The Russian friends I encounter again
"Anna Karenina" is my favorite novel. I am now reading it for the third time in 20 years.
Reading an 851-page novel involves a major commitment. A full workday, followed by other activities, means that my time for pleasure reading rarely begins until after 10 p.m. I read in my apartment, stretched out on the living room couch; a dangerous posture for this time of day.
Some nights I fall into a deep slumber on the couch and do not awaken until midnight. Too late to read even Tolstoy!
My copy of "Anna Karenina" dates back to an earlier period in my life. Scotch tape holds the book together, the result of heavy use. The pencil markings and underlinings reflect passages I selected during prior readings. I enjoy coming upon these earlier bursts of enthusiasm and reaffirm them on each reading. They serve as familiar guideposts on a long literary journey.
A favorite passage of mine is these sympathetic words expressed to Vronsky. The scene is a railway station. (This novel is filled with fateful encounters at train stations!) Levin's brother, Sergey Ivanovich, embraces Vronsky on the train platform, saying, "God grant you success outwardly - and inwardly peace."
Chekhov writes of traveling alone by train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, his only company being "dear sweet Anna." Anna Karenina is with me in my living room, as is Tolstoy, for on the mantle above my fireplace is an etching of Tolstoy inscribed to my Russian grandfather.
In 1909, my grandfather stayed for several days at Tolstoy's country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, recording his voice for the Thomas Edison Company. Grandfather represented the company in Russia. He had conceived the highly original idea of making the gramophone known to Russians by recording the great writers, Tolstoy, Andreyev, and Bunin among them.
Mine was a third-generation visit to Yasnaya Polyana, my grandfather and mother having preceded me. A gentle rain, called "a mushroom rain" by Russians, fell as I approached the house. Inside, the dining room table was set. (Grandfather described the food as very plain.) In the same room, close by, was a small round table with a lamp. After dinner, guests and family members would gather at the table and Tolstoy would read from his most recent work. Portions of "Anna Karenina" may have been heard here for the first time. In the study I came upon the gramophone Grandfather had presented to Tolstoy.
WHEN I reach the end of "Anna Karenina," I will read aloud, as I always do, the final lines, for they are among my favorite passages in literature. Here, Levin reflects on his past and future life: "[B]ut my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless, as it was before, but it has an unquestionable meaning of the goodness which I have the power to put into it."
Finishing "Anna Karenina" brings a sense of triumph and loss. Triumph at the achievement of completion, like scaling a mountain peak, and the loss that comes from parting from human beings with whom one has established a sympathetic bond: Levin, Kitty, Anna, Stiva, Dolly, the old prince (Kitty's father).
Each time I return to the novel, I look forward to renewing these bonds.