Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

 Anna Karenina cover

I’ve had Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy on my Classics Club reading list for years now and I’ve been put off reading it for a couple of reasons – namely the 800 odd pages and also the fact that I knew how it ended as I’ve seen it on TV (hasn’t everyone?). But I really enjoyed reading it. Just about everyone knows the story so I’m going to ramble a bit just about things that struck me about it, others probably won’t agree.

It’s fashionable (and possibly a feminist thing) to see Anna as a victim but she was a spoiled fool more than anything. Having made her young son the centre of her life she had no time for her husband Alexei Karenin who was what John Galsworthy would have described as being a bit of a cold fish – like Soames Forsyth. Anthony Trollope’s disastrous marriage between Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser comes to mind too. These undemonstrative men are a common type in reality and their ‘buttoned up’ characters aren’t a problem for any intelligent woman of the low maintenance and level headed type.

Anna wasn’t astute enough to see that her husband was really very much in love with her. Possibly the fact that Anna’s mother had shamelessly implied that Karenin had compromised Anna’s reputation when he was courting her – so determined was she to get her daughter off her hands and married to a wealthy man – had left Anna feeling somewhat insecure.

I really wish that Tolstoy had written a prequel based around the upbringing of Anna (nee Princess Oblonsky) and her brother Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. These two cause mayhem within their families, their own needs being the most important thing to them – and to hell with everyone else.

Compare Anna’s mother with Kitty’s family. Vronsky has courted Kitty for ages and everyone expects him to propose to her, but Vronsky is a ladies man and a bit of a flibbertijibbet so when a new face appears in the shape of the beautiful Anna he drops poor Kitty fast. Kitty is damaged goods now as far as society is concerned, her parents had relied on Vronsky being a gentleman and wouldn’t have considered twisting his arm to get him to marry Kitty, but Vronsky was far from being a gentleman. He’s soon sleeping with Anna which is something that Anna was evidently not doing with her husband otherwise she would have had a family as large as her brother’s (Prince Stepan) whose poor wife Dolly seems to be having a child a year despite the fact that she knows he is a serial adulterer. Anna persuades Dolly to stay in her abusive marriage despite the fact that Anna would never put up with being treated so badly.

Those people who are brought up with a feeling of entitlement are a blight on society but when for some reason they aren’t able to get their own way for once then the result is often a disaster, they don’t have the strength of character to take the blows that they’ve happily dealt out to other people.

The book swings between high society in St Petersburg to the country estate of Konstantin Levin. He is a friend of Kitty’s family and has been in love with Kitty for years. After he’s told that they expect Vronsky to propose to Kitty, Levin takes himself and his broken heart off to his estate, throwing himself into the work of improving the land. He’s a decent man who gets his hands dirty and I suppose he stands for the Russian people whereas the aristocrats of St Petersburg are the degenerate French speaking leeches.

When the relationship between Anna and Vronsky becomes fraught Anna falls apart very quickly and of course she ends up under a train. I must say that I think that part was really well written. I suspect that Anna’s last seconds are typical for people in that situation – they didn’t really mean it, but it’s too late to go back in time.

Life goes on for everyone else of course. At first I thought that maybe the book should just have finished with Anna’s death but – I was wrong.

I loved War and Peace but it’s a while since I read that one and I’m not sure which book is my favourite. Have you read them both, if so which one do you like the most?

The Classics Club Spin – Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

I’ve had Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov sitting on a shelf for over 20 years (maybe even 30) and when I bought it I hadn’t even heard of the book before. I freely admit I was drawn to the book by its binding, so I was pleased to read fairly recently that Oblomov is a book that is well thought of by others, so I was quite chuffed when I got it in this spin.

Lovely Book Cover

I can’t say I absolutely adored it but I did really like the book.

Oblomov is a likeable character, in fact there isn’t a bad boen in his body. As a young man who got a position in a government office when he left his home in the country he had the usual ambitions of hoping that it would lead to better things, but he quickly became disillusioned by the work and more or less took to his bed. He has classic signs of depression and even after he inherits the family country estate he just can’t get up the energy required to sort out the problems of running it. He has great intentions of building roads and bridges there, repairing houses and building a school for his peasants’ children. He lies in bed day dreaming of everything he will do there, but when it comes to it he can’t get up the energy required to get up and get dressed.

