Anna Karenina Fix

by Viv Groskop

Clock Icon 47 minute read


‘“Classic”—a book which people praise but don’t read.’

Mark Twain

An enemy of baked goods of all kinds, Tolstoy was not one of those insufferable people who breeze through life unencumbered by frustration and angst. Comfortingly enough, he was a person who struggled to understand why, at times, life felt intensely painful, even when nothing that bad was happening. His empathy for the pain of the human condition is surprising in some ways, because he lived a monastic existence and indulged in few, if any, pleasures. Unlike the rest of us, he really had very little to feel bad about. Tolstoy was very much not a doughnuts-and-beer kind of guy. He only ate cake if it was a family birthday, and then it had to be a particular cake, his wife’s Anke pie, a sour lemon tart named after a family doctor. Mostly, he ate simply and repetitively. One of the researchers at the Tolstoy Museum at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana recently uncovered evidence of his fifteen favourite egg dishes, which he ate in rotation. These included scrambled eggs with dill, and peas with eggs. He didn’t drink alcohol. He didn’t eat meat. And yet still he frequently felt that he was a terrible person.

Perhaps as a result of this tortured way of thinking, long before self-help manuals became hugely popular in the early twentieth century, Tolstoy had already written one of his own. It was full of the sort of inspirational quotes we’re now used to seeing on fridge magnets and as advertisements for mindfulness retreats. Some of the sayings are his own quotes:

We only truly come alive in ourselves when we live for others.

If a rich man is to be truly charitable, he will give away all his wealth as soon as possible.

In itself, work is not a virtue, but it is an essential condition of a virtuous life.

The other sayings are from writers and thinkers who inspired him: Rousseau, Plutarch, Pascal, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau among others, as well as quotations from the Talmud and the Bible. In Tolstoy’s defence, A Calendar of Wisdom was deeply serious and well meant. The book itself is calming, fascinating and often unintentionally entertaining: ‘If you are in the grip of carnal passions and overwhelmed by them, you will become entwined in the creeping bindweed of suffering’ – Buddhist wisdom. (Bring on the carnal passions, I say. Worry about the bindweed later.) Also known as A Circle of Readings or The Thoughts of Wise People, A Calendar of Wisdom consisted of a page of inspiring quotes for each day of the year, collected by Tolstoy over sixteen years and a popular edition was published in 1912, two years after his death.

A lot of the quotes directly contradict the messages of today’s self-help movement, which encourages us to devote ourselves passionately to the art of learning to love ourselves, or, at the very least, to move away from self-hate. In A Calendar of Wisdom, it’s the other way round. Pride and a love of the self are wrong; and if we are going to hate anyone, we should hate ourselves. (It literally says this. This sentiment is very typical of Tolstoy, who disliked doing anything pleasant, easy or fun.) Tolstoy prescribes an extreme, ascetic way of life, where lustful desires are especially dangerous and overeating is a sin because it denotes a lack of self-respect. Here are some of his other entries. On 4 June: ‘Because Christianity has become perverted, we now lead a life that has become worse than a pagan’s.’ Some of his edicts are painfully enigmatic. On 27 October: ‘The light remains the light, even though a blind man cannot see it.’ And anything relating to women is generally bad news. On 2 June: ‘A woman has a great responsibility: to give birth. But she doesn’t give birth to ideas – that is the responsibility of men.’

Tolstoy saw these quotes as a guide to life at a time of crisis: a gathering of ‘a circle of the best writers’ whose ideas would lead to salvation. As Roger Cockrell, translator of the latest edition of the Calendar in English, writes, Tolstoy’s overall aim is ‘to urge us all to strive, through unrelenting effort, for self-improvement’. I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard. (Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.) But he had an instinct for the sort of thinking that would become hugely popular a century later. And he had a strong conviction that the only way to fight back against the pressures of modern life was to define the right life lessons and apply them to yourself. This book follows the same impetus and aims to channel the Oprah side of Tolstoy. It’s what he would have wanted. Please, no overeating while reading it. Neither Oprah nor Tolstoy would like it.

The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place: life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully. While Tolstoy looked for answers in his time in didactic philosophy and religious texts, many of us seek comfort in reading about the lives of others, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The pithy sayings in The Calendar of Wisdom are useful, inspiring and sometimes even life-changing, but it is great works of literature that really change us as people, by showing us the inner lives of others and by revealing our common humanity. These works allow us to imagine different versions of ourselves, only without having to kill any old ladies (Crime and Punishment), have a friendly conversation with Satan on a park bench (The Master and Margarita) or throw ourselves under trains (Anna Karenina). Warning: there might be a few spoilers in this book, which is surely to be forgiven when most of these works have been around for well over a hundred years.

It’s no surprise that Tolstoy himself didn’t use fiction as a basis for the advice in his self-help book. We can’t expect Tolstoy to admit the usefulness of novels. In the latter part of his life, he had a huge spiritual crisis and all but renounced Anna Karenina and War and Peace as the writings of a sinful, frivolous fool. No wonder he turned to the Bible. But I want to argue the opposite of what Tolstoy came to believe. Philosophy and religious writings may have their place. And self-help aphorisms from the Greeks always bring solace. But it is in literature – whether novels, plays or poetry – that we really see who we are – and, perhaps even more importantly, who we don’t want to be.

