1.19.2008

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Part IV

In part IV of Anna Karenina, the main theme appears to be love. On the one hand, Anna's marriage to Karenin is basically over. Vronsky, too, feels that his passion with Anna is cooling. But, we also get to see Levin and Kitty finally get back together, and get engaged as soon as they realize that they love each other.

As I read this part, I realized how suspicious I am of love at first sight, especially grand passions like Levin and Kitty and Anna and Vronsky developed. Having never experienced it myself, I always suspect that what's really happening is that the two people are falling in lust. I always ask, how can they know that the object of their affections will make them happy? What about when they learn about their love's pet peeves, annoying habits, opinions and political views, etc., etc.? I always get curious about what the couple is like a few years down the road. I think the only love story I've never really questioned was Jane Eyre's, because it didn't just happen. The love between Jane and Rochester grew over time.

In Anna Karenina, I get to see what happens to two couples who experience love at first sight. First, Anna and Vronsky. I've only heard Vronsky's side, but before Anna gave birth to their child, he mentions a couple of times that he doesn't feel as strongly for Anna as he used to. I suspect that the societal problems he has--lack of advancement, being cut off by his mother, general scorn--were crushing the feelings he had. It was too hard, I think, for him to keep loving Anna with the same intensity.  Also, I suspect that Vronsky's idea of Anna is not living up to the reality and that she is not always the same person that charmed him at the ball in part I.

Second, Kitty and Levin. After being rejected by Kitty, Levin went back to his country estate, but he could never forget Kitty. Kitty went abroad, but she couldn't forget how she'd treated Levin and realized that she loved him. At the beginning of part V, they get married. But Levin, I think, is still idealizing Kitty. And I think he has an even higher ideal of her than Vronsky did for Anna. Kitty is a very lovely girl, but no one is perfect.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Part IIIb

One last thing from part III, and then I'll move on. One of the entertaining things about reading this book is that I know, roughly, what will happen in Russia forty years or so after this book was published. So when ever a character makes a comment about Communism or the Germans or something, I get a little thrill, because I know how prescient or not that comment is. For example, in the last chapter, Levin's brother Nikolai makes this comment after Konstantin says he's "never been a communist" (p. 350*) Nikolai says, "But I have been, and I find that it's premature but reasonable, and that it has a future, like Christianity in the first centuries" (p. 350).

What I like about this comment is that Nikolai sees that Russia isn't ready for the massive changes and upheaval that creating a socialist/communist society would mean. Further, Nikolai likens communism to Christianity. If you think about it, sometimes people talk about political systems like they are religions, and some people believe in them as though they really were religions.

* I'm reading the trade paperback edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

1.14.2008

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Part III

I meant to write this earlier, since I'm already well into Part IV. Oh well.

So, last time, I was writing about the lack of politics in the book so far. Nevermind. Part III is packed with discussions on politics and political philosophy. We continue to follow Konstantin Levin, as he tries to get his workforce to adopt "modern" farming techniques, and keeps beating his head against the remnants of serfdom. There are also frequent dialogs between the characters about the differences between western European societies and Russian society, mostly about the best ways to reform Russian society.

While European society had moved on from having a percentage of its workforce legally tied to the land during the 1400s and 1500s, Russia emancipated its serfs in 1861. (See also serfdom.) Anna Karenina was written in the late 1860s, and I daresay that Levin's problems with his ex-serfs is representative of some massive problems experienced by landowners of the time. I'll begin with my usual preface and say that I am not a scholar of Russian, economic, or agricultural history. In Anna Karenina, Levin's workforce only seems to work to Levin's ideals when he constantly supervises them, i.e. when they're cornered like rats in a trap. They resist adopting metal ploughs (they'd been using wooden ploughs). They resist using modern farming equipment like sowers and reapers. They resist Levin's suggestions for crop rotation. &c. &c. Levin spends a lot of his free time wondering about why the muzhiks and laborers are resisting so much. His steward suggests that they do this because, under serfdom, they were cornered like rats in a trap and had to work or face stiff penalties. I'm wondering if it's because they're testing the limits of their new freedom, to see what they can get away with before the local lord loses it and punishes their behavior. It could also be that, because farming is so central to survival that they don't want to move away from what they know works. After all, if you experiment too much and lose too much of your harvest, it could mean lean times, debt, and/or starvation. Related to this, it could also be because of the way that Levin is explaining the benefits. There's no physical evidence yet, that the new systems and tools will work better than the tried and true methods. Plus, he doesn't know how to speak to them in their own language. At any rate, it seems that Levin often comes to the conclusion that it's just easier to let them have their way, instead of spending so much frustrating time and effort on trying to get the laborers and muzhiks to change.