When Oblomov falls in love with a beautiful young girl he can hardly believe that she is interested in him, she rouses him out of his langour, he must get out and about to meet her. Despite being besotted by her Oblomov worries that he isn’t cut out for marriage, passion means expending energy and he has his doubts that he can manage much of that.

Oblomov is a kind and easy-going soul and he puts up with people that others wouldn’t give the time of day. This leads to him being targetted by a ghastly sponger who goes to Oblomov’s apartment to eat his food and drink his wine, even ‘borrowing’ his clothes and money, neither of which are ever seen again of course. Money from his estate is sent to Oblomov but he is so feckless that it disappears in no time, either given away or pilfered by servants.

His kind nature ends up in him being abused financially which leads to him having to move to a poor area of the city where he becomes the lodger of relatives of the sponger and they set about bleeding him dry of money.

Meanwhile Sophie has come to realise that Oblomov is never going to shake himself out of his torpor for long enough to be a decent husband and part of Oblomov is relieved as he prefers to spend his time just sleeping and eating anyway. His landlady is a wonderful cook and as we all know – the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so he had been getting very attached to her.

Things take a turn for the worse when his landlady’s brother blackmails Oblomov, saying he has damaged his sister’s reputation and this ends up with the brother and the sponger being in control of Oblomov’s estate.

The cavalry rides in in the shape of Oblomov’s German childhood friend who realises what has been going on and sorts the whole mess out.

Classics Club Spin – it’s number 8

Well the Classics Club Spin number is 8 and for me that means Oblomov by Goncharov. I admit that I bought this books years ago, just because it’s a lovely edition, a red leather-ish cover with silver design on it, it also has stylish endpapers. It’s from a series that Heron Books published – The Greatest Masterpieces of Russian Literature.

As to the actual contents I’m completely clueless, apart from it being 515 pages long. It could be horrible and if so it serves me right for being swayed by looks!

Dead Souls by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Dead Souls by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was first published in 1842. In the author’s preface he says that he wrote the book to show commonplace types of Russian people and the vices, weaknesses and shortcomings within Russian society.

The main character Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov is a middle aged bachelor, he’s not at all wealthy but aspires to change that situation and has hit upon an idea to improve his finances. Chichikov arrives in a small town and goes on a charm offensive, buttering up all the government officials and landowners in the area. At the time the book is set in there are infrequent censuses and as landowners have to pay what amounts to a poll tax for every serf that they own it means that they end up paying tax for people who are dead. The dead serfs aren’t removed from the tax system until the next census comes around.

Chichikov plans to buy up the dead serfs or souls as they are known, at a cheap price and the landowners are only to eager to sell their tax burdens on to him, although they have no idea why he would want to do them this favour.

Chichikov realises that if he goes to a bank and tells them that he owns a large number of serfs they will advance a huge amount of money to him, basically using the serfs as collateral, which means he could buy an estate of his own, or just pocket the money.

The townspeople are naturally suspicious of a person who wants to buy up dead serfs and all sorts of rumours go around about Chichikov and eventually he has to leave the area and travels to a different part of Russia where he tries the same scam again.

In fact it seems to me that Chichikov is never going to learn anything from his mistakes, he’s just going to repeat them all again, with his lying and cheating getting worse each time. Gogol wanted to highlight the greed and corruption within middle class Russian society and government officials. He certainly managed to do that and there are parts of the book which are daftly amusing. The third part of the book was burnt by the author and so the book is unfinished, in fact it ends mid sentence, which I found very annoying. I didn’t love this book but as with many classics, I’m glad that I read it as now I feel that I’ve added to my knowledge of Russian literature.

What strikes me about the whole thing though is that at the time that Dead Souls was written Gogol was obviously happy to write this book which slags off government officials, for the enjoyment of the readers. So the Imperial Russia of 1842s was a very much easier place to write about the shortcomings of society, compared with Russia of 100 years later, as in 1942 if anyone had denigrated the Communist officials like that they would have been quickly marched off to a labour camp, if not shot.

