For Christmas this year, my mother and father gave me a great gift: a journal from Barnes & Noble whose sole purpose is to record books that I want or need to read. Since Christmas, I have compiled a list of 47 books by 21 authors. However, note that while I listed several books for four of those authors, for two I simply wrote their names, and P.G. Wodehouse and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a lot. (Understatement of the year.)
While making my list, I accidentally wrote one book down twice – Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
It is with shame that I, Emily Harris, confess that until now I have never read anything by Tolstoy. I hate it when nosy cab drivers ask me about my profession and then want to know which of the great Russian authors I have read. Apparently it’s not enough that I’ve read Dostoevsky and Chekhov, but I must also read Tolstoy and Gogol, and how on earth can I teach literature if I’ve not read Pushkin? (Note: add Pushkin to the list.)
The truth of the matter is that I know what those books are going to be like – they’re going to be dark, depressing studies of human nature and philosophy, and after a long day of grading papers and trying to persuade high school students that it is important to read Shakespeare, I’m not always in the mood to settle down with a book of 807 pages. And I like dark, depressing books that study human nature and philosophy.
There has to be an incentive, and my incentive – I’m almost sad to admit – was a movie.
I watched The Last Station, a movie about the last days of Leo Tolstoy and starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy. It’s good and quite odd and just as depressing as a movie about Russians should be. (It’s also just more proof that any English language film set in Russia must star British actors. I’m not sure why, but a British accent sounds more convincing than an American, and faux Russian accents are just terrible – K19: The Widowmaker, anyone?)
After seeing the film, I started thinking how I really should read something by Tolstoy, and in January I found myself in the AIS library staring at a copy of Anna Karenina sitting on the shelf. I borrowed it, and it sat on my coffee table until two weeks ago when I returned from Turkey.
I realized I needed to just start the book – start it, and if it was good, then it was good, and if it was so horrible I couldn’t finish it, at least I could say that I tried.
So two weeks ago, I picked up Anna Karenina and began to read during my lunch hour.
And it was boring.
Until about chapter six of part one.
Now, if you’ve read Anna Karenina before, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that the title is misleading. From what I have heard, the book is not completely devoted to her at all. We don’t actually meet Anna until chapter 18 of part one! Granted, the chapters are only about two to three pages long, but still.
I’m not sure what happened in chapter six of part one that made me interested, but now I’m hooked. It’s actually really good, and knowing that the characters of Levin and Kitty are based on Leo and Sophia Tolstoy makes it even more – oh, romantic.
And now I jealously guard my lunch hour time so that I can keep reading.
Today, I came across a passage that only a person who has studied the Russian language can truly appreciate:
“Forgive me for coming, but I could not let the day pass without seeing you,” [Vronsky] went on, speaking French to [Anna], as he always did, trying to avoid using “you,” which sounded impossibly cold in Russian, or the dangerously intimate second person singular. (I.22)
In the Russian language, there are two ways of saying “you.”
First, there’s вы, which can be used as either the plural form of “you” or the formal form. You would address a stranger, an authority, or anyone to whom you wish to show respect as вы. Ты, however, can be either the singular form or the informal form, the word you would use when addressing a friend, family member, or – in the case of Vronsky and Anna – a secret lover.
I love the idea that Vronsky, not wishing to be caught by anyone in his illicit affair with the married Anna, is so careful that he decides to speak to her in a completely different language so that he won’t be tempted to use a word that could give their relationship away.
I love languages.
P.S. I became very confused by all the characters early in the story, so I did a google search. Not only was I able to find a helpful introduction to the main characters of the novel, but I also discovered another incentive for finishing the novel:
Joe Wright, the director of my second-favorite-movie-of-all-time Atonement, is going to direct a new adaptation of Anna Karenina. Keira Knightley is going to be Anna, and he’s got Benedict Cumberbatch signed on. He also wants James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan.
Guys, it’s Atonement 2. All they need is Romola Garai and Juno Temple.
Oh, and Jude Law will be in it, too.
And by the time it’s released, I just might be almost finished reading it.
Joe Wright Hints That Keira Knightley Will Still Star In His Anna Karenina
Benedict Cumberbatch And Kelly Macdonald Join Joe Wright’s Stunning Anna Karenina Cast
(Um, excuse me? What is this about Saoirse Ronan and a role in The Hobbit? For the life of me, I can’t remember any female roles in that book. Peter Jackson, what have you been smoking?)