I studied math, not literature in my youth. All I knew about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was that if you were ever going to be a writer you had to read it immediately. Ten years ago, I embarked on the journey with the thousand pound book.
Now the movie is out staring Keira Knightly and Jude Law, and while I don’t often see screen adaptations of books that mean a lot to me, like this one, I also make it a point not to miss two hours with Jude Law. But when I went online to buy my movie ticket, guilt stopped me, shame, for to be truthful, I never finished the book all those years ago. At page 732, fifty-five pages to go, I put the book down on my bedside table, and never picked it back up. It sat there for almost a year until someone, either the cleaning lady or me, moved it to a bookshelf.
Now, about to click “buy” on Fandango, I lament to myself about how I could possibly watch some writer, even if he’s the fabulous Tom Stoppard, send Anna to her death without reading the words first from The Man himself. It felt like cheating, like sacrilege.
I went hunting for the book. Three inches thick, it shouldn’t have been that hard to find, and it wasn’t. In fact it was directly above my computer screen, staring down at me condescendingly. Ah, there you are. Come meet me back in the depths of hell.
The back flap was tucked into the page I had left off at: 732. I started reading, surprised to find myself immediately re-immersed, as if no time had lapsed at all, especially with all the long and complicated names that I was afraid I wouldn’t remember. But who could forget Anna’s gentile, sublimely understanding husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, and her befuddled indebted brother, Stepan Arkadyich, he who, on page 732 is making yet one last attempt to get Alexei to grant Anna a divorce so that she can marry Count Vronsky and bring some shred of dignity back to her ruined life. It all came tearing back.
It does not look good, Vronsky tells Anna (about the divorce), though all hope is not lost. They proceed to quarrel incoherently, for pages and pages, and it is only this moment that I understand why I put the book down all those years ago. I had told myself that it was because I didn’t want the book to end. After 732 pages, it had become a living breathing part of me, and as it goes with these kinds of novels I often, embarrassingly, leave the last few pages unread. I let it sit there on my bedside table where, at my leisure, I can reach out and touch it and know that I am not alone, that there is still more to go. But now I see the truer reason I put down the book: by page 732, Anna has lost her freaking mind. Cataclysmically, love has driven her insane, and herein begins the spiral down Tolstoy’s pages, herein begins one woman’s descent into hell.
Why? Because she’s jealous, that’s why. It’s a story we’ve all taken part in. And we know how it ends.
Anna sold her soul to the devil—that dreaded passion—and now that devil (Tolstoy) has begun tormenting her with senseless, jealous thoughts. He hates me? He hates me not? Who hasn’t picked the petals off a flower and wondered? It’s over! I’m leaving and never coming back! Who hasn’t screamed this into the face of their lover or husband or boyfriend at least once (if not a hundred times), if only in their mind?
You see why I had to put the book down all those years ago?
Now though, forcing myself to read onward, through the twisted and tormented inner voices that lead Anna down onto those train tracks, it seemed to me that her suicide was almost anticlimactic. She’d already died, long ago, in my mind. And senselessly, because Vronsky did love her, of course he loved her. This, I will always believe.
But wait, she’s dead, and there are still 48 pages to go, one final battle of the minds to endure. Tolstoy, in the soul of Levin—philosopher, intellect, searcher—has reached a state of despair because he cannot go on without understanding for what purpose is his life. Can he, the biggest nonbeliever of all, find belief? I read on, I listen and agonize and empathize. What is the point of this life? Should he not die too? I slam the book shut. Tolstoy wouldn’t end it like this, would he, a double suicide?
Five pages to go, I still don’t know. And I think I’m going to keep it that way, life’s unending saga lying next to me on a bedside table. Unfinished.