I read Dead Souls as part of the Classics Club, another one ticked off my list. I was also reading it along with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, and she should be blogging about her thoughts on it soon.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexei Ivanovich is a young man who is tutor to the children of a Russian general. He has sworn an oath of undying love for Polina, a young relative of the general and they are all on holiday in a German town which has a casino. The general is deeply in debt and in danger of losing his estate.

The whole family is waiting for the general’s mother to die and leave them her money and when they hear that she is seriously ill they send lots of telegrams to ask how she is. Hoping to get news of her death. So when the elderly Madame de Cominge recovers her health and sees all the telegrams she isn’t exactly pleased and she takes herself off to the same hotel to tell her son the general that he won’t be getting any of her money.

The old lady takes to Alexei and asks him to take her to the casino. She has to be pushed everywhere in a chair and people are fascinated by the spectacle. At first she’s disgusted by the stupidity of the roulette players but it isn’t long before she’s hooked on it herself.

This is a quick read and another of the books on my 2011 reading list which I’ve had in the house waiting to be read for years. It’s quite enjoyable and it’s comical at times but mostly it shows you how easily people can become addicted to gambling which apparently is something which Dostoevsky had first hand experience of.

Going by this book – Dostoevsky had a very low opinion of Poles! Maybe all Russians were like that. This book was first published in 1867.

Selected Stories by Anton Chekov

I bought this wee paperback book from a local second-hand bookshop which has sadly closed down now – such is the way of the world. I used to love browsing in it and almost always found at least one treasure to take home.

Anton Chekov had quite a short life, being only 44 when he died and he had no idea that people would still be reading his work over 100 years after his death. He thought his work would be read for only seven years after his death, how wrong he was! Obviously he’s better known for his plays but this book of his early short stories is well worth reading. It’s sad to think that he was already ill with the tuberculosis which eventually killed him when he was writing them.

The stories are:

The Confession
He Understood
At Sea – A Sailor’s Story
A Nincompoop
Ninochka – A Love Story
A Cure for Drinking
The Jailer Jailed
The Dance Pianist
The Milksop
Marriage in Ten or Fifteen Years
In Spring
The Kiss
The Father
In Exile
Three Years
The House with the Mansard
The Darling

Some of the stories are very short indeed, just four pages or so whilst the one called Three Years is very long, I would call it a novella really as it’s ninety pages long.

Anton Chekov wrote about the lives of the peasants of Russia, the grim reality, which didn’t always go down well with those in authority but I’m glad that he gave us this peek into the lives of ordinary Russians, although it can be a bit grim, but life was grim for all ordinary people in the 1880s which is when these stories were written.

Once again, I have to say that it’s thanks to The Classics Circuit that I read this book. Until its Russian literature tour I had only read modern Russian literature, and not much of that either.

Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of the books which was inherited by us many moons ago and I added it to my 2011 Reading List to make sure that I got around to reading it this year, at last.

It’s a series of letters between a tchinovnik (a minor civil servant) called Makar Dievushkin and a distant relative of his, Barbara Dobroselova. Despite the fact that they both live in rooms in tenements which are just across the road from each other and they can actually see each other’s windows, they rarely meet for fear that people will talk about them.

As the story progresses the letters become more and more loving and really I could have rattled the two of them and clunked their heads together. For some reason Makar feels that he is responsible for Barbara and he spends money on her which he doesn’t have. Civil servants seem to have received their salary quarterly or even bi-annually and Makar’s money has run out so he ends up in debt. Poor Makar turns to drink which of course just makes things worse.

He still buys shawls, dresses and sweets for Barbara at a time when his shoes are so worn through that he is almost walking on the pavement. Barbara puts up a small half-hearted protest about him spending money on her but she wants the finer things in life and it seems that she is waiting for a man with money to come along and solve her problems.

Makar is a bit of a ‘Mr Bean’ type of character so there is quite a bit of humour in the book but it is all a bit sad and depressing. (Well it is Russian.) A man whom Barbara despises proposes to her and she accepts as she believes she has no other choice and she is enticed by the thought of the clothes and the status which Bwikow says she will have as his wife. It’s obviously going to be disastrous for Barbara as Bwikow has already taken control of her movements before they even get married.

It’s worth reading even although it has a couple of characters that you feel like screaming at!

