Friday, April 26, 2013

Anna Karenina (spoilers)

It's been weeks since I finished Anna Karenina and she's still hanging around in my head.
I have never read such a complex character, someone who can do terrible things and still elicit empathy.

I saw the film first, thinking it didn't matter because I was never going to read an 800-page tome with a Russian storyline (they have no plot, I'd heard). As soon as I got home from the cinema I found the book on Mum's bookshelf and dived in.

When I saw the film I thought, oh yeah, Kiera Knightley, let's see how she goes. I was surprised at the depth with which she played the character and impressed...

You know when you watch a film and then you read the book, and because you've already been given visual representations of the characters, you don't form your own mental images? When I started reading Anna Karenina I pictured her as Kiera Knightley, but it only lasted 20 pages. Tolstoy's description of Anna was so much richer than KK could ever act. I was immediately caught up in her world, her personality, her... everything. I saw that ineffable essence of her that makes people fall in love with her: Vronsky, Kitty (in a girl crush way), Levin (as far as he can) and random men to whom she gives her notice.

It is this ineffable quality of Anna's that makes her downfall all the more heartbreaking. It's not like she's some random "bad woman" as people characterise her. She is a woman who feels much and invokes much feeling in people. She is madly in love with two males, her lover and her son, and she cannot have them both. Anna choosing her lover means forgoing the whole rest of the world, and no-one can live only in the company of their lover, not forever. Neither can she hold him entrapped with solely her feminine charm. Jealousy floods her brain and drowns her sanity.

I am too passionate about this book to write as lucidly as I want; it affected me too deeply. Even weeks later I cannot string a coherent thread together. But I have two more things to write about it.

In the film, there is this great scene where Anna wants to go out. She is half-dressed. It took me a long time to realise that what she is wearing is her undergarments, a corset and a hooped petticoat that flounces around impotently. She runs around her apartment like a trapped animal, throwing wild accusations at Vronsky and growing less and less coherent as her restiveness grows. This seemed to me like a strong visual symbol of her wanting to be in society. She is dressed in the trappings of what is supposed to make her look stylish, but her hooped petticoat is transparent. Whenever she goes out, even though she's fully dressed up in a fashionable, expensive outfit, everyone can see straight through her as if she is only in her underthings.

In the book, at the end I cried pretty much from when she leaves to go to the train to when she dies, because I knew it was coming. In the middle of this perfectly penned emotionally heavy chapter, when she going through the city thinking horrible run-on thoughts, she breaks in her inner monologue to notice that some young women have taken a double take to notice her beautiful, well put together ensemble. She thinks something along the lines of, "Yes, they think I'm very stylish." And it is important to her, even as she's thinking of suicide, that men and women alike admire her and are wowed by her.

I probably haven't done a good job of representing Anna Karenina*, of trying to convince you that she's not just a "bad woman".

Anna Karenina got under my skin. And I can't shake her loose.

*I certainly haven't well represented Anna Karenina; I haven't even got started on Levin and Kitty, or Oblonsky and Dolly, or the narrative voice style, or any of the other interesting things in this book.