A Cruel Man Delighting in Flowers

...the mildness to which men ... had yielded was only half of the intoxication of beauty, while the other half ... was of such surpassing and terrible cruelty—the most cruel of men delights himself with a flower—that beauty ... failed quickly of its effect... 

Hermann BrochThe Death of Virgil


Jeremy Davies is made of ink, but don’t dip a feather in him. It tickles. He once painted a fingernail black and no one really noticed. He was disappointed. He’s also an editor, a religious atheist, a liker of strong coffees, a Shakespeare-lover, a political anarchist and someone who rarely has a pen when he needs one. He has been a PhD candidate, a personal trainer, a life model, a bouncer, an infantry soldier and someone who rarely had a pen when he needed one. He has had words published in a variety of places, in a variety of publications, in a variety of forms, in a variety of moments: Canada, Wet Ink, SMS and twelve minutes past three in the afternoon being some of these. His first novel, 'Missing Presumed Undead', will be re-published by Satalyte Publishing in February 2014. A second is on its way.

'Anna Karenina': Between the personal and the common...

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky

Sergei Ivanovich suggests to Konstantin Levin (the fictional character most closely resembling Leo Tolstoy himself) early on in the novel that: ‘The chief task of philosophy in all ages has consisted precisely in finding the connection that necessarily exists between personal and common interests.’

And it is the central interest of this book. When the various relativist critics of Tolstoy’s oeuvre use glib assessments of his personal worldview that they feel are patterned into it, such as misogyny or didacticism, they are enacting and negotiating through their own version of this tension: for to be labelled a ‘misogynist’ is to enforce a common interest upon a personal one in a similar way as happens to the namesake of the novel: Anna Karenina.

She raves about you. … She says you’re a real heroine from a novel and that if she were a man she would have committed a thousand follies for you.

You will hear much in the way of this character, Tolstoy’s great heroine, as being a redeeming feature in his sea of outmoded political barbarism. While she is perhaps the chief protagonist of the drama---certainly the most dramatic moments of the novel centre around her---she is by no means heroic. Of all the focal characters, she most heavily fails to establish a liveable connection between her personal and common interests, so she is certainly a tragic figure; but she often comes off as a spoiled brat, so utterly full of herself and her entitlement that you can squirm.

Anna took a knife and fork in her beautiful, white, ring-adorned hands and began to demonstrate. She obviously could see that her explanation could not make anything understood, but, knowing that her speech was pleasant and her hands were beautiful, she went on explaining.

Tolstoy is far too great an author to create a focal character like Anna that could be so easily used as a gender politic rallying point. She is fantastic, in all her flawed humanity. The few pages where Levin meets her fully, and she wins him over, is a fantastic glimpse into how this character won Tolstoy over too.

‘…she was a bad woman. Well, what are these desperate passions! It’s all to prove something special. So she proved it.’ Vronsky’s mother (understandably perhaps) sums her up harshly. She was a bad woman. She cheated, she lied, she manipulated, she abandoned; and all for a love that wouldn’t last. Not in the format that she could understand it, anyway. So many of the blurbs and synopses say that Vronsky spurned her ‘Do I live? [Anna asks herself] I don’t live, I wait for a denouement that keeps being postponed.’ But Vronsky never spurns her. His love changes, and hers does also, but her demands on him, and life in general, of which she is the focal point, do not change.

I can only imagine how any modern film version will spoil this novel. Much more focus on the ‘We all want something sweet, tasty, if not candy, then dirty ice-cream.’ And less on the ‘All that day she had had that she was playing in the theatre with actors better than herself and that her poor playing spoiled the whole thing.’ Anna is a broken human being, not a battleship: at heart, she is not the strong woman but the frightened girl. Trotting out a society-is-to-blame excuse for her is facile and empty, which is what makes it so interesting, heartfelt, tragic and beautiful.

Anyway, this is a masterpiece by a master, and translated by the Peaver/Volokhonsky team masterfully I have to imagine, since if it were not, I would not have such a solid English-language impression of Tolstoy’s masterfulness…

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