But, first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. There will be no footnotes, although I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible where I’m quoting from, and there’s a detailed reading list at the back of the book. Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again. It’s also about the times in life when you behave like an idiot, which, for some reason, for me have been remarkably frequent and don’t seem to be getting less so as I grow older.

Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves. It’s just not true that in order to read the Russian classics you have to be part of some kind of secret society of special people. You definitely don’t have to know any Russian or have any plans to ever learn Russian, even though, with me, it was an obsession with studying Russian that pushed me towards these books. You don’t even need to know any Russian history, although you will certainly pick up a lot of it in passing. And you don’t have to fuss about whether you’ve got the right translation. Or whether you’re missing the entire point. Or whether you need to be sitting next to a samovar. It’s accessible to all of us.

I have two university degrees in Russian, and I spent a long time acquiring fluent Russian, using a combination of iron discipline and bison grass vodka. But even after all this, I am no expert. I am a shambling amateur who wants to encourage other shambling amateurs. These books have brought a lot of joy and hope to me, which is something I would never have expected and which endlessly surprises me, as I grew up in a house where we were very much not the sort of people who sat around saying, ‘But don’t you think Nikolai would have been better off with Sonya in War and Peace ?’ (Frankly, who would want to live in that household?) What I have learned about the Russians is that there is no need to be afraid of them. And there is certainly no need for them to be seen as uniquely ‘serious’ and ‘academic’, which we all know are synonyms for ‘dusty’ and ‘boring’.

It’s time to take all the doubt and fuss and snobbery and pretence out of this kind of reading. This book is a celebration of the art of reading on its own terms, which is always the most personal thing, and about giving yourself licence to read how you want to read, without feeling that there’s always someone else who knows more than you and that maybe you don’t really get it. However you get it, you’ve got it right. I say: read these classics in part if you can’t face the whole thing. Don’t be afraid not to finish or to come back years later. Read them slowly, without stressing over whether you’re understanding every detail. Read them in bed, read them on the bus, read them in the place that Vladimir Putin would call ‘the outhouse’. (He once gave a memorable speech in which he assured his people that Russia’s enemies were not safe anywhere, even in the outhouse. Please find yourself the safest possible outhouse, which Putin cannot know about, and treat yourself to a few pages of Three Sisters.)

As well as shedding some light on some of life’s most difficult moments by using examples from these eleven classic Russian works, I’ll be looking at some examples from the lives of the writers who wrote them, too. Frequently, there’s a mismatch between what the authors seem to advocate in their books and what was going on in their lives. Tolstoy is the classic example. Many of the contradictions, nuances and intricacies of Anna Karenina and War and Peace can be explained by Tolstoy’s later spiritual collapse. When he wrote these books, he empathized hugely with his characters and showed the truth of their lives and feelings. Later on, he felt torn about whether this was a good use of his time and stopped writing those kinds of novels. To know that he was conflicted makes these books even richer with meaning.

The gap between the life of the author, the life of the reader and the text itself has always puzzled me. The thing the reader and the writer have in common is that they’re both real and they’re both living the life of a human being. They know how difficult life can be. And they know it’s almost impossible to express human experience accurately, vividly and believably. However, these two people meet each other on the page, thanks to the story. The story is the stand-in for human experience. It’s pretend, it’s make-believe. The contract between the writer and the reader says that the writer must agree to make the reader believe in this made-up story. And it’s through this agreement that those two people have a meeting of minds and ‘discuss’ human existence. This is an extraordinary contract, and it’s one that is particularly deep in Russian literature.

I’m interested in what these books can teach us about life without us actually having to live through the things described in them. Novels are a way of trying on other people’s lives, judging, forgiving, understanding them. They are as good at showing us how not to live as they are at showing us how to live. In fact, they’re often better at the former. As many critics have noted, the first line of Anna Karenina is intensely memorable and reads beautifully. But the truth of it is not really proved in the novel: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ In the novel itself, there are no happy families. If Tolstoy wanted to show us one, he could have done. But he doesn’t. Instead, he shows us a host of unhappy families, who, ironically enough, do often share things in common: the inability to communicate, the feeling of always thinking that someone else has something better than you, the idea that there must be more to life than this. If anything, Tolstoy’s lesson is this: ‘How Not to Live’. These are sometimes cautionary tales rather than manuals for living. Maybe that’s more real and memorable and therefore more useful than any self-help manual.

Because life is not simple and Russian literature is definitely not simple, there are several outliers in the list of eleven classics featured here. Several don’t count as novels. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse form; Akhmatova’s Requiem is a set of ten poems; Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a play, as is Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Gogol might even argue that Dead Souls is an epic poem. (It isn’t really. It’s clearly a novel.) So, while this is a book mostly about fictional worlds, it’s more precisely about classics of their time and what they have to teach us about life for all time.

There are many books that could have had a place in this list. But I have had to leave out a lot of great works (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry) in order to avoid this book being as long as War and Peace itself. Apologies to Russophiles whose favourites are not present. Of all the books I most wish were here, one is certainly Gogol’s The Overcoat. For me, this is a short story the plot of which sums up Russian literature in a nutshell. It’s about an insignificant copying clerk who saves up for an overcoat. He saves up for a long time. A very long time. On the day the overcoat finally comes into his possession, it is stolen from him. Shortly afterwards, he falls ill and dies. That is Russian literature’s idea of a life lesson. You have been warned.

