Sunday, 26 January 2014

Don't trust your memory!

In my deep aversion toward young adult dystopia I am re-reading classics again, and the time has come for Anna Karenina. It is one of the books I re-read often; in fact, I know for sure that I re-read it the winter before we moved to Cambridge, six years ago. I also know for sure that I didn't read it for the plot, like I did when I read it first time, as a teenager. I knew what happened and how. I read it slowly, enjoying every word, every sentence. You would imagine that you'd remember a novel that you read six years ago and many times before that.

The first thing that struck me was that in between her misfortunes, Anna writes a children's book. It is only mentioned it passing, and most people would not even notice it, but surely I should have remembered such an important detail!

Anna is also opium addicted. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, since all upper-class men and women did it in the late nineneeth century, but this fact is repeated several times, and surely it shouldn't come as a surprise?

The greatest revelation was Karenin, Anna's husband. Of course we align with Anna against him, and of course I have read criticism pointing out that, given the circumstances, he acts nobly. On this reading, however, I noticed something that makes me forgive him whatever sins he may have committed. When Anna is dying in postpartum fever and Vronsky is weeping by her bedside, what does Karenin do? He saves the baby. The text says so explicitly: the newborn baby was totally neglected and would have died if Karenin hadn't taken care of her, got a wet nurse, made sure the baby was warm and fed. Now, this may also be viewed as a noble gesture of a cuckold husband. But noble as he may be, nobody expects a cuckold husband to cuddle the fruit of his wife's illicit affair. In this short episode, while our attention is solely with Anna, Karenin is revealed as his true self. 

Many years ago, at a workshop on Russian literature, we were discussing Anna Karenina, and someone said how inexplicable it was that Anna loves her son by the detested husband, but doesn't care about Vronsky's daughter. I took out my best Freudian tools and said it was absolutely clear. She doesn't love her husband, so all her love is focused on her son. She loves Vronsky, and a daughter will one day become her rival - a story best known as Snow White... I could just as well have thrown a stink bomb. They told me I was cynical, that I apparently had no children and could not imagine how a mother feels, and so on. I admited that I had three children, two sons and a daughter, and I tried to point out that we were discussing fiction, but to no avail.

I remember it now, because of course the same is true about Karenin. His son steals his wife's love. But with the daughter, even though she is another man's daughter, he has something of Anna and something to love.

1 comment:

Ulla said...

Many interesting things in this post. Thank you.