Later in Part III and into Part IV, Levin and Alexei Karenin, among others, talk about the best ways to reform Russia and actually make it work. Part III is littered with mentions of well-intentioned reforms and committees becoming corrupt, wasteful, and potentially dangerous or having their purpose misinterpreted and misused for political gain. If he'd known the phrase "pork barrel", I think Tolstoy would have used it a lot in this section. There's a lot of talk about how western European societies (like France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) developed, and there's talk about why that sort of thing can or can't happen in Russia. It's a question I've seen crop up in other novels about Russia, and in non-fiction works, too. And the question has cropped up in Russia's history since Tolstoy's novel. After all, socialism was developed by western Europeans (and I'm thinking of the French communards but they weren't the only ones creating political communes) and German writers (Marx and Engels), and probably wasn't meant for a country at Russia's stage of development, i.e. one that hadn't developed much of a middle class or an industrial system. And there's the troubles Russia had when communism collapsed and a democratic republic was founded. It's interesting to see this question in something that was published decades before 1917.

Oops, I didn't mean to natter on, but Russia fascinates me.

Those of you who are following my twitter feed will know that I am approaching the mid-way point. At lunch, I was on page 400, with 417 left to go.

1.05.2008

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Part II

Last night, I finished part two of Anna Karenina. To sum up: Anna and Vronsky have fallen in love. Kitty is recuperating from her disappointment with Vronsky, and her erstwhile suitor Levin is still on his country estate trying to forget her. Anna's husband is growing increasingly suspicious of his wife's attentions and attitudes towards Vronsky.

Two things are interesting me at this point. The first is the lack of the middle class. The second is, as it usually is in a nineteenth century novel, the power of reputation. So, first, the class thing. Most of the books I've read from the nineteenth century were written by Brits and Americans and I can't recall a book that wasn't about members of the middle class. Even A Tale of Two Cities had middle-class characters. It's weird that you don't notice the class thing until you read a book where almost all the characters are nobility, servants, or serfs. I know that this book is meant to be about relationships, love, disappointment, etc., but having just read Fitzpatrick's War, I can't help but think about what I know about Russian history. If I remember right, Russia at the end of the nineteenth century was starting to head towards the 1917 revolution, and the early Bolsheviks, etc., were starting to grow. A couple of the characters, Levin and Stiva, talk about current politics, but they only briefly mention the recent attempt at a parliament. Though they've appeared in the narrative, we don't get to hear the voice of the lower classes because it isn't that sort of a book. It's kind of weird to read something about Russia by a Russian that isn't about politics and economics.

So, on to the second thing: reputation. As it becomes more obvious that something is going on between Anna and Vronsky, Anna's husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, feels the need to have a serious talk with his wife. He claims that he's not motivated by jealousy, and it seems like he's really more worried about what other people in their social circle are going to think. Tolstoy also lets us eavesdrop on some of their acquaintances and we learn that people are already starting to gossip about Anna and Vronsky. Alexei Karenin feels the need to remind Anna of how she appears to others, and of the front she needs to present in order to maintain their reputation. It's remarkable how Anna's behavior towards Vronsky--lingering glances, avoiding old friends and spending time with new people, etc.--has affected her standing in her social circle and set tongues to wagging.

On a more humorous note, there's an episode with Kitty Shcherbatsky. Kitty goes off to a spa in Germany after Vronsky dumps her. While there, she meets a very pious woman, Mme Stahl, who strikes her as a very religious woman who is seriously ill. Mme Stahl and her adopted daughter Varenka teach Kitty about how to become more serene. But when Kitty's father arrives, he completely destroys Kitty's image of Mme Stahl by making a joke that Mme Stahl in in a wheelchair simply because she has short legs and a bad figure. After that, whether it's true or not, Kitty can't get her father's remarks out of her head and wonders if they're true.

Fitzpatrick's War, by Theodore Judson

Fitzpatrick's War
Fitzpatrick's War
This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I picked it up originally because I was going through a steampunk/alternate history phase and Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War fit the bill on both counts. Well, when I decided earlier this week to read some other books to let the other people in the Anna Karenina reading group catch up, this was the fourth book I read.