1. How to Know Who You Really Are: Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy

(Or: Don’t throw yourself under a train)

‘All the charm, all the beauty and all the diversity of life are made up of light and shade.’

I came across Anna Karenina when I was in my early teens. It coincided with a time in my life when I was becoming desperate to know more about my origins. As a child, I do not remember a time when I thought that my name was anything other than profoundly weird, unexplained and, ultimately, unexplainable. To come across people with similarly odd names was, to me, deeply comforting. I was never put off by the strangeness of the names in Russian literature. They felt familiar. I felt solidarity with them. I did not mind that I couldn’t say them aloud with any confidence because I had grown up not speaking any language other than English. But I had, however, lived with an unpronounceable name, and I knew it was not that big a deal, even if other people said it was. ‘Viv Groskop. What kind of name is that?’

Growing up in Somerset in the south-west of England, I come from a family that considers itself ordinary, normal and British. Definitely British. I was told this repeatedly as a child. There was nothing in our family history to suggest we were remotely foreign. My grandad was born in Barry, in South Wales. My grandmother was born in Manchester. My dad was from London. My mother and all her family were from Northern Ireland. No one was born abroad. Did I mention there were no foreigners in our family? My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were all from Northern Ireland. On my father’s side, they were born in Wales or the north of England. As a young child, I knew some of my great-grandparents. There were no foreigners. As you can see, I think I have made it clear that there were no foreigners in our family.

Everything we did was British. Or English. Best not to ask the difference between the two. Mostly British, as my grandad liked to emphasize his Welshness on occasion. And no one wanted to make my mum, born in County Antrim, feel left out. I spent a lot of time with my (paternal) grandparents as a child. My grandad, a grocer for thirty years, had a pathological dislike of all things foreign, especially food. Things like lasagne, minestrone and garlic were ‘foreign muck’. Favourite foods in our house were the sorts of foods you would worship if you were the owner of a grocery shop that prided itself on its selection of processed foods: Angel Delight, Bird’s Custard, tinned marrowfat peas. These were much safer than foreign muck.

The only thing to disrupt this picture of canned, processed, unquestionable Britishness was the small matter of our name – to me, quite a puzzle: to be undeniably British and yet be called Groskop. Early on, it struck me that something didn’t quite add up. This was even before I found out that most of my grandfather’s family had changed the spelling of their name from Groskop to ‘Groscop’. Now, we were the only people called Groskop. Another mystery. You are not fooling anyone, Groscops, I would think to myself, careful to change the spelling when I was addressing Christmas cards to elderly relatives, at the same time thinking how odd it was.

The Groscops’ cunning disguise always struck me as rather desperate. They had changed their name from something foreign-sounding but plausible to something foreign-sounding and implausible. Meanwhile, we, the Groskops, bore the title with some quiet measure of pride – we hadn’t sold out and become Groscops! – but, seemingly, zero curiosity.

My family had no sensible answers about the origin of our name. My grandad would talk about it, if pressed, from time to time, only so that we could tease him about the name ‘definitely not being German’. He was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and was happy for the name to come from anywhere at all on the face of the earth so long as it was not Germany. I soon gravitated towards languages at school and quickly worked out that he was right: it couldn’t be German. We would be Grosskopf. (‘Bighead.’) And we were not Grosskopf. This, at least, I decided, was some mercy. Then Dutch was mentioned as a possibility. But again, the spelling didn’t seem right. There was even a crazy idea that we were South African. The name came from Afrikaans, supposedly similar to Dutch. I struggled to believe this.

The lack of information made me obsessive about origins and names. When I was four years old, we acquired a cat, a cute little tortoiseshell thing. I was allowed to name her. I called her Jane. She brought me a lot of comfort, even though I later became aware that I had saddled the cat with a feline name just as unlikely for her as my human name was for me. (Who calls a cat Jane?) For years, I dreamed of having the surname Smith. This to me was a wonderful, beautiful name, one no one would ever mispronounce or spell incorrectly. And no one would ever ask where you came from.

It wasn’t until I was about twelve or thirteen that I picked up a copy of Anna Karenina. I got it in a charity shop, I think, in the mid-1980s. It was an old Penguin Classic. The cover features the painting that has come to be the most frequent stand-in for Anna Karenina: Ivan Kramskoi’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman of 1883. I loved that picture, but the name sold the novel to me first. Karenina. A name that is simple and yet one that people hesitate to pronounce. I knew some people said it as ‘Carry Nina’, but you should say it ‘Kar-ray-ni-na’, with the emphasis on the ‘ray’. I fell in love with her name. And then I fell in love with her face. The moment I saw this stunning woman, all velvet coat, alabaster skin, fur-trimmed beret and air of mystery, my spotty, chubby, insecure adolescent self thought: ‘This is the me I have been looking for. Definitely not German, Dutch or South African. But why not Russian?’ It was a half-thought that was to change the course of my life.

The identity of the model in the Kramskoi painting is unknown and, to protect the blushes of my twelve-year-old self, we will overlook the fact that she was most likely a prostitute. Although Kramskoi never said the woman was meant to be Anna Karenina, it’s entirely possible that he read the novel and had her in mind when he painted the portrait, whether consciously or not. He had painted Tolstoy in 1873, when the novelist was just starting to write the novel. We can’t know for sure, though, that this is her. Nevertheless, it says a lot that many people have wanted to see Anna Karenina in this picture. We want the Unknown Woman to be real. Especially those of us who have wanted to be her.

