To Russia – With Love! #2

In this second instalment of To Russia – With Love! Kate McDonnell, Project Manager at The Reader Organisation, fills us in on her Get Into Reading group’s response to Anna Karenina. Though Tolstoy’s 800 page-long novel may seem an odd choice for a weekly reading group, made up of people of varying reading abilities, Anna Karenina has been met with a hugely enthusiastic response – for the most part! Here, Kate catches us up on how her group has been getting on with the novel over the past few weeks…

 

We’re now more than 100 pages in, and around about Week 3 one or two people wondered if we were doing the right thing…

We knew who the Oblonskys were, but then there’s Levin, the Scherbatskys, Levin’s brothers, different strands and more tongue tripping names!

We carried on, and this week were very glad that we had. ‘It’s always like this when we start a big book,’ said one reader who felt less than happy with the book a couple of weeks ago, ‘then somehow you get into it and then everything starts to fall into place. I’m really enjoying it now.’

For this week’s section we read from Chapter 29 – Anna’s train journey back to Petersburg – up to the end of Part One and were able to reflect on how Levin, Vronsky and Anna had all been affected by their time in Moscow and how their attitude to home changes – or doesn’t – as a result.

We found Tolstoy’s description of Anna’s mental state on her train journey fascinating: it’s dark and the snow is whirling outside the window, she’s sleepy and affected by the train’s movement and, because of the inefficient heating system, it’s alternately very hot or very cold in the carriage. As well as that, Anna is reading a novel, and her attention is slipping in and out of her book whilst she struggles with vaguely guilty feelings about what has happened with Vronsky in Moscow, but can’t pin down the cause of them with the rational part of her mind – she seems to end up in a half-waking dream. One group member, who has bi-polar disorder, instantly said that it reminded her of times when she’d been psychotic and this produced a general discussion on altered states of mind and consciousness and how varied they can be whether you’ve had a diagnosis of mental illness or not.

In the next chapter, Anna gets off the train to get some fresh air and who should be on it but Vronsky? Some readers wondered if he were really there or if Anna was imagining him, she’s so subconsciously bound up with him at this time, and someone pointed out that, at one stage, Vronsky’s speech almost exactly echoes Anna’s thought which gives a strange dreamlike feeling to it all. We talked about how it’s possible to hold two contrary views with different parts of the mind – heart? soul? – at the same time, when one reader was struck by Anna’s response to Vronsky’s open declaration that he is following her because he’s desperate to be with her:

The awfulness of the storm appeared still more beautiful to her now. He had just said what her soul desired but her reason dreaded.

We tried to examine just what Anna is feeling here: is there a part of her that just can’t help it? Is she not responsible then? Which should she listen to?

We also met Karenin for the first time and his ‘gristly ears’ caused a lot of amusement! Her feelings for Vronsky suddenly make Anna realise that her relationship with her husband has been an act:

An unpleasant feeling weighed on her heart when she felt his fixed and weary gaze, as if she had expected to find him different. She was particularly struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself which she experienced when she met him. It was that ordinary well known feeling, as if she were dissembling, which she experienced in regard to her husband; but formerly she had not noticed it, while now she was clearly and painfully conscious of it.

Several people were struck by the reality of this, of how Anna could have been dissembling in her behaviour with her husband before and that this was ‘ordinary’ and ‘well known’, but not actually notice with her conscious mind that she’d been doing it until now when her interactions with Vronsky throw those with her husband into high relief. One reader spoke of how she had gone through this experience herself and how appalling it feels.

Karenin’s ironic, coldly bantering, tone of voice with Anna rubbed most of us up the wrong way until the end of Chapter 33 when he comes close to saying something real to his wife about how much he has missed her, but cuts himself off. ‘He really loves her,’ one reader sympathetically commented, as we wondered just what he was going to say, and we realised that we weren’t going to be free simply to scorn him – even though afterwards we had a good laugh and squirmed with some revulsion at the point where Karenin, ever organised and timetabled, even when it comes to having sex, comes to Anna at midnight:

…she heard the measured tread of slippered feet, and Karenin entered, freshly washed, his hair brushed and a book under his arm.

‘It’s time! It’s time!’ said he with a peculiar smile, going into their bedroom.

We discussed why this is so awful and imagined his white feet in his slippers and his horrible preparedness!

At the end of the session, we read a wonderful e e cummings’ poem to help us think about the passion and spontaneity of Vronsky and why this can seem real and true and the scheduled anticipation of Karenin – and to consider the pressure Anna is under:

since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you

wholly to be a fool

while Spring is in the world

my blood approves

and kisses are a better fate

than wisdom

lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry

the best gesture of my brain is less than

your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then

laugh leaning back in my arms

for life’s not a paragraph

and death i think is no parenthesis

Karenin, so far, certainly seemed to us to be a man who ‘pays attention to the syntax of things’ and we talked about how you’d feel if you wanted to kiss someone and they said ‘just let me finish drying these dishes’! The poem is very persuasive.

At times during these chapters, Anna wonders about telling her husband, but has she actually done anything wrong yet, anything she should blame herself for? The only man present that day said no, some people weren’t sure, but others disagreed. ‘It’s chemistry and she can’t help it – you can’t help who you fall in love with,’ one woman said. Some people felt she wasn’t guiltless though – even though she’s done nothing wrong externally, there’s some internal movement – but nobody thought she should tell her husband. I asked the group if they wanted Anna and Vronsky to be together and they were momentarily struck dumb! The session finished with the ball in the air…which I hope is how Tolstoy would have wanted it.

 

Missed the first instalment of To Russia – With Love? Here’s a link back to it.

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