Anna Karenina: Levin’s Transformation

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Hotel BildungsZentrum, Basel, Switzerland.

I am staying at the Hotel BildungsZentrum in Basel, Switzerland. It is thirty-four degrees centigrade. I’m sustaining myself with delicious fresh fruit and cold green tea. Having finished my work late this morning I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and it would appear that Levin is beginning his transformation. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am reading the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, but Wikisource provides a sense of things with its Constance Garnett edition:

“All the long day of toil had left no trace in them but lightness of heart. Before the early dawn all was hushed. Nothing was to be heard but the night sounds of the frogs that never ceased in the marsh, and the horses snorting in the mist that rose over the meadow before the morning. Rousing himself, Levin got up from the haycock, and looking at the stars, he saw that the night was over.

‘Well, what am I going to do? How am I to set about it?’ he said to himself, trying to express to himself all the thoughts and feelings he had passed through in that brief night. All the thoughts and feelings he had passed through fell into three separate trains of thought. One was the renunciation of his old life, of his utterly useless education. This renunciation gave him satisfaction, and was easy and simple. Another series of thoughts and mental images related to the life he longed to live now. The simplicity, the purity, the sanity of this life he felt clearly, and he was convinced he would find in it the content, the peace, and the dignity, of the lack of which he was so miserably conscious. But a third series of ideas turned upon the question how to effect this transition from the old life to the new. And there nothing took clear shape for him. ‘Have a wife? Have work and the necessity of work? Leave Pokrovskoe? Buy land? Become a member of a peasant community? Marry a peasant girl? How am I to set about it?’ he asked himself again, and could not find an answer. ‘I haven’t slept all night, though, and I can’t think it out clearly,’ he said to himself. ‘I’ll work it out later. One thing’s certain, this night has decided my fate. All my old dreams of home life were absurd, not the real thing,’ he told himself. ‘It’s all ever so much simpler and better…’

‘How beautiful!’ he thought, looking at the strange, as it were, mother-of-pearl shell of white fleecy cloudlets resting right over his head in the middle of the sky. ‘How exquisite it all is in this exquisite night! And when was there time for that cloud-shell to form? Just now I looked at the sky, and there was nothing in it—only two white streaks. Yes, and so imperceptibly too my views of life changed!’

He went out of the meadow and walked along the highroad towards the village. A slight wind arose, and the sky looked gray and sullen. The gloomy moment had come that usually precedes the dawn, the full triumph of light over darkness.”

Levin’s nocturnal epiphany has been prompted by the privileged landowner’s increasing engagement with the working practices of the peasant class. And while his romantic attachment to their way of life is somewhat naive and reductive, Tolstoy sketches Levin’s personal development in a way that critiques the broader societal inequalities and injustices of nineteenth-century Russia.

While the problem of Levin using the peasants to fulfil personal satisfaction remains problematic, there are moments when Tolstoy’s prose moves towards some kind of immaterial and spiritual transcendence. I was reminded this morning of Prince Andrei sustaining an injury during one of the battles in War and Peace, here designated as Prince Andrew in the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation:

“‘What are they about?’ thought Prince Andrew as he gazed at them. “Why doesn’t the red-haired gunner run away as he is unarmed? Why doesn’t the Frenchman stab him? He will not get away before the Frenchman remembers his bayonet and stabs him. . . .’

And really another French soldier, trailing his musket, ran up to the struggling men, and the fate of the red-haired gunner, who had triumphantly secured the mop and still did not realize what awaited him, was about to be decided. But Prince Andrew did not see how it ended. It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.

‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,” thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrew “not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God! . . .'”

I’m now about a third of the way through Anna Karenina, and looking forward to seeing where things go from here.

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