By Rosamund Bartlett
We are so used to seeing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in terms of the tragic fate of his heroine that it is sometimes easy to forget how much else goes on in this novel. Quite apart from the heartwarming story of Levin’s betrothal and marriage to Kitty Shcherbatskaya, and his earnest desire to find some meaning to his life in the face of the inexorable reality of his death, there are numerous more relaxed interludes when Tolstoy’s narrator takes us on an often meandering detour from both his principal plot lines, as if sensing that we might be in need of a breather. Reading Anna Karenina for the first time, and driven by a fervent desire to find out What Happens Next, readers (particularly if they are young), can perhaps be forgiven for skipping a little briskly through chapters concerning secondary characters and minor events. But a translator has to read, as it were, at ground level, and proceed steadily and uniformly through every chapter, regardless of its import. Just as our eyes will invariably be opened to things of beauty we might not ordinarily see the slower we travel, working on a text at a snail’s pace can open up hidden aspects that are not so obvious at a first glance.
Of course, there are many glorious set pieces in Anna Karenina. The horse race, so skilfully shown in slow motion from different perspectives, comes to mind, as does the enchanting scene at the ice-skating rink. But one of the things I was struck by while translating Anna Karenina was that the most beautiful passages were not where I expected to find them. It was not in those chapters devoted to Vronsky’s passionate pursuit of Anna that Tolstoy wrote his most lyrical prose, but in the ones which are concerned with the natural world, which are all the more moving for their precision and simplicity. Take, for example, one of the many passages in Part 2 in which Tolstoy describes the explosion of spring in the country:
If Levin was happy in the cattle-pens and in the farmyard, he became happier still in the open country. Swaying rhythmically along with the ambling pace of his trusty little horse, drinking in the warm, fresh scent of the snow and air as he rode through the wood, over soft, fast- disappearing snow that was covered with tracks, he rejoiced in every one of his trees, with their swelling buds and the moss reviving on their bark. When he came out of the wood, an unbroken, velvety carpet of green without a single bare or wet patch stretched out before him in the immense open space, with only occasional patches of melting snow dotting the hollows.
Then there are the peerless descriptions of Levin learning to mow on a hot summer’s day with his peasants which I had mistakenly perceived as dull when I first read Anna Karenina many moons ago, and the endearing chapters later in the novel when we experience the hunt for snipe from the point of view of Levin’s dog Laska:
She stood still, asking him whether it would not be better to carry on as she had started, but he repeated his command in an angry voice, pointing to a waterlogged patch of marsh covered with tussocks where there could not be anything. Pretending to search in order to give him pleasure, she obeyed him by scouring that patch of marsh, then headed back to her previous place and picked up their scent straight away.
Balancing scenes such as these, in which Tolstoy clearly invested a lot of care, are some brilliant vignettes of metropolitan life where even his lofty narrator finds it hard to keep his tongue in his cheek. A particularly good example comes in chapter 18 of Part 4, where one of Princess Betsy Tverskaya’s guests is the wonderfully named Sappho Stolz, who is the current talk of the town in St Petersburg:
Anna had never met this new celebrity before, and was struck by her beauty, the sheer extravagance of her outfit, and the boldness of her manners. Her own and others’ soft, gold-coloured hair had been piled up on her head into such a scaffolding of coiffure that her head was equal in size to her shapely, rounded, and very exposed bosom. Her forward precipitation was such that the shape of her knees and the upper part of her legs were discernible under her dress with every step she took, and the question involuntarily arose as to where exactly at the back of that wobbling built-up mountain was the endpoint of her small and slender body, which was so naked at the top and so hidden at the back and down below.
Tolstoy could never be accused of having an uproarious sense of humour where the moral trajectory of his work was concerned, particularly by the time he came to Anna Karenina, which was the last work of fiction he wrote before surrendering to his great spiritual crisis. Nevertheless, there are some moments of comic genius in the novel that are all the more effective for their impeccable restraint. One of them occurs when Karenin goes to consult the lawyer about obtaining a divorce:
The lawyer brought his eyes to rest on Alexey Alexandrovich’s feet, feeling that their look of irrepressible glee might offend his client. He watched a moth fluttering in front of his nose, and his hand twitched, but out of deference to Alexey Alexandrovich’s situation he did not catch it.
Tolstoy’s satire is directed squarely at both Karenin and the lawyer, for different reasons, but remains hidden by a delicate veil of irony which also characterises every passage in which Countess Lydia Ivanovna makes an appearance. One such occasion is when, having been told of her influence on Karenin, Oblonsky calls on her in Petersburg in the hope of moving his sister’s affairs along, but turns out to be really more preoccupied with the more venal matter of securing a better paid job for himself:
‘[Karenin’s] heart has changed, he has been given a new heart, and I fear you haven’t completely acquired insight into this change that has taken place in him.’
‘Well, I can imagine this change in general terms. We have always been friendly, and now . . .’ said Stepan Arkadyich, responding to the Countess’s look with a tender look as he tried to determine to which of the two ministers she was closest, in order to know which of the two he would have to ask her to intercede with on his behalf.
Another kind of comedy is provided by Levin’s hilarious assessment of a comely sister-in-law he senses is being lined up as a prospective bride for him:
He felt acutely uncomfortable because the sister-in-law was sitting opposite to him in a dress he believed she had put on specially for him, which had a special neckline on her white bosom cut in the shape of a trapezium; despite her bosom being very white, or precisely because it was very white, this quadrangular neckline deprived Levin of his freedom of thought. He imagined, probably mistakenly, that this neckline had been cut that way for his benefit, and he felt he had no right to look at it, so he tried not to look at it; but he felt guilty that the neckline had been cut that way in the first place.
And humour of a much more poignant kind is introduced in the scene in the wood in Part 6. After Tolstoy has painstakingly set the scene for Levin’s desiccated half-brother Koznyshev to propose to Kitty’s virtuous friend Varenka in the poetic surroundings of a sunlit wood, instead of her hand, he ends up asking her: ‘What is the difference between a white and a birch mushroom?’. If the romantic moment has not completely passed, it is certainly quashed by his response to her deadpan reply when he informs her that a birch mushroom reminds him of the beard of a man with dark hair who hasn’t shaved for two days. And so two lonely people remain alone. A whole novel in miniature. Devastating.
Rosamund Bartlett has translated the new OUP edition of Anna Karenina.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, translated by Rosamund Bartlett (OUP, Oxford, August 2014) 978-0-19-923208-6, hardback, 896 pages.
Helen Rappaport reviews Anna Karenina in our Reprints section.