This isn’t a great ambition, incidentally, as it is doomed to failure. On first reading, I became obsessed with the thickness of Anna Karenina’s eyelashes. Tolstoy loves the details of women’s faces. He writes of Anna having eyelashes so thick that they make her grey eyes look darker. Inspired by this bewitching beauty, I started using an eyelash curler to achieve a similar effect. If you’ve never seen an eyelash curler, it’s like a miniature medieval torture instrument and must be employed with great care and skill. One day, I got a bit distracted and sneezed while using it. I had pulled out all my eyelashes on one side, giving me a naked eyelid and a lopsided squint. It took about a year for them to grow back. Much later on, I discovered that, in an earlier draft, Tolstoy had given Anna Karenina a hairy upper lip. That would have been easier for me to work with, and a lot less painful than the accidental eyelash removal. Liza in War and Peace also has a moustache. Clearly, Tolstoy had a fetish.

The desire to identify with Anna Karenina as a character – to believe her to be ‘real’, to believe her to be ‘us’ – is understandable. It’s one of the most attractive things about the novel. Although, on the surface of things, Anna Karenina seems to be a morality tale about a doomed, beautiful but adulterous romance, really this is a book about identity, integrity and our purpose in life. Who are we and why are we here? These questions are deeply embedded in it. They are questions that tortured Tolstoy and, almost as soon as he had published Anna Karenina, they caused him to renounce his work and retreat into himself. It’s partly this feeling of crisis that has made me feel bound to this novel my whole life. It’s a fantastic meditation on identity and what we’re doing here. But it doesn’t really answer any questions. To such an extent that it’s enough to drive you mad. In fact, it almost drove Tolstoy to suicide.

However, it’s easy to read Anna Karenina without becoming a tortured religious maniac. Because it is a cracking story. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is the wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a government minister. She is a woman in her mid to late twenties. Her husband is two decades older. She is bored and disillusioned with her life. She finds herself drawn to an extremely attractive young officer called Vronsky, who is not a particularly unpleasant person but does not have much more than his looks to recommend him. Their love affair is passionate and tender but, ultimately, Anna cannot enjoy it because she feels guilty, not so much because of her irritating husband, Karenin, but because of her maternal responsibilities to her young son, Seryozha, whom she loves very much. (Diminutive alert: Seryozha is short for Sergei.) In the moment that she resolves to divorce Karenin and risk no longer being a part of her child’s life, she loses her nerve and disappears under the wheels of a train. Bad times.

In the course of the novel, Tolstoy weaves the parallel tale of Levin, a principled, intellectual young man whose character is – surprise, surprise! – not unlike that of our esteemed author (who, at the time of writing, has already had success with War and Peace and is no stranger to Great Literature). Levin is a friend of Anna’s brother Stiva. There’s another link, too: Stiva’s sister-in-law Kitty has attracted the attentions of both Levin and Vronsky (initially, before he becomes involved with Anna). Levin’s emerging relationship with Kitty, one that represents contentment and peace but also (potentially) boredom and predictability, serves as a point of comparison for the romance between Vronsky and Anna, whose union symbolizes anxiety and the breaking of trust but also excitement and risk. This parallel between the two couples is something that is not often noted but it is crucial in understanding the point Tolstoy is making about the nuances of happiness and knowing who we are. Without Anna’s seduction of Vronsky (or vice versa), Kitty might not have been free to go off with Levin. One person’s happiness is often dependent on the unhappiness of another. And what we think of as unhappiness may ultimately lead to happiness. (Kitty is not supposed to end up with Vronsky. They would not have been good together.)

On the surface, Anna Karenina is about relationships and, more importantly, about the perils of infidelity. But Tolstoy messes up his own message by falling in love with Anna Karenina and by making her supposedly ‘unhappy’ life more ambiguous than perhaps he had intended. There’s a moralistic thread running through the book, certainly. And Anna Karenina herself receives the most severe punishment. But the way Tolstoy writes about her, you can sense that he sympathizes with her. The lesson in the novel is that we must try to know who we really are in order to live an authentic life. Anna realizes that her life with Vronsky is authentic but unachievable, and feels she has no option but to kill herself. If you wanted to read something revolutionary into the novel, that is definitely an option. Instead of a comment on how ‘wrong’ Anna is, her death could represent a judgement on the morals of the society of the time. ‘Look what you’ve made her do, when her only crime was to fall in love and be who she really is.’ If anything, the message Tolstoy imparts in Anna Karenina is a compromised one. Levin’s way of life seems the ‘correct’ one. And yet it is Anna who appears to be truly alive, even though she is ultimately doomed to punishment.

It is not surprising that Anna Karenina is frequently described as the greatest novel of all time, precisely because of the way it approaches these big questions but without finding easy answers. William Faulkner held this view, as did Dostoevsky. Nabokov – who was an incredibly grumpy person and did not suffer fools gladly (even less so than Dostoevsky, which is really saying something) – said the style was ‘flawless magic’. Tolstoy himself considered it a better novel than War and Peace. In fact, he did not even consider War and Peace to be a novel. He thought it was episodic fiction, a series of short stories. Anna Karenina, however, was a novel and – initially – he thought it was good. I often wonder what Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife, thought about him considering the 2,200-page War and Peace ‘not a novel’. She had to copy it out repeatedly. I imagine she had some other words to describe it, and probably quite diminutive words at that.

