Love in a cold climate - Anna Karenina
I was brought up some of the time by a grandmother whose passion for the Soviet Union was so profound it embraced all things Russian. Since she was the adult in our family with time to indulge us, I was taught by her, at an early age, that the Bolshoi was the only ballet and the Soviet War and Peace the only cinematic masterpiece.
Thus it was that, as a book-worm adolescent, I was primed to tackle the Russian greats. Not that the 1960s teenager really needed priming. We were all sitting ducks, then, for Dostoevsky. His nihilistic angst reached out to us - our world, at least in our minds, seemed just like his. We were his characters: not as bloodthirsty perhaps, but at least as driven. And then, after we had worked our way through Dostoevsky's high drama, our next step was naturally to move on to the more meditative Tolstoy. First the challenge of War and Peace and, with that under my belt, a graduation to Anna Karenina.
Here I paused, because here I fell in love. The greatest novel ever written - that's the kind of thing people used to say about Anna Karenina. I wasn't sure about that. Even then, I wasn't interested in list making. But I did know this was the best book I had ever read, and Anna Karenina the most magnificent of heroines.
What stuck with me about the novel was that fated love affair where that most beautiful of women, Anna Karenina, is driven by passion into the arms of that most engaging of heroes, Vronsky. That's what I thought the book was about. Love, true love, so pure, so unworldly, that it could only end in death. For me, if not the greatest book, then at least the greatest love affair ever written.
And then, as an adult, I was lucky enough to find my way back to Anna. I was planning to set my next novel in 1930s Leningrad, and so I needed to re-acquaint myself with the Russian canon. I began with Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and finally, almost in the same order as I had first gone through the Russians, ended up with Anna Karenina.
What a treat to find her again. And yet what a different Anna she seemed. The difference lay not only with me. It had taken almost half a century for Penguin to name her properly. The 1950s translation had judged that an English audience needed Russian names to be like ours. So in that edition, the one I first read, Anna's surname was given, not as Karenina, as it should have been, but Karenin just like her husband's. These days we are thought sophisticated enough to cope not only with gendered surnames but also with patronymics. And so I found myself reading a book where some of the intimacy of that society and, at the same time, the formality, was returned to it.
It wasn't only the names that had changed. I had, too. Rereading the novel, I found my age-old impressions, even those concerning the book's central themes, altered. Anna herself was as enticing as I'd remembered her to be. She is the most beautiful, the most engaging, the most charming of women, brought to life by Tolstoy's descriptive powers and, when Tolstoy describes anything, be it a baby, a landscape, a horse, a frock, or the woman wearing the frock, he is the master, unsurpassed.
At least in her appearance, Anna was the woman I'd expected. But in many other, more important ways, she was not. What I got out of this rereading was not that life force that had originally inspired me, but Anna's overwhelming need. In place of the earlier romantic heroine was now a woman so desperate to escape her barren life and her dry stick of a husband that she is ripe for fated love.
And the object of her desires? Not the dashing, heroic Vronsky my teenage eyes had conjured up, but a damaged, aimless, limited soldier, in love as much with himself and his way of life as with any woman. This, after all, is a man who despises his mother but obeys her, who leads on the young Kitty, not from malice, but because he doesn't even notice he's doing it, and who sets out to build a hospital on his estate not to do good, but to prove he isn't mean.
What a contrast this feckless Vronsky is to that other main character - the tortured Levin. And here came my second adult realisation. The novel I had chosen to remember was the ill-fated love story between Anna and Vronsky; what I was reading now had a much more complex structure. I had forgotten or ignored that through the centrality of the book also runs the coming to terms with life, faith and death, of the Tolstoy-like Levin. Here, in many ways, lies the real love story: not between Anna and Vronsky, as I had thought, but between Levin and Kitty. Theirs is a much more traditional, and successful romance: the oddball Levin fighting his own incapacity to embrace life, so that he might ask the humiliated, but eventually all-knowing Kitty, to marry him.