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace has been eyeing me up and shouting READ ME from different bookcases in many different homes of ours over the past 30 odd years. At last I’ve got around to it and I feel really chuffed with myself for being able to tick it off my mental ‘must read ‘ list.

I really enjoyed War and Peace, I thought it would be really heavy going but it is actually quite a page turner. It might not be so smooth if you don’t have much of an interest in Napoleon and what was going on between 1805 and 1820 in Europe.

As you would expect from the title the storyline is split up between battles and the general chaos that ensued, and civilian life in the high society of Moscow and Petersburg and how they were all affected by the war.

There were only three parts of the book which I felt dragged a bit. I didn’t like the bits about Freemasonry in book V. It didn’t seem to add anything to the book but apart from that I’ve always disliked the Freemasons because to me it is just another word for corruption. It can’t be right that people get jobs and advancement because of a society that they’re a member of rather than the qualifications that they have. It was news to me too that the Freemasons originated in Scotland and Tolstoy sometimes called it the Scottish society. I’m mortified but according to the introduction in this edition Tolstoy saw it as a way of combating the corruption which already existed at court.

In book VII Nicholas Rostov has a wolf hunt on his estate and it seemed really out of place and distasteful to me but it made sense later on when Rostov compared his first experience of a battle with the hunt.

Almost at the end of the book, The Second Epilogue seemed never ending: The Forces That Move Nations – didn’t move me.

But that’s me nit-picking again and I would encourage any War and Peace dodgers (as I used to be) to have a go at reading it because I think most people will be pleasantly surprised.

As you can see the edition which I read is from 1943. It still has the original bookmark it was sold with and has very thin, smooth paper, the pages were very difficult to turn which was a bit annoying. I actually had to cut some of the pages so I must have been the first person to get to the end of it. This must have been a special wartime paper but it has aged really well, in fact it’s like new. We also have a paperback Pan edition from 1972 and the paper hasn’t aged at all well. Also it has no maps and no footnotes whatsoever, the 1943 book has very interesting comments.

I know that elsewhere in the blogosphere people are reading a new translation but I would be really surprised if anything could better this translation which was done by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

It has only taken me about 30 odd years but at last I got around to reading Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The 506 closely printed pages had put me off all those years, but I must say that I really did enjoy it. I suppose most people will have already read it or at least seen the fab film, starring the gorgeous Omar Sharif as Doctor Zhivago.

Having read Liza/A Nest of Nobles by Turgenev recently I have to say that I think Doctor Zhivago is far better than Liza. I know there is about 100 years in between the publication of the two books, so it maybe isn’t fair to compare them, but there is just so much more in Doctor Zhivago to get your teeth into.

The Zhivago family had been wealthy, and Yura could remember a time when he was a child when there were Zhivago factories and a Zhivago bank. But his father lost all of their money and committed suicide. Yura’s mother was already dead.

When Yura (Yurii) grows up he becomes a doctor and marries his childhood sweetheart, Tonya. They have a son and when Tonya is pregnant for the second time Yura starts an affair with Lara. Lara had was married to her childhood sweetheart, Pasha, but she believed him to be dead. Using the name of Strelnikov, he was now high up in the Red Army. Was he modelled on Trotsky?

Whilst on one of his journey’s to Lara’s house Yura is abducted at gunpoint by some soldiers who are in search of him to replace their dead doctor but eventually he escapes from the army and ends up back with Lara.

It’s years since I saw the film but I seem to remember that the whole thing concentrates on the love affair between Yura and Lara and I thought that Tonya (his wife) was portrayed as a sort of feckless pain in the neck. Presumably the director David Lean thought he had to do that because people would not be keen on the truth, which was that Yura started screwing around when he realised that his wife was pregnant. I could be completely mis-remembering it. Anyway Pasternak wrote Tonya as being very resourceful and strong, coping with her child, her elderly father and a nursemaid who was still a child herself.

On the other hand Lara hadn’t even managed to seal up the rat holes in her apartment, with the result that the rats were everywhere. I think if I had been in that situation I would have played ‘splat the rat’ until they got the idea and skedaddled.

Yes, as ever, I’m on the side of the wife!

If you are into history, then you will definitely get a lot out of the book which it just isn’t possible to put in a film and as Russia/the Soviet Union has always fascinated me, the book was right up my street.

