After months of focus on contemporary literary works, the Dhaka-based 'The Reading Circle'(TRC) shifted its attention in November on 'high literature' for its November session. The literary club chose one of the greatest novels of one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, "Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Last Saturday it met virtually with Professor Niaz Zaman conducting and moderating the most stimulating deliberations. Presentations were made by Zakia Rahman, Tanveerul Haque, Nusrat Huq, Shahruk Rahman, Ameenah Ahmed, Razia Sultana Khan, Asfa Hussain and me. Speakers stressed the timelessness of Tolstoy's intellectual contributions.
Regarding 'Anna Karenina', it must be said one must read it at least a couple of times before one reads it for the first time. In fact, it is not designed to be read. It must be studied. That is how the mighty Leo Tolstoy had viewed the role of the novel. Tolstoy never saw the novel as a tool for entertainment. To him it was a supreme medium for psychological education and reform. It was a key for the readers to unravel the mystery of the minds of others to know them better, thereby expanding the readers' humanity and tolerance. It appears as if there was nothing in human nature that Tolstoy did not know about, equally regarding man or woman. It has been said that if life itself could write, it would write like Tolstoy. He was far more than a writer. He was a moral truth-seeking force, something like a Shakespeare, a Confucius, and a Nelson Mandela, all rolled into one formidable persona.
The Age of European Enlightenment had liberalized the intellect immensely for which reason western Europe was able to accept the notion of art for arts' sake. Not so in the vast swathes of the territory and populace of Mother Russia. There the Orthodox Church espoused a deep spirituality that influenced the works of the great Russian authors of the time, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. To them art had a great mission. Literature and art had a crusading moralist side. In their opinion, good art had to supplement religion in developing our inner resources of kindness and morality. The purpose of reading a novel cannot be just to pass time. It was a form of therapy to educate us towards emotional health and ethical good sense.
"Anna Karenina" has often been called the greatest novel ever written by the TIME Magazine. That is perhaps because" is not seen by many as a novel in a true sense. I had read "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace", back-to-back, as I prepared for my BA Hons examination decades ago, late at night, after I had finished my studies for the day. What struck me straight away that the titles of the works didn't mean very much. "War and Peace" was not really about the Napoleonic Wars as many people are wont to believe; it was rather about wars that rage in our minds and hearts, and the sense of peace that pervades when we are able to resolve them. Also, the novel "Anna Karenina" could have been named after several characters in the book: After Konstantin Levin for instance, whose portrayal by Tolstoy was, some believe, autobiographical. Indeed, to many Levin is the principal protagonist of the novel. No matter the book, "War and Peace" or "Anna Karenina", the messages were similar, and consistent. Also, there was usually no single plot. For instance, "Anna Karenina" tells at least two distinct tales: One of Anna, which moves, in a way, from high to low, the other about Levin which moves low to high. It can be argued that it is on one hand about Russian elites, on the other, about the peasants who were newly liberated by Czar Alexander.
Another distinction from the European Enlightenment for Tolstoy was, that man, or woman do not and cannot live by reason alone. We see how cold rational calculation left no other path open to Anna but to die. Yet at the moments preceding her death under the train's wheels, she felt a white flash of light as an epiphany as she crossed herself, when she might have perceived the error of her decision, but too late. Levin, on the other hand was also suicidal. But the peasant's perception of him as a decent man gave him a sense of rebirth in his epiphany. Also, to Tolstoy, Anna's act of killing herself as revenge on her lover Count Vronsky was wrong. That was because God's words were "Vengeance is Mine", and in any case it was God's prerogative to determine when one is to live and die! Tolstoy was also fascinated by modern science and technology as he weaves the train into the narrative, albeit as a tool of death. Incidentally Tolstoy himself died waiting for a train in a train-station, catching pneumonia on an icy Russian night, having run away from his unhappy home.
Anna Karenina belongs to the genre of "Adultery Literature". By modern yardstick the novel does focus on female beauty and objectification of woman. Tolstoy was influenced by Gustave Flaubert's ". But unlike French author stylistically Tolstoy could, and did, depict an incredibly seductive scene differently. The one in which Anna and Vronsky commit the act of adultery, he describes in mere two lines, gutting it entirely of any eroticism, in four words when Vronsky passionately exclaims: "Anna, for God's sake!" But just at that moment, to Vronsky she had also become a fallen woman. But not to Tolstoy. To him there is good and bad enmeshed in all of us, and forgiveness for the errant is the divine act that must be the most human of all. Just as Alexei Karenin, Anna's husband, a most unlovable character, who forgives Anna, and whom, the reader in turn forgives. And Anna, herself whom circumstances drove to adultery was the same person who repaired the rift between her brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly. None of us, to Tolstoy, is irredeemable.
Tolstoy tends not to judge his characters. He leaves that to God. At most he would analyze human behavior. For instance, the famous lines at the beginning: All happy families are alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways". He himself did not have a happy marriage with his wife Sophia. He had said there was no greater tragedy than the one of the marital bed. His ideas supported the institution of marriage as the social prop that helps families to get through difficult times. Yet as a realist he was aware it was not always so, even in his own case. One will note Tolstoi's focus on writings was mostly on the family. Yet one of the greatest unintended consequences of his works was the impact they created on the Russian society, one that was eventually to revolutionize social and political thinking around the world.
The characters that Tolstoy portrays are remarkable in the sense that the reader could see reflected in them almost everyone he or she has known in life. For the reader it would often be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of introduction to the characters who are absorbed in the readers psyche almost as if by a process of osmosis. At all times , and in all places, not having ever read "Anna Karenina", ever, not even once, would render anyone's life a tad poorer!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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