I had tried to read the book once before, but I was a little put off by the introduction to the text. Hang on, let me back up. Fitzpatrick's War is the fictional autobiography of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a military man in the eponymous Fitzpatrick's government. In Bruce's fictional world, his autobiography was unpublished until 100-odd years after his death. Because of the historical circumstances, the book was introduced and annotated by a later scholar. Again, because of the history, this later scholar doubts substantial portions of Bruce's story and feels the need to make comments in footnotes throughout the text saying things like, "Here Bruce is mistaken" or later in the story, "From here until the end of the narrative, Bruce gives up all semblance of credibility" or something like that.

There is a really excellent plot summary (with maps) of this book, in this Wikipedia article so I won't talk too much about the plot. What interests me is that this is one of the few works of fantasy or science fiction that I've read that really tackles the idea of historiography and revisionist history. In the world of this novel, all the Yukon characters are serious students of history. Presumably they're following the idea that those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it and their culture had just survived about 150 years of apocalyptic social collapse and war. The problem, though, is that these characters don't have the whole story of their history. The idea that history is written by the victors appears over and over again in this novel.

Given that I was (an still am) a student in a time when historical revisionism and postmodernism are the dominant modes of academic thought, this was a fascinating read for me.  We are taught to seek out primary sources, to get the accounts of people close to historical events, in order to get closer to the truth of what happened or is happening. But we're also taught to take everything with a grain of salt because people are biased and are limited by their perceptions of things. You have to always wonder how much of the big picture that witness had, or what they might want to cover up in order to make themselves look better. Essentially, we're told to be aware of the flaws in the historical record, and to seek out additional evidence. Historical revisionism, at its root, asks us to examine what we've been told about history and to not take everything for granted.

In the world of Fitzpatrick's War, revisionist history does not exist. The historical record is as fixed as you can make it. Yukon students are taught to memorize passages and facts from standard works of history and are taught not to question. As you read this book, you get the story of the rise and fall of Fitzpatrick, who managed to conquer the world, first hand from Bruce, who was a friend and confidante. But the text is pepper with comments from the latter day scholar, who's been taught all his life about how wonderful Fitzpatrick was and who refuses to think that there might be a darker side to his hero. This scholar tries hard to explain away all the ethical dilemmas and moral issues that Bruce has with the way the Fitzpatrick conquered the world. Like I said, it's fascinating and thought-provoking read. I really hope that Judson revisits this world in the future.

1.01.2008

Scar Night, by Alan Campbell

Scar Night
Scar Night
Yes, I'm still reading Anna Karenina, but I'm so far ahead of my other book groupers that I thought I'd read a couple of other books while they caught up. The first book that I read was Alan Campbell's Scar Night, mostly because it was very well reviewed on some of the other book blogs that I read.

I get the feeling that Scar Night started with the author having a really interesting couple of ideas, and that the plot just started to form around those ideas. Interesting idea number 1 is to create a city that's suspended over a very deep gorge by chains, cables and ropes: Deepgate. All through the book, I kept wondering about the engineering of this and wondering how it would be possible for a city to grow like that. There are descriptive sections throughout the book, where characters talk about chains running around buildings, and nets underneath bridges, and streets that have twisted and slumped. The second interesting idea is the religion practiced by the people of Deepgate. In their cosmology, heaven is closed and they worship a fallen angel that started a war against god because they believe it's their only alternative to an afterlife in an especially gruesome hell. Their religion has shades of Milton's Paradise Lost and Aztec human sacrifice. It's stuff like this that kept me reading it most of Sunday and finishing that day.

Scar Night's plot follows two angels, descended from that fallen angel. There's Dill, a young, sheltered boy who was born well after the angels' glory years. And there's Carnival, who is a lot like a winged vampire, has a severely damaged memory, and is probably batshit crazy. As you read this book, you learn with the characters just how much is wrong with the belief system, and how much the characters have been lied to by their religion's founders. Without giving away too much, vampirism and zombie-ism come into play about halfway or so through the book.

Scar Night is a very dark book. If you have an aversion to violence, you might want to stay away from this one. There are a lot of characters who, because of the way they believe, don't think that death is such a big deal. They share that very medieval idea that this life is just a preparation period for the afterlife.

I am really looking forward to the sequel.