I have read “Anna Karenina” twice. The first time, however, was under the direction of an undergraduate Russian literature professor, so it might more accurately be characterized as having been taught “Anna Karenina” ;-)
College was a long time ago. I remember only one snippet of one lecture of that course, when the professor drew our attention to the scene early in the book that depicts the nature of Anna’s intimate relations with her husband — or rather, of his intimate relations with her:
Precisely at twelve o’clock, when Anna was still sitting at her writing table, finishing a letter to Dolly, she heard the sound of measured steps in slippers, and Alexey Alexandrovitch, freshly washed and combed, with a book under his arm, came in to her.
“It’s time, it’s time,” said he, with a meaning smile, and he went into their bedroom.
She’s already met Vronsky at this point, and Tolstoy uses this scene and that immediately preceeding it to contrast Anna’s spontaneous and powerful physical attraction to her soon-to-be lover with her growing physical revulsion to her husband:
“And what right had he to look at him like that?” thought Anna, recalling Vronsky’s glance at Alexey Alexandrovitch.
Undressing, she went into the bedroom; but her face had none of the eagerness which, during her stay in Moscow, had fairly flashed from her eyes and her smile; on the contrary, now the fire seemed quenched in her, hidden somewhere far away.
It’s a heart-wrenching situation, to be sure; one can’t help agonizing for the woman, and although I can’t say for certain that my professor intended us to interpret the novel as a romantic tragedy (as per the tagline from the 1997 Warner movie: “In a world of power and privilege, one woman dared to obey her heart”) that’s how I, as a college student, did interpret it.
Then I reread it years later, and to my astonishment, discovered a completely different book.
With “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy was not arguing that women must obey their hearts; he was showing that when people let their passions drive them, they may find themselves driven to self-destruction. Granted, social convention is the cause, to some extent, of Anna’s growing unhappiness, but the love affair itself becomes a source of torment at the end. Anna gets what she wants, and it solves nothing.
My discovery was pure pleasure, too. Not that there’s anything wrong with women daring to obey their hearts, but what a pleasure to realize that the book’s themes were more complicated than “defy social convention/get yourself punished.”
It was with similar pleasure that I finished “A Suitable Boy.” Again you have, as a central figure, a woman under pressure to conform to restraining social convention (in this case, the custom of arranged marraige). Again, you have a writer who uses his heroine’s predicament as a lens through which to examine the choices of other individuals connected to her through a network of family and their associated social circles. “A Suitable Boy” is also as rich with details about 1950s India as Anna Karenina is with details about 19th century Russia, its path winding freely into contemporary politics and religious ceremonies, through both urban and rural settings.
But where Anna Karenina’s story ends tragically, Lata Mehra’s does not.
When I finished “Anna Karenina” the second time, I remember thinking that such a novel could not be written today. But Seth has written a novel that is very much in the same league, and which deserves the praise its earned. It’s a big book, but a book that merits, for the most part, its 1400-page length. I highly recommend it.
[tags] book review, A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth [/tags]