31 May 2006

On Rereading Tolstoy

I just finished rereading Anna Karenina. Victor teases me for rereading Tolstoy, suggesting that the reason I've read War and Peace at least half a dozen times and Anna Karenina three or four times is so I can say I've done so.

Probably there's a grain of truth in that.

But it's also true that I reread these novels because I enjoy them. Wait—enjoy is not a strong enough word—in fact, they make me happy. As I scan the first page, I already feel myself smiling. "Happy families are all alike…" I'm instantly drawn back into the Oblonsky family, where Dolly has just discovered that Stiva's affair with the ex-governess. It doesn't matter that I know how it will all end (with Anna under a train, as almost every literate person knows); I still get tremendous enjoyment from watching events unfold. And each time I read, different aspects attract my attention. The first time I read Anna Karenina I had little patience for Levin's philosophizing and skimmed many passages. This time, I found him a much more interesting character, and his musings more pertinent.

I am not certain how much of a difference the translation (Pevear/Volkhonsky) made; it has been such a long time since I last read Anna Karenina that I don't have much basis for comparison. I don't even have my old copy (it was a Constance Garnett, I think) to compare because it fell apart some time ago and had to be discarded. But the prose in this version is good, and feels straightforward and direct. In addition, the substantial endnotes are helpful, although I wish they were footnotes.

I have reread other books and enjoyed them: Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen's novels. But Tolstoy's worlds are both a pleasure to enter into and no hardship to exit. Somehow, in spite of being fictional, they are not fantasies; they do not leave you hankering after an imaginary world that cannot exist. Instead, you feel as if you've been shown aspects of reality you never noticed before, and return to your life refreshed.

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