Of course, there are many answers in the novel to the question ‘How should you live your life?’ You could choose a simple, unquestioning life of luxury like Anna’s brother Stiva, a man who only drinks champagne with people he likes (and he drinks champagne with everyone). Or you could choose Levin’s path: self-sacrificing, righteous, spiritual. Levin is supposed to be the prototype for happiness – for example, with his steady, even rhythm of life – but he doesn’t in fact seem that happy and frequently tortures himself about whether he should be spending more time ploughing fields.

There is an intriguing mix of hedonism and self-flagellation in Anna Karenina. Before the author, in the early chapters, has even invited us to the Anglia Hotel for a slap-up meal of oysters and turbot with Stiva (Anna’s brother) and Levin, Stiva’s best friend, Tolstoy has already casually dropped in the Epigraph of Doom: ‘Vengeance is mine. And I will repay.’ It’s a quotation that suggests that, in life, if there is any revenge to be taken, God will sort it out in his own way. You had better not do it yourself. It is an incredibly powerful and disturbing choice of words to slap on the page next to the title of your novel, and one that marks Tolstoy out as someone who is obsessed – or beginning to be obsessed – with God and with the idea that it is foolish to imagine we are in charge of our lives (because we’re not in charge, God is). It sounds very much like the voice of God himself. And it doesn’t exactly mark Tolstoy out as Mr Fun Times.

The heavy-handed, preachy tone of that scary epigraph is a harbinger of the sort of writing Tolstoy was to specialize in later in life, after he more or less disowned Anna Karenina. Even at the time he was writing the novel, he was already tortured by a lot of the philosophical ideas that came to dominate his thinking and led him to a monk-like existence as a teetotal vegetarian, committed consumer of boiled eggs and serial avoider of pastries. (So often, I’ve wanted to travel back in time and get him to try a jam doughnut. I feel sure he would have written more novels. The man just needed sugary carbohydrates.)

But it’s also a strange lesson in wishful thinking. I can’t help feeling that Tolstoy wanted God to take his revenge on Anna Karenina (for being a dirty, filthy adulteress) but, at the same time, the human being in him (who had committed a lot of dirty, filthy adultery himself) sees her fragility and attractiveness as a person and wants to forgive her. The contradictory nature of the epigraph is a clue as to why Anna Karenina is such a complicated novel and does not deliver a clear, unambiguous message about how to live. On the one hand, Tolstoy sets out to write a didactic novel where no one dares challenge God’s laws without terrible consequences and where Levin (the ‘good’ Tolstoy) is the hero of the piece. And yet, on the other hand, and almost in spite of himself, he ends up drawing a beautiful portrait of Anna Karenina, infused with empathy and compassion. There’s a way of looking at Anna not just as a character and a woman but as an extension of Tolstoy himself: the ‘bad’ Tolstoy, the foolish side of himself that he wishes didn’t exist.

It’s this contradiction that makes Tolstoy the best guide to life. He is both flawed and honest, and these qualities are not always intentional. In fact, he tries to cover them up. But that only makes him more likeable. Even the most cursory glance at his life shows that he was an immensely and amusingly complex character. That is why – with reservations – I love him. He is a tricky bugger, with many bad character traits and psychological inconsistencies, which plagued him his whole life and which he tried desperately to overcome. But aren’t these very much the qualities anyone should seek in a lifelong friend?

Everything you need to know about Tolstoy is summed up by what he did to his wife on the eve of their wedding. He was thirty-four. She was seventeen. He felt bad about the fact that he had had a debauched youth, sleeping with prostitutes, Gypsies and parlourmaids. He had fathered a child by one of the serfs on the estate. (I love that in the author biography in the original Penguin edition of Anna Karenina this is described as ‘a life of pleasure’. It’s what my grandma would call the life of Riley.) He felt so bad about all these ‘pleasures’ that he showed his wife-to-be his diaries, which extensively detailed all his exploits and the venereal disease they had resulted in. The same episode plays out, of course, between Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina. Decades later, in her diaries, his wife wrote that she never recovered from the shock.

This information about Tolstoy’s character has always been out there and has been easy to find if you were looking for it. However, in the past decade in Russia, there has been a resurgence of interest in Tolstoy the real person (as opposed to Tolstoy the great genius) thanks to Flight from Paradise, a fascinating biography by Pavel Basinsky. This book is a controversial account of Tolstoy’s final days and won Russia’s national book prize. Until recently in Russia, and since the dawn of time in academia, looking too deeply into a writer’s biography has been frowned upon, because this is seen to lead to a shallow appreciation of the important thing: the writing. But something about Basinsky’s book broke the spell for Russians, and everyone became fixated by it. An entire nation thought to themselves: ‘What if we looked at Tolstoy as an ordinary person who struggled with his emotions, got very angry with his wife and had very particular feelings about serving suggestions for eggs?’ This was the Tolstoy Basinsky uncovered, and Russians loved it. I have no evidence that egg sales from Arkhangelsk to Vladivostok soared, but I like to pretend to myself that they did.

