To Russia – With Love! # 1

We’ve come up with a new concept: ‘Slow Reads’. Rather than promoting books which can be read quickly – yes, you guessed it: ‘Quick Reads’ – that are skimmed over and then forgotten, we want to know; what’s wrong with taking the time to enjoy your reading material?

It’s a question that Kate McDonnell will surely find the answer to, as she and her Wallasey Reading Group embark upon the story of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Armed with twelve copies kindly provided by Oxford University Press, the novel will take Kate, manager for Get Into Reading, and her group months to complete. Here, Kate talks us through the thinking behind her decision, and we find out what the reaction to Tolstoy has been like so far…

Whenever I present a page of  four ‘books ‘n’ blurbs’ to the members of the Friday afternoon Get Into Reading group at Wallasey Central Library to help us choose what we’ll read next, somebody always says, ‘Can’t we read them all?’

This time they’ve gone for our biggest read yet: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which fought off fierce opposition from Dombey and Son.

Oxford University Press, when they heard, kindly donated a lovely set of twelve books, and we’ve had them stacked up on the table at the beginning of the session in a giant and impressive tower!

Yes, it IS long – more than 800 pages, in fact – and it will probably take us about 9 months to read aloud, page by page, from cover to cover. Then there are the polysyllabic Russian names to get your tongue round, and sections on Russian farming to puzzle over, but we’re all hugely looking forward to it.

Two weeks in (we read 13 pages in Week One, 19 in Week Two), initial reactions bode well:

I thought something by Tolstoy would be really dense, but it’s really easy to read.

I’ve never read anything like it – the way he puts the characters over, you can get to know them really well.

Just reading these first few pages – it really draws you in.

Group members have varying degrees of reading experience and no one (apart from me!) has read it before, but already we’re getting comfortable thinking about the characters: Oblonsky – how come we still seem to like him despite the fact that he’s just cheated on his wife? Why is he always ‘expanding his chest’? (‘Because he’s breathing life in?’ as someone suggested).

The first week’s reading ended with a bit of a domestic between him and his betrayed wife, Dolly, territory we could recognise only too well, and we finished the session with a poem called ‘The Quarrel’ by Conrad Aiken, in which a row between a couple unaccountably melts away when they hear music drift in from next door:

….and in the instant

The shadow had gone, our quarrel became absurd;

And we rose, to the angelic voices of the music,

And I touched your hand, and we kissed, without a word.

There were resonances between the texts, comments on how ‘surface’ Dolly and Oblonsky seem in comparison with these lovers who connect in a space beyond words.

Week Two brought more thoughts of love, as well as a passage which I thought could be tricky. We met Levin for the first time: ‘He’s very brittle, isn’t he?’ suggested one reader.

I wondered what people would make of Chapter 7, in which Levin calls on his brother, Koznyshev, and ends up being drawn into a discussion he’s having with a professor about ‘whether a definite line exists between psychological and physiological phenomena in human activity’. Most readers confessed to feeling a bit lost during their argument and were glad when Levin asked a clear question which cut to the chase. ‘They’re just showing off really, aren’t they?’ someone said and recognized the professor’s, ‘We have not the data…’ as a fob off.

I think I speak for all when I say that we found Chapter 9, in which Levin tracks Kitty down at the skating rink, both funny and touching. He loves her and is terrified to tell her in case it spoils everything, but at the same time he reads meaning into her every word and gesture. Some of us remembered feeling like this ourselves!

‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘this is life – this is joy! She said, “Together: let us skate together”! Shall I tell her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid of speaking. Now I am happy, if only in my hopes – but then? …But I must…I must…I must…! Away with this weakness!’

We discussed deliberately persisting in a state of ignorance in order to prolong hope and were helped in this by reading William Meredith’s poem ‘The Illiterate’, at the end of the session:

Touching your goodness, I am like a man

Who turns a letter over in his hand

And you might think this was because the hand

Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man

Has never had a letter from anyone;

And now he is both afraid of what it means

And ashamed because he has no other means

To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,

Or his parents died before he sent them word,

Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.

Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.

What would you call his feeling for the words

That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

What, indeed. As well as illuminating Levin’s difficulty in reading the signs – in wanting to know how Kitty feels about him, but not wanting to know at the same time – the poem also triggered talk about literal illiteracy, with one reader, who works as a support worker for people with learning disabilities, telling of how ‘letter-proud’ the folk he cares for can be, preserving football coupons as cherished objects because they have writing on them and someone else spoke of the moment before opening an important letter when so many outcomes are possible.

I’m hoping that other people in the group will join in writing the occasional AK blog which we’ll post as we progress, but, in the meantime, it’s still a great opening sentence…

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

…and now don’t you just want to read on?

3 thoughts on “To Russia – With Love! # 1”

  1. I love Anna Karenina – it’s one of my favourite novels – and really enjoyed reading about how the Wallasey group is getting on with it. I know I’ll look foward to reading future installments!

  2. I think that this sort of activity is one that should be highly applauded. It goes, very much, against contemporary ideas which lead to starting from the lowest common dominator. Most activity today, especially in the arts, seems to start from the premise that the participants should not be challenged and, therefore the idea that a person can reach a higher level is lost.

    Whilst I understand that there is a fear that people may get ‘left behind’, and leave a group because they may see it as ‘too difficult’ (this could have repercussions for future funding) it serves no purpose to ‘give in’ to this idea.

    There is a culture amongst ‘providers’ that some things are too challenging for ordinary people. This view is not only elitist but also degrades the very activity which is being promoted.

    Any good artist (be that a writer, composer, visual artist) will respect their audience by presenting them with works that will question and challenge ideas and will make the audience engage in the dialogue. For some sections of the audience this may take time but that journey may be one of the most valuable they take as a greater understanding (and thus, appreciation) of a work can only enrich our live .

    I only hope that Kate and the Wallasey Reading Group end up reversing the dominant trend and recognise that inclusiveness does not mean accepting where people are at now and recognising the potential of all people to engage with great art such as Anna Karenina.

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