Tragic, But With Room for Joy: Exuberance, Redemption and Character Sympathy in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, which Nabokov called “one of the greatest love stories in world literature,” is uniquely ambitious in that it strives to portray two separate love affairs: one successful (like Pride and Prejudice), and the other a tragic failure (like Ethan Frome or The End of the Affair).

Fiction is by necessity dark. The darker the novel, the more leeway it offers the writer who wishes to portray moments of unabashed joy and happiness. Anna Karenina encompasses such a deeply affecting tragic arc, and Tolstoy takes full advantage of the opportunity to let in the light. More than in any other novel I know, with the possible exception of the Russian maestro’s other great opus, War and Peace, Anna Karenina immerses the reader in a profusion of devastatingly joyous scenes involving skating parties, family kitchens, mushroom hunting, hayfield scything, and a multi-day bird-hunting excursion.

Tolstoy was a genius, so these happy scenes also, of course, brim with dramatic tension and the possibility—even the certainty—that even the best things in life can go wrong. But the overall mood in these moments is one of great illumination, like sunlight streaming through a long-shuttered window. They rank among the most wondrous literary portrayals we possess of the rich textures of daily life, demonstrating how even in the midst of great sorrow we can be surprised by pure, exuberant happiness.

It’s impossible to capture the full effect with brief passages taken out of context, but consider the experience of a newly infatuated Anna stepping off a train:

“She opened the door and went out. The wind seemed as though lying in wait for her; with gleeful whistle it tried to snatch her up and bear her off, but she clung to the cold handrail and, holding her skirt, got down onto the platform and under the shelter of the carriages. The wind had been powerful on the steps, but on the platform, under the lee of the carriages, there was a lull. With enjoyment she drew deep breaths of the frozen, snowy air and, standing near the carriage, looked about the platform and the lighted station.”

Or this one, when Levin and two others set off on a hunting trip:

“Levin felt now at leaving behind all his family and household cares such an eager sense of joy in life and expectation that he was not disposed to talk. Besides that, he had that feeling of concentrated excitement that every sportsman experiences as he approaches the scene of action. If he had anything on his mind at that moment, it was only the doubt whether they would start anything in the Kolpensky marsh, whether Laska would show to advantage in comparison with Krak, and whether he would shoot well that day himself.”

In a similar vein, the tragic arc of the book gives Tolstoy room to create some of the most sympathetic characters that exist in fiction. Consider Kitty’s response to finding her husband Levin’s brother on his deathbed in a skeezy hotel adjacent to a railway station in rural Russia:

“On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out all the details of his state, and to remedy them. And since she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, she had no doubt either that it was possible, and immediately set to work. The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention. She sent for the doctor, sent to the chemist's, set the maid who had come with her and Marya Nikolaevna to sweep and dust and scrub; she herself washed up something, washed out something else, laid something under the quilt. Something was by her directions brought into the sick-room, something else was carried out. She herself went several times to her room, regardless of the men she met in the corridor, got out and brought in sheets, pillow cases, towels, and shirts.”

Kitty is admirable because she’s compassionate. Because she’s calm and proactive in the face of her husband’s paralysis. The scene goes on:

“On getting back from the sick-room to their own two rooms for the night, Levin sat with hanging head not knowing what to do. Not to speak of supper, of preparing for bed, of considering what they were going to do, he could not even talk to his wife; he was ashamed to. Kitty, on the contrary, was more active than usual. She was even livelier than usual. She ordered supper to be brought, herself unpacked their things, and herself helped to make the beds, and did not even forget to sprinkle them with Persian powder. She showed that alertness, that swiftness of reflection comes out in men before a battle, in conflict, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life — those moments when a man shows once and for all his value, and that all his past has not been wasted but has been a preparation for these moments.”

In this scene Kitty and Levin both take on the dimensions of living, breathing characters, but it’s Kitty we most admire and appreciate—in much the same way we would an actual living friend.

Tolstoy had a particular gift for the difficult authorial feat of creating such characters, and for showing the possibilities for love and joy as well as tragedy in human affairs. It’s no wonder that his novels still hold a place near the top the pantheon of the greatest ever written.


Metaphor and Defamiliarization in Andrew Hilleman’s World, Chase me Down

There are many things to like about Andrew Hilleman’s recent debut novel. It’s well-constructed and suspenseful throughout, and it’s narrated in a delightful first-person voice that the cover copy provocatively and I believe accurately describes as “channeling Mark Twain and Charles Portis.” This has the feel of a particularly American historical novel, and I think it's most worthy contribution to a rarified genre that one might call 'the literary western,' in the distinguished company of authors such as Ron Hansen, Patrick deWitt, Peter Carey, and Richard Bausch. In short, this is a highly recommended novel, and well worth the read!

What I want to focus on here though, for the benefit of the fiction writers out there, is Hilleman’s skill with an essential element of novelistic world-building: defamiliarization.

For a writer of historical fiction this technique involves really going beyond research detail, and using our own experience to give us a description of something our readers recognize as true but have never seen in quite the same way. For example:

The home sat on a pronounced slope of upland above the southwest corner of the city, just beyond the South Omaha limits. The hillside leading up to the sandy drive was covered in dead wildflower so parched from the winter that it broke apart underfoot like dust.

The first sentence is a research detail. The second is what we might call a universal or recognizable detail that’s been defamiliarized.

Hilleman is particularly gifted in the use of this technique, and it’s interesting to note that the defamiliarized detail most often comes in the form of a particularly striking metaphor.

