This is the start of a weekly series where we will select breath-taking sequences from Anna Karenina that slipped by unnoticed along with a small little commentary.
If all the readers in the world were Muslim, reading Anna Karenina would be the equivalent of taking the pilgrimage to Mecca.And like making the Haj is supposed to be a hard, torturous task (at least it was before business class and five star hotels)- reading Anna Karenina is no easy task, as generations and generations have found out, with several falling by the wayside. For there are no clever metaphors, with Tolstoy laying out everything in its perfect plainness, no elegantly written sentences that fit seamlessly into the next like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘Heart of Darkness’, and certainly no onomatopoeic orgasms like in ‘Lolita’. The storyline is routine to the point of being mundane, and moves at a snail’s place, with gestures carefully noted and each thought extrapolated and psycho-analysed by an omniscient narrator who flits in and out of characters’ heads as easily as he maintains objectivity.
To top it all, Tolstoy, having pre-dated Chekhov, breaks one of the unwritten rules that form the bedrock of modern literature- avoid moralizing at all costs. Thankfully it is done subtly, unlike in his short stories.
Despite all these quirks, Anna Karenina is the closest thing that comes to a unanimous choice for the greatest novel of all time. Several lists and polls have placed it at the summit, and as late as 2007, a poll of 125 authors declared Anna Karenina as their favourite literary work.
We’re not going to do a lengthy academic piece and systematically analyse what it is that made Anna Karenina great (for those interested, we recommend this beautiful piece by James Meek). Instead, every Monday for the next few weeks, we’re simply going to select little sequences that resonated with us on an intellectual or visceral level along with a small little commentary, posting little snapshots of the time when we were making the Haj. For like thousands before and thousands to come later, this extremely long, slowly-paced, plainly written, preachy work has changed our personal reading landscape forever. We hope to entice other readers to make the Haj, and remind fellow pilgrims of that unparalleled literary experience.
Today’s sequence stars one of the numerous incredibly rich side characters that Tolstoy has included in his work, Sergey Ivanovitch (the philosophical elder brother of autobiographical character Levin) and a moment in his life where he needs to, as T.S Elliot said, “force the moment to its crisis”. Or in colloquial language, Sergey Ivanovitch feels it, he knows she feels it, and now he needs to make the move (which, at that time, meant proposing for marriage). Let’s see what Sergey does:
“They walked on for some steps in silence. Varenka saw that he wanted to speak; she guessed of what, and felt faint with joy and panic. They had walked so far away that no one could hear them now, but still he did not begin to speak. It would have been better for Varenka to be silent. After a silence it would have been easier for them to say what they wanted to say than after talking about mushrooms. But against her own will, as it were accidentally, Varenka said:
“So you found nothing? In the middle of the wood there are always fewer, though.”
Sergey Ivanovitch sighed and made no answer. He was annoyed that she had spoken about the mushrooms. He wanted to bring her back to the first words she had uttered abouther childhood; but after a pause of some length, as though against his own will, he made an observation in response to her last words.
“I have heard that the white edible funguses are found principally at the edge of the wood, though I can’t tell them apart.”
Some minutes more passed, they moved still further away from the children, and were quite alone. Varenka’s heart throbbed so that she heard it beating, and felt that she was turning red and pale and red again.
To be the wife of a man like Koznishev after her position with Madame Stahl, was to her imagination the height of happiness. Besides, she was almost certain that she was in love with him. And this moment it would have to be decided. She felt frightened. She dreaded both his speaking and his not speaking.
Now or never it must be said–that Sergey Ivanovitch felt too. Everything in the expression, the flushed cheeks and the downcast eyes of Varenka betrayed a painful suspense. Sergey Ivanovitch saw it and felt sorry for her. He felt even that to say nothing now would be a slight to her. Rapidly in his own mind he ran over all the arguments in support of his decision. He even said over to himself the words in which he meant to put his offer, but instead of those words, some utterly unexpected reflection that occurred to him made him ask:
“What is the difference between the ‘birch’ mushroom and the ‘white’ mushroom?”
Varenka’s lips quivered with emotion as she answered:
“In the top part there is scarcely any difference, it’s in the stalk.”
And as soon as these words were uttered, both he and she felt that it was over, that what was to have been said would not be said; and their emotion, which had up to then been continually growing more intense, began to subside.”
Sergey, like T.S.Eliott’s Prufrock, cannot man up. The moment passes, as do the feelings.
Numerous authors have written about love, romance and heartbreak. But alongside every glorious love affair, there are several faint apparitions of what could have been. For a crucial part of love is sheer exhilaration at the possibilities hinted at by gleaming eyes and shy smiles. How many times have we seen those eyes and smiles and day-dreamed about those exhilarating moments waiting for us beyond the horizon? The horizon often seems within our grasp, so that we only need to reach and touch it, but hearts are whimsical and human nature is fickle, and those wonderful apparitions melt away just as quickly as we dreamt them up, leaving behind only a lingering regret.
Tolstoy dissected those unheralded moments of our lives and put human nature under perhaps one of the strongest microscopes in literary history. There are others who might have been able to make their title character’s heart beat with a greater vigour than Levin or Anna Karenina, but perhaps only George Elliot’s ‘Middlemarch’; has managed to paint as wide a canvas with innumerable actors, and still put a mind-boggling level of detail in each (If there are other such novels, please mention in the comments below).
If you liked this passage, you might want to check out our tumblr page, where we share some of literature’s most beautiful passages (much shorter in length) on a daily basis. See you at this time next week.