, and others had read it in college and forgotten most of it.  So I dug right in, determined to read the entire book before seeing the movie.

Anna didn't appear until 100 pages into the story.  By then, I was taken with Levin, a man I could relate to.  He lived within the rhythms of nature, where he found solace in the sights and smells of the fields and meadows.  Here Tolstoy offered marvelous descriptions of the plants along a roadside, the shadows of trees at the edge of a hay field, and the smell of dampness in early morning. In addition, Levin was on a spiritual quest.  This character had everything.

(Leo Tolstoy, around the time of the writing of Anna Karenina)

I would have given the whole book up to Levin, but, when Anna came on the scene, she sucked the print right off the page!  Now every scene had drama, intensity, and raw emotion.  No walking through meadows here.  Moscow and Petersburg drove the story from dances to dinners and carriage rides.  Conflict arose at every turn as Anna confronted her husband, her lover, the society she lived in, and herself.  Her tumultuous love affair was beautifully juxtaposed with Levin and his story of love and marriage.

Again Tolstoy's writing captivated me--such ability to put into words the subtle meaning of a facial expression, or tone of voice.  I could imagine every nuance. Anna Karenina was a descriptive feast.

At times, I read reviews of the upcoming movie. The New York Times described the unique way the story was portrayed on film--creative, unusual, a different view of a classic. These were not necessarily negative comments.  The Times Union gave the movie one star.  Their blurb made the movie sound bizarre.

Oh well, I thought.  Mary Jo and I would have a good time, and the movie provided an excuse to read a great piece of literature.  I continued on, using both the tablet and the book.  Sometimes it was nice not to hold that heavy book, and, if I sat on the couch with the cat on my lap, she offered no complaint when I propped the tablet on her back.  The 900-page book was another story.  I felt more comfortable carrying the book around, though.  Taking Bill's tablet out of the house was a responsibility I wasn't sure I wanted.

(Kiera Knightley, as Anna, and Jude Law, as her husband, Sergei)

Besides the story and writing, I loved the characters' names.  Everyone had three and a nickname.  As I read them, I'm sure I pronounced them incorrectly in my head, but on the page, they looked great: Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (nickname Stiva), Katerina Aleksandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty/Katya), Konstantin Dimitievich Levin (Kostya). And often, in conversation, the characters called one another by at least two of the three or four names--quite a mouthful in a heated moment.

I had finished the book by the time Mary Jo and I met at the theater.  And, in fact, the movie was bizarre.  Filmed as if it were partly a play on a stage, and partly made for the wide-screen, the story shifted back and forth.  A horse race began in the confined space of a theatrical stage, then moved to a track outdoors, ending with the fall of a horse into the footlights back on the stage.  Characters, who went upstairs from a dance, walked between theater scaffolding, ropes, and pullies.  At times background characters stood like mannekins until the main characters came near them, waking them from their doll-like positions.

Still, we enjoyed it.  Mary Jo and I don't go to a lot of movies.  We just want to be entertained. The story was great, the actors were fun to watch, the sets kept us on high-alert, and the costumes and occasional expansive scenery were gorgeous.  Mary Jo had only gotten through about 100 pages of the book, but she had no trouble following the plot lines, despite the unconventional nature of the movie.

(I think Kiera Knightley is a treat to watch)

And after the movie, we walked to Emack & Bolio. The shop's Christmas decorations were charming and the case was full of enticing holiday cakes and candies.  From a list posted on the wall, Mary Jo ordered cosmic crunch ice cream with hot fudge.  I got mud pie in a cone.  I always like a cone.  Ice cream just isn't quite right in a dish, but I ogled her hot fudge.  Maybe next time I would have to go for that.  We sat in the front window next to electrified plastic candy canes and colored balls, and were still chatting at 10 p.m. when the waitress said she was closing up.

(Emack & Bolio, Delaware Avenue, Albany)

I saw Mary Jo at Christmas and she was half-way through the book and enjoying it.  Maybe we'll have to have a book discussion when she finishes it.  We'll also keep our eyes peeled for an enticing book/movie for 2013!


  1. I like that your literary pursuits are inspired by acquiring ice cream ;) I'll put this book on my "someday" list- always thought I should have read it.

  2. Thank you for this enlightening post, Virginia! I was on the fence about seeing Anna- perhaps I'll now add it to my list. There are times I am quite taken with "bizarre"- especially when Imperial Russia is the subject (I adored Russian Ark). I also think that perhaps I should revisit it as literature one day as well. My Russian Literature class in college is now many, many years in the past, and I think I would enjoy picking up some long ago favorites.
    Oh yes, before I forget: one should definitely remind Meredith that it is important to sample both great literature AND ice cream at Emack and Bolio!! I've been know to stop in "just because". Looking forward to seeing what great literature you may tackle next...

  3. I love how you describe your reading experience. I, too, recall all those long Russian names and their many variations. When reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, I always had to keep checking back in the story to remember who was who. This is a delightful post, informative as well as amusing.

    1. From one lit major to another: I am jealous! You turned a literary analysis into a personal narrative and a darned good one. I loved Anna Karina when I read it (properly) in college--gaping holes in my classics but not that one. I love Russian lierature, I do, but without exception, they take a long circuitous route to the end and they promise way too much in the beginning. I opted for Lincoln this holiday season after watching Anna K trailer.