R U S S I A N L I T E R AT U R E
racy, ironically detailed riff, by way of exemplifying Tolstoy’s narrative restrictions: “How long was it since Karenin and Anna had stopped making love? What about Vronsky? Was he good at bringing her to climax? And Anna? Was she possibly frigid? Did they make love in the dark, in the light, in bed, on the carpet, for three minutes, for three hours, with romantic talk or obscenities, in silence? We don’t know a thing about it?” The first full sexual encounter between Anna and Vronsky is a hampered, overwritten, rhetorical affair. It is as if nothing sexual had occurred previously. The gradualism of adultery is gone. The fallen woman scenario is implacably in place: “But the louder he spoke the lower she drooped her once proud, bright, but now dishonoured head, and she writhed, slipping down from the sofa on which she sat to the floor at his feet. She would have fallen on the carpet if he had not held her”. It is abrupt and implausible and horrified. The comic, ironic vision is banished from the bedroom.
Instead, unintended comedy. There is a disastrous, melodramatic, extended murder metaphor:
He felt what a murderer must feel when looking at the body he has deprived of life. The body he had deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something frightful and revolting in the recollection of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame. The shame she felt at her spiritual nakedness communicated itself to him. But in spite of the murderer’s horror of the body of his victim, that body must be cut in pieces and hidden away, and he must make use of what he has obtained by the murder. Then, as the murderer desperately throws himself on the body, as though with passion, and drags it and hacks it, so Vronsky covered her face and shoulders with kisses. Anna’s suicide runs the intrinsic, inevitable risk of melodrama, too. How does Tolstoy circumvent it? By total immersion. By meticulous preparation. Milan Kundera, in The Curtain, explains the efficient cause of Anna’s suicide by identifying an aesthetic psychological trigger. On the station platform, she sees a peasant testing the wheels and remembers the peasant killed when she first met Vronsky. Surrounded by ugliness – Kundera lists the affronts to her sensibility – she sees the possibility of a beautiful aesthetic completion, a suicide that will be symmetrical. It is a beautiful, ingenious reading, but it substitutes, I think, Tolstoy the novelist’s sense of symmetry for Anna’s inner turmoil. And Kundera’s reading depends on the assumption that Anna’s suicide is improvised and fundamentally unintended.
On the contrary, it is trailed by her many times in the past. Not, of course, as a certainty, but as a possibility, and sometimes as a threat. And usually, it isn’t quite explicit. It hoards its vagueness. When Vronsky is late home, delayed by watching over Yashvin’s gambling, the couple quarrel: “you are hostile toward me – hostile is the right word – if you only knew what it means to me! If you knew how near I am to a catastrophe at such moments ... how
“Anna’s suicide is trailed by her many times, as a possibility, and sometimes as a threat
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afraid I am! Afraid of myself!” After she has won Vronsky’s sympathy, she reflects her words “were a dangerous weapon and must not be used a second time”. If you trail a possibility often enough, it acquires inevitability, a determined feel, the momentum of a telos. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Later, she remembers being near death after the birth of her daughter: “And suddenly she understood what was in her soul. Yes, that was the thought that would solve everything. ‘Yes, to die!’” A conclusion tainted with self-pity: “she sat in the chair, taking off and putting on rings on her left hand, and vividly picturing to herself from various points of view his feelings after she was dead”.
The threat of suicide is also dangerous because, if unfulfilled, it loses its charge. As it does ten pages later: “This – as it seemed to him [Vronsky] – unbecoming and indefinite threat irritated him.” And Vronsky leaves the house, having decided “the only thing left is to pay no attention”. He leaves without his gloves, which are retrieved by his valet.
Gloves. Rings. In the airless repetition of Anna’s distress, the gestalt of her pain, these items remind us of a normal world where breathing is possible. A world where there is respite from Anna’s unstoppable anxiety. And towards the end, her anxieties seem unreasonable. She imagines Vronsky’s cold sentences and confers reality on them. She thinks Vronsky must have tired of her and be involved with another woman. She is jealous in the face of his reiterated declarations of love.
Which isn’t as unreasonable, actually, as the tight, unremitting, slightly deranged interior monologue inevitably implies. She has always been jealous. Anna inhabits a social stratum where sexual irregularity is the norm. Even innocent Kitty knows that men like her brother-in-law Oblonsky are given to self-indulgence: “She knew now what consorting with gay people of Oblonsky’s sort meant – it meant drinking and then driving somewhere ...”. Kitty, of course, has seen Levin’s diaries and their sexual revelations before their marriage. (An autobiographical episode from Tolstoy’s own life.) And when Vronsky is hosting a foreign Prince, the Prince’s late nights are marked by debauchery.
The significance of Vasenka Veslovsky – expelled by Levin for flirting with Kitty, but accepted as harmless by Vronsky and boasted of by Anna – is to delineate a society in which innuendo and action are liable to coalesce. Temptation is never far away. Opportunity abounds. Consider, for example, Oblonsky’s flirtation with Princess Betsy Tverskaya: “Having seen her down the hall and again kissed her hand, a little above the glove just where the pulse beat, and having told her some rubbish so daring that she did not know whether to be angry or to laugh, Oblonsky went to his sister’s room”.
Anna is shrewd enough to know that her hold over Vronsky is at least partly sexual, if not wholly sexual: “If I could be anything but his mistress, passionately loving nothing but his caresses – but I cannot and do not want to be anything else. And this desire awakens disgust in him, and that arouses anger in me ...”. So she is even jealous, in Italy, of the beautiful nurse whom Vronsky is painting. She is constantly testing Vronsky – and testing her own powers of attraction. With Vasenka Veslovsky: “You saw that je fais les passions ... Veslovsky”, she boasts to Dolly. And she is unable to resist the temptation to enthrall Levin. It is “involuntary”, an adjective Tolstoy chooses with care. Her doubt begins very early in her relationship with Vronsky. After her confession to Karenin, she muses (Part Three, Chapter 15): “When she thought about Vronsky, she imagined that he did not love her, that he was beginning to find her a burden ...”. The very refrain she sounds incessantly as she approaches her suicide.
We think she is wrong to doubt Vronsky. We believe Vronsky’s declarations. But we have forgotten Vronsky’s reflections when she nags him about the visiting Prince (Part Four, Chapter 3): her fits of jealousy “made him feel colder towards her”. “Now he felt that the best happiness was already in the past. She was not at all such as he had first seen
APRIL 2, 2021