Monday, March 5, 2012

the Queen and Tolstoy

Saturday I finished Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith, which I received through Librarything's Early Reviewers program. It has something of a fluffy celebrity biography feel to it, but is surprisingly informative about the politics of Britain over the last sixty years and the way the monarchy has been perceived during that time. Unfortunately, the last couple chapters are just Bedell Smith gushing uncontrollably about William and Kate - "this is the LOVE of the CENTURY, and she's SO much better than Diana, and didn't her waist look TINY in that AMAZING dress" - which is frankly embarrassing. The prologue is the same thing: it feels totally tacked on and is pretty much the last chapter condensed, as if some publisher decided that no one would read a book about Queen Elizabeth unless they're fooled into thinking it's actually about Catherine Middleton. That makes my gorge rise a little bit. Otherwise I liked it.

Then I picked up Anna Karenina. I read it in high school, in the crusty Constance Garnett translation, and even then loved it. I remember being delighted when Anna goes under the train* and there are still over a hundred pages left about Levin, because his plot was so much more interesting to me. Earlier this year I obtained the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation, because their War and Peace awed me, and Sunday I cracked open AK.

I am not exaggerating when I say I was hooked on the first page. I abandoned all plans for the rest of the day, and sat on the couch reading, occasionally getting up for more tea. At five o'clock I looked up and realized I'd just read 400 pages of Tolstoy in one day, which even for me is some sort of record. I had not been able to put it down.

The beginning is about Anna's brother's infidelity and its impact on his wife - that is the reference to "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" - and of course that's a subject both painful and intriguing for me. And Tolstoy's handling of it is beyond brilliant: these two people are completely human, and their actions and reactions and interactions completely realistic, and you can't hate either of them. The writing is so good it's scary.

Anna, as I am far from the first to mention, is more of a cypher, and that's a large part of why I don't find the triangle between her, Vronsky, and her husband as interesting. But it's still such a fantastic book - I remembered loving it, as I said, but didn't expect to fall even harder for it the second time around. I probably should have: one disadvantage of having been such a voracious reader all my life is that I read many classics when I was probably too young for them**, and I don't always return to them. Let this be a lesson to me.

We will not speak of the fact that of course they are making another movie of AK right now, and it stars Keira Knightley (she seems like a very nice young lady but is not a very good actress) as Anna and some redheaded person who looks fifteen as Levin. We will just ignore that, and settle down on our couch with our tea and Tolstoy's words, and feel like there is something hugely important in the mere observation of life. I'll take that gift.

*Oh come ON, that is not a spoiler, unless you were raised by non-Russian wolves. Russian wolves all know how Anna Karenina ends.

**My mother told me, after I'd torn through all the rest of Hardy at age twelve or thirteen, that I was too young for Jude the Obscure. I scoffed, and immediately read it. I have never recovered.


  1. You must must read Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Have I said that before? I think I have. It's good enough to repeat, however!

  2. I don't think you have said it before, but I have added it to my books-to-get list! Awesome!