I don’t have much more to say about this, other than to point out that it’s a very useful thing for any novelist, and particularly a novelist working with an historical setting, to observe. I leave you with several more examples:

I sprinted through the cloudburst and entered the hotel soaked down to my nightclothes. I stood dripping on the lobby carpets like I’d fallen out of a fishing boat.
Parked on the curb at the edge of our yard was an uncovered wagon filled with a random assortment of things from inside our house: framed paintings, dresses, pots and pans, stacks of books, a reading lamp with the silly physique of a gooseneck, a rocking chair.
The smell of new snow had been in the air all day. When it finally arrived, it fell all through the night like a featherbed ruptured.
I peered out my window as the train jolted to a stop. A handprint from long ago smeared on the glass. Brake steam hissed. The locomotive a giant kettle on wheels.
I studied the empty gravel avenida in both directions, cast in pale pitch from a gorged moon. An ash can burned waste next to an old hunk of furniture scorched past recognition. Perhaps once a couch or a bedstead that smoldered like an animal carcass rotting under a pounding sun.

The Sublime Omniscient: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

In her gorgeous first novel, Arundhati Roy toggles back and forth between the lead-up to a traumatic incident in the childhood of her protagonist, Rahel, in 1960s Kerala, India, and a return visit Rahel makes as a self-exiled adult. Two representative passages illustrate the drastic changes that have overtaken the landscape of Kerala in the interim. The first passage, in the childhood timeline, is a description of a river that is a central geographical and emotional feature of the novel:

“They dreamed of their river. Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
     It was warm, the water. Graygreen. Like rippled silk.
     With fish in it.
     With the sky and trees in it.
     And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.”
And the second passage, a description of the same river three decades later when Rahel returns as an adult:

“Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater. Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it. Splay-footed, cautious. 
     Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.”

We can see the economy and artistry with which the author uses diction and syntax to paint the refracted emotion of this drastically altered landscape, a level of skill that is demonstrated again and again throughout the novel in the exhilarating beauty of Roy’s sentences and the way they "sing the meaning of themselves." 

The contrast between the two descriptions also tells us a great deal. What we might call "the lost world" is a key aspect of both the plot and the thematics of this novel—the degradation in the landscape caused not only by the passage of time but by the traumatic event at the story’s emotional core. But it is the passages’ close juxtaposition I want to take note of here, as the rejection of the fetters of chronology is typical of the freewheeling point of view Roy maintains throughout the novel.

While the guiding consciousness of The God of Small Things is strikingly free, it’s also highly organized, in ways that make it similar to an intricate musical composition. Of particular note is the way Roy repeatedly brings memorable phrases back into the story. Here’s a passage from later in the book:

“They ran along the bank calling out to her. But she was gone. Carried away on the muffled highway. Graygreen. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon it.”

Take a moment to notice the repetition of key language borrowed from the first passage quoted above. It’s striking, actually, how these repeated words recall Rudyard Kipling, with his “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees.” In both cases, the recurring language takes on the character of a musical refrain or a repeated fugue—and the effect is, as both authors no doubt intended, symphonic.

The resemblance between Roy’s guiding consciousness and those typical of the classic literature of the nineteenth century doesn’t end with Kipling, however. Roy feels no compunction about using the flexibility of the omniscient point of view, as nineteenth century novelists often did, to instruct the reader about Grand Topics:

“What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn’t know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an underage audience.”

Also similar to a nineteenth century novelist, Roy lays claim to the freedom to soar birdlike over a scene, and then to dive abruptly into the mind of even the most minor player:

“The Kottayam Police. A cartoonplatoon. New-Age princes in funny pointed helmets. Cardboard lined with cotton. Hairoil stained. Their shabby khaki crowns. 
     Dark of Heart.  
     They lifted their thin legs high . . . 
     They trudged past darter birds on the tops of trees, drying their sodden wings spread out like laundry against the sky. Past egrets. Cormorants. Adjutant storks. Sarus cranes looking for space to dance. Purple herons with pitiless eyes. Deafening, their wraark wraark wraark. Motherbirds and their eggs. The early morning heat was full of the promise of worse to come . . .
     Crimson dragonflies mated in the air. Doubledeckered. Deft. One admiring policeman watched and wondered briefly about the dynamics of dragonfly sex, and what went into what. Then his mind clicked to attention and Police Thoughts returned.”

Birds, insects, policemen—nothing is too small to catch the eye of Roy’s all-seeing consciousness, and there’s nowhere that consciousness can’t go if it chooses.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the freedom to go anywhere and to notice anything prevents Roy from plumbing the depths of her protagonists with the insight and thoroughness that a more tightly focused point of view might allow. The God of Small Things pans wide but it also strikes deep, plunging the reader into the mysterious reaches of human consciousness. In the process, it demonstrates one of the things that fiction does best, giving us an interior vision that pushes the envelope of objective reality. Consider this passage, observed by Roy’s visionary child protagonist, Rahel, at an airport arrivals lounge:

“She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the sky-blue sky that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: red-mouthed roos with ruby smiles moved cemently across the airport floor:

Heel and Toe 
Heel and Toe 
            Long flatfeet.
  Airport garbage in their baby bins. 
  The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent.”

Later, in the by now familiar fugue-pattern of imagery and language that pervades and defines Roy’s novel, the hallucination returns:

“In the doorway of the Arrivals Lounge, a shadowy, red-mouthed roo-shaped silhouette waved a cemently paw only at Rahel. Cement kisses whirred through the air like small helicopters.”

The omniscient voice in The God of Small Things is a luminous example to fiction writers, demonstrating how the classic omniscient point of view can be used artfully in the current age to create a storyworld of great depth, clarity, and emotional complexity. After all, the human imagination is an instrument of amazing power. Arundhati Roy’s sublime opus reminds us that fiction is still the art best equipped to harness it.