Here was a man who was difficult, infuriating, sometimes rather cruel to his family and tortured by his own nature. This, at least, explained a lot of the contradictions and complexities in his work, including why the themes in Anna Karenina can be so hard to pin down. Basinsky’s book also sought to give some context to what is perhaps the most shocking act of self-loathing in literary history. Almost as soon as Tolstoy finished the novel, he renounced all artistic work in favour of what he called a ‘spiritual rebirth’. As discussed, I know we are not supposed to read too much into authors’ biographies. But I really don’t think you can ignore the fact that someone writes a novel full of emotion and passion which becomes known as one of the greatest works of art ever created and then they turn around and basically say, ‘Well, that was a disgusting waste of time. I am going to go and be a peace-loving vegetarian now.’

If anything, Tolstoy’s new reputation as a more rounded person who ate boiled pears to aid his digestion (no wonder, with all the eggs) – rather than some kind of literary demigod – has enhanced the understanding and appreciation of his work. I certainly feel better for knowing that the eighty-two-year-old Tolstoy went around wearing two hats because he felt the cold on his head, that he loved beans and Brussels sprouts (a rare break from the eggs) and that, on one occasion, his wife was so angry with him for leaving the house without telling her that she stabbed herself with knives, scissors and a safety pin. (Theirs was an extraordinarily volatile relationship, especially in later life, and it was exacerbated – understandably – by Tolstoy’s desire to renounce the works that supported the family financially. Not to mention Sofya Andreyevna’s role as Chief Copier-Outer of the novels.)

In Flight from Paradise, Basinky also revealed Tolstoy to be someone suffering from a lot of problems we would judge as uniquely modern. Whenever any of us reads about someone being hassled on social media and what a contemporary phenomenon this is considered to be, we should think about Tolstoy. He routinely received death threats via telegram, letter and parcel. On his eightieth birthday in 1908, he received a large box containing a length of rope. It’s all very well someone sending you a poison-pen letter. But a length of rope? That is hardcore. The letter accompanying the rope was signed ‘A mother’. His wife, Sofya, opened it and wrote in her diary that the message with it read: ‘There is nothing left for Tolstoy to do but wait for and wish for the government to hang him, and he can save them the trouble.’ Sofya noted that she assumed the woman had lost a child in the revolution in 1905 and blamed Tolstoy for it.

Whenever Tolstoy travelled, he was subject to constant distractions, bombarded by other people’s opinions, thoughts and arguments; it was as if a Twitter-come-to-life materialized before him. (Genuine report: ‘Can I get your autograph, Lev Nikolayevich? By the way, would you ever go in an aeroplane?’ He gave the autograph and said that aeroplanes were a bad idea, as only birds should fly.) At home, it wasn’t much better: people continually came to his house (interrupting, at least, the frequent deliveries of rope) to ask for work or money, or to show him their terrible manuscripts. The only way he could get away from them was to go and visit his sister in the monastery where she lived, which was in itself really stressful, because he had been excommunicated by the Church and was not at all welcome there. Poor Tolstoy.

Knowing that Tolstoy suffered all this after he had renounced Anna Karenina has helped me to be more patient about trying to understand the book’s messages. It is one of the strangest novels, in that it reads so beautifully and easily and is full of light and warmth. And yet, when you sit back and think about its ultimate meaning, it is like the breath of Satan. Its ultimate message? ‘Don’t want anything too selfish because you will end up killing yourself.’ And while the novel has so much soulful joy and gentle humour, and even elements of self-deprecation (especially in Tolstoy’s portrait of Levin, the character most like himself), there is an oddness to the book, a disturbing sense of unresolved conflict.

It doesn’t help, for example, that the heroine doesn’t appear until Chapter Eighteen. When you read this novel for the first time, you also spend a great many pages (sixty or seventy, depending on which edition you’re reading) thinking, ‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well. Some very nice vodka parties and excellent ice skating. But where is – drum roll – Anna Karenina? Isn’t this supposed to be a book about her?’ The moment when she arrives is almost an anticlimax. It’s sudden and brief. Considering this is arguably the greatest heroine in literary history, our first meeting with Anna Karenina is tantalizingly delayed and strangely underwhelming. ‘Vronsky followed the conductor to the carriage and at the door to the compartment stopped to allow a lady to leave.’ A lady! It is the lady! Has there ever been a more low-key introduction? First, the scary, vengeful epigraph. And now this weird lack of focus on the heroine.

Let’s revisit this for a moment. He ‘stopped to allow a lady to leave’. That’s it? That’s her entrance? Really? This is typical Tolstoy. Bring on the most important character seemingly in passing and disturbingly late in the day. Let her emerge out of the background. Don’t make a big deal about it. It’s a deferred entrance that credits the reader with a lot of intelligence, not to mention the patience of a saint. We immediately sense – without having to be told – that the train lady is Anna. We understand (or at least assume) her significance. But the writer respects us enough not to push her in our faces. He does not want to do us the disservice of announcing: ‘Look! It’s Anna Karenina! And she’s doomed! Doomed, I tell you!’ (I can’t help feeling that, if this were Dickens, a passing tramp would announce this. No offence, Dickens.) Of course, by doing something so unusual, so bold and so seemingly discreet (blink and you’ll miss her), Tolstoy presents his heroine even more ostentatiously than if he’d delivered her bursting out of a train-shaped cake dancing the can-can and singing ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’.