I was brought up during ‘the Cold War’ when the U.S.S.R. threat was always in the background – especially as my dad worked in the nearby nuclear submarine base at Coulport on the River Clyde. I was still in primary school when I realised that there was a Soviet nuclear missile pointing straight at us, so there wasn’t any point in worrying about it as we would be blasted into oblivion very quickly.

Happy days.

Liza by Ivan Turgenev

The copy of this book which I read was one which had originally belonged to my husband’s grandfather. It’s one of many books which we inherited from him and so is very old. I think that the title was changed to A Nest of Nobles at some point.

Although this is a very old translation, dating from 1869 I think, it’s a very good one as the book is really easy to read and doesn’t seem to be stilted or clunky in any way.

The only Russian authors I’ve read previously are Dostoevsky, Sholokov and Solzhenitsyn so I didn’t know what to expect with Liza. However, on one level this was a very straightforward read, the only difficulty is the number of variations of names which the characters are known by, but when I think about it, I am called by lots of different names, depending on who is speaking to me. I found the book to be a bit predictable but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

Liza is a pretty and charming 19 year old, the daughter of a widow, Maria Dmitrievna Kalitine. They live in the town of O. and she has attracted the attention of an ambitious 28 year old, Vladimir Nikolaevich Panshine who works in the Ministry of the Interior and is already a chamberlain.

Fedor Ivanovich Lavretsky arrives unexpectedly in the town of O. He is a relation of Maria Dmitrievna and is estranged from his wife Varvara Pavlovna Korobine who is the subject of gossip all over Europe. Lavretsky had met his wife in Moscow where he had enrolled as a mature student after the death of his father. Whilst there he had seen Varvara in a theatre box and had instantly fallen for her.

He arranged to meet Varvara and her parents and as Lavretsky was wealthy they were keen on a match with him. Varvara’s father soon took over the running of Lavretsky’s estate as he wasn’t interested in business.

Meanwhile Varvara and Lavretsky travel around Europe with Varvara becoming a society hostess, eventually reaching what was her idea of success – Paris, where her drawing-room was frequented by a variety of social climbers and ne’er-do-weels including a newspaper gossip columnist.

Eventually Lavretsky discovers the true character of Varvara, and for him the marriage is over.

He meets up with his distant relations again after deciding to take up residence in his nearby estate and sees Liza whom he hasn’t seen since she was a small girl.

So, you see what I mean about it being predictable.

The most interesting thing about this book is Turgenev’s attitude to what was normal behaviour in high society. He was at least two generations ahead of the times, even for people who weren’t ‘high-born’.

Turgenev describes how Lavretsky’s father had been educated abroad and had become an Anglomaniac “everything in him breathed, so to speak Great Britain.

The young Lavretsky had been dressed in Highland costume, with bare legs and a cock’s feather in his hat. (Poor wee soul)

This would have been around about the time that Sir Walter Scott’s books were wildly popular throughout Europe and there was a mania for all things tartan and Scottish.

The upshot of such behaviour is that the rich people have no knowledge of what should have been their own culture and return to their homeland as strangers with no feelings for or experience of the natives. Not even able to speak their mother tongue properly.

This still happens in Scotland, the landed gentry, clan chiefs and such like habitually send their sons to be educated in England, most usually at Eton. So you have the ludicrous mixture of a man in a kilt and sporran and yes a feather in his hat, but speaking with the plummiest English accent imaginable. They have absolutely no idea of real Scottish culture as the only thing they do is hunting, shooting and fishing on their estate.

Turgenev also comments on the plight of foreign workers, something else that hasn’t changed much.

Liza’s piano teacher is a German called Lemm and when he was young he decided to travel to Russia to make his fortune and name as a composer there. However after working for seven years in the household of a nobleman who hasn’t paid him for his services he discovers that the nobleman has squandered all of his money so Lemm has to depart penniless. He is too embarassed to go home and stays on in Russia as a poorly paid and under-rated teacher.

It’s quite depressing that nothing seems to have changed in all the years since Liza was written, but such is human nature and life.

I’ll definitely be reading more Russian literature now, thanks to The Classics Circuit and everyone involved with it.