The funny thing is, the whole of the first part of the book is about Stepan Oblonsky – Stiva (yes, it’s the diminutive again) or, in some crazy translations which totally disregard all laws of transliteration and common sense, ‘Steve’ – Anna’s brother, a civil servant and man about town. If the first sixty pages of this novel were anything to go by, then it should be called ‘Anna Karenina’s Brother’ or, perhaps, ‘The Book of Steve’. Although it’s really not a good idea to think of his name being Steve, as these misguided translations suggest. He’s really not a Steve. A Steve would not order oysters and turbot and drink champagne with ladies of dubious morals doused in vinaigre de toilette, a nineteenth-century perfume consisting of plants, woods and spices. If this were not Anna Karenina and instead ‘The Book of Steve’ (sorry, Stiva), I guess this would happen on every page. (I know I’m contradicting myself here, by the way, because I said earlier that I am not fussy about names. But, seriously, Stiva Oblonsky is not a Steve. This is one occasion where correct transliteration is necessary and warranted.)

Arguably, Oblonsky – who goes to meet Anna off the train, where, during the journey, she has just sat next to Vronsky’s mother – is the glue of the whole book. Anna is his sister. Levin is his best friend. Vronsky is his (sort of) work colleague. Stiva is a civil servant and Vronsky is a cavalry officer. They are both members of the aristocracy, and Stiva would make it his business to know everything about everyone in high society. But, of course, this is not a novel about Stepan Oblonsky. It can’t be. Because he is a supposedly happy man who has figured life out. It is a novel about Anna Karenina. It has to be. Because she is an unhappy woman who has not got life figured out. Although there’s already a contradiction here. We can see that Anna’s brother is supposed to be ‘the happy one’. And yet we know that his merry and debauched life has led to misery. He’s having an affair. His wife knows about it, and she’s distraught. He’s devastated, in turn, to have upset her. This is why Anna has come to visit: to console her brother’s wife and plead his case. And this is supposed to be the version of ‘the happy family’. Clearly, we are not meant to take everything at face value.

Neither are we to be distracted by the joyful hedonism of Stiva’s existence, which dominates the early pages of the book. That’s far too enjoyable and, in Tolstoy’s eyes, shallow. Not long after Tolstoy finished Anna Karenina, he wrote in his legendary essay A Confession that the meaninglessness of life is ‘the only indisputable piece of knowledge available to man’. Oh, Tolstoy, you old grump. He foreshadows this thought, just as he foreshadows Anna’s death, with a classic piece of doom-mongering as soon as we meet her. On the next page, once Anna’s beauty, tenderness and inexplicably enigmatic charm have been established, Tolstoy squishes a watchman under the wheels, with some relish. ‘Cut in two pieces, they say.’ ‘Threw himself! . . . Run over! . . .’ All right, all right. Don’t go on about it. Anna speaks for Tolstoy at this point: ‘“A bad omen,” she said.’ You don’t say.

This omen is intentional. Tolstoy knew from the beginning of the book that Anna Karenina would die in a train accident at the end, because that is what happened in real life. The year before Tolstoy started the novel, a neighbour of his had an altercation with his mistress. Her name was Anna Stepanovna Pirogova. (Rather brilliantly, her name means something like ‘Anna of All the Pies’. Surely this would have been a much better title? Even better than ‘The Book of Steve’.) In Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy, he recounts that this woman was ‘a tall, full-blown woman with a broad face and an easy-going nature’. I feel this may well be code for ‘fat’ or ‘pie-filled’. Anyway. Tolstoy’s neighbour had thrown Anna of All the Pies over for a German governess. The real-life Anna (of All the Pies) took it badly, wandered the countryside distraught for three days and then threw herself under a train. (I am so tempted to add: ‘There was pie everywhere.’ But that would be insensitive.)

Anna Stepanovna Pirogova left a note: ‘You are a murderer. Be happy, if an assassin can be happy. If you like, you can see my corpse on the rails at Yasenki.’ Tolstoy went to the autopsy, which took place on 5 January 1872. Let’s just think for a moment about the sort of person who would do that and how it might have affected him . . . When he began writing Anna Karenina, he gave his heroine the dead woman’s first name and used her patronymic (Stepanovna) for the name of Anna Karenina’s brother, Stepan. I cannot be alone in thinking this is creepy.

So while we, the readers, don’t know the fate of Anna Karenina when we first meet her stepping off (gulp) a train, Tolstoy knows all along and plays with us by hinting at what’s in store. The first time we see Anna, of all the places Tolstoy could have chosen to reveal her, it just has to be emerging from a train carriage, doesn’t it? And, equally naturally and unavoidably, it has to be a train that has just crushed someone to death. In the early pages, the novel builds up to the first glimpse of Anna with beautiful prose and so much suspense. Tolstoy makes you spend ages unwrapping this precious gift, tearing off layer upon layer of narrative describing endless provincial balls and fur coats and taffeta dresses, only to find that the prize, when it finally arrives, is shrouded in smoke and steam, upstaged by the shouts of people who have just seen (and I quote) a ‘mangled corpse’.

Tolstoy didn’t have to foreshadow her death. But he can’t resist warning us that he’s not really sure that he has anything more to impart, other than the idea that we are basically doomed. It’s as if Tolstoy is saying: ‘Yes, I will show you the meaning of life. But first I just have to work it out for myself. In the meantime, read this novel, which may or may not contain some clues.’ I’m paraphrasing. Tolstoy would never say this. Instead, he would say something like: ‘All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life, is made up of light and shade.’ It’s Stiva, Anna’s brother, who says this. (Levin – the Tolstoy of the piece – isn’t listening, of course.) Tolstoy can create beauty and magic. But he is like the Wizard of Oz, all smoke and mirrors, and pretending and grandiosity. Underneath it all he is just a man on the brink of a breakdown who wants to eat a lot of eggs.

Anna Karenina, both the character and the novel, embodies the questions Tolstoy spent his whole life trying to answer. What shall I do with this life? What does it mean to live a good life? How will I know I’ve done the right thing? Is it all arbitrary? Or is there some grand plan for us? If it’s all arbitrary, how do we decide what to do within that? And if there’s a grand plan, where do we find it written down so that we know to follow it? It’s Levin who asks a lot of these questions in Anna Karenina. But it’s Anna who has to live them out.

There is a grand plan, and Tolstoy wrote it down in his work. Except it isn’t a very good plan. It’s easy to read his novels and think, ‘Wow. Tolstoy does not have a clue about life. All his characters just flounder around, often betraying their friends and occasionally noticing a beautiful sunset.’ (As we will discover later, this is basically the plot of War and Peace.) But once you have read a lot of him, you start to think, ‘Oh. Tolstoy knows a lot about life. He depicts people who are a mess because that’s normal, honest and real.’ This is both heartening and, at the same time, deeply frustrating.

I often wonder whether part of Tolstoy’s struggle with figuring out what we are here for is connected to his relationship with other people. Understanding people was a burden to Tolstoy. He was a solitary character who spent many hours alone, writing. And yet, despite the arguments he had with his family when he was much older, he also loved to be surrounded by his children, read stories to them and chase them around the dinner table. Anna Karenina is a testament to how observant he was in everyday family life. He was a man who noticed all the intimate details. He loves to mention his affection for the hair on women’s upper lips; he makes fleeting mention of birth control (in a conversation between Dolly, Stiva’s wife, and Anna); and he cares about sore nipples after childbirth (Dolly mentions this). He had a longing for connection with other people which was at odds with his intellectual self. I think, rationally, he wanted to be able to judge others, including himself. But he was unable to because he had too much heart and empathy. As he says of the saintly Levin and the hedonistic Oblonsky: ‘To each of them it seemed that the life he was leading was the only real life, and the one his friend led was a mere illusion.’ You have to be able to understand other people to think like this. If only Tolstoy had extended the kindness that he extended to his characters in his ‘frivolous’ novel to himself. But, still, this is one of the most charming things about Tolstoy: the gap between the intimidating nature of his reputation and the more reassuring, human facts of his biography.

What, though, about the enduring mystery of the most famous opening line in literary history? ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Is it just a clever bit of wording? Or is there something deeper about happiness to be found here? It is a great piece of advice, as long as you don’t take it too literally. Tolstoy spends eight hundred pages illustrating exactly what he means by it. The traits of a happy life are predictable and constant. In Tolstoy’s estimation, they would include having a family life (Tolstoy believed it was important to have children), living productively (whatever this means to you – although Tolstoy would probably think that you should do quite a lot of hoeing as part of this) and being at peace with your lot in life (something Tolstoy himself did not really achieve). Despite being prolific and deeply engaged with his work, he was not a materially ambitious person and, long before A Calendar of Wisdom, was always making lists of ways he could improve himself spiritually: ‘Each person’s task in life is to become an increasingly better person.’

So, while it’s easy to predict the common traits that cause happiness, unhappiness is unique, he concludes. The takeaway? We are better off concentrating on the things that have worked for everyone else, rather than concentrating on our individual misery. Copy people who look as if their lives have worked out. Talk to them. Emulate them. Follow them. Don’t try to impress people by sleeping around, contracting lots of venereal diseases and then having to tell your bride-to-be about it. This is a compassionate way of looking at life. Don’t think too hard about happiness. When it comes, enjoy it. Try not to get fixated on the causes of your unhappiness.

Anna Karenina regrets her suicide while she is in the very act. Just as she is pulled under the wheels, she says, horrified: ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ We get it. There’s not much point in her asking these questions now. She had her chance. She blew it. Tolstoy’s message? We need to make sure we ask these questions. But not quite so late.

In the end, Tolstoy appears to be asking something about literature itself. Is it really the job of novels to tell us how to live? Sadly, in his own life, he came to the conclusion that Anna Karenina had showed him how not to live: he did not want to be the person who wrote entertaining, complex novels. In coming to this realization, he failed to follow his own advice and, instead of being like other happy people, he became uniquely unhappy in his own fashion. The final message of Anna Karenina ? It’s all very well looking for answers, but life is, essentially, unknowable. We must search desperately for meaning. Sometimes we will come close to it, but most of the time we will be disappointed and then we will die. Sorry about that. Did I mention that not all the lessons would be cheery? Come on, this is Russian literature we’re talking about, after all.

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