February Reading Challenge: Anna Karenina
My desire to get through this Leo Tolstoy creation is red hot; unfortunately my success with doing so is as non-existent as a flame in an outdoor fireplace buried under four feet of snow. I have tried reading this novel over and over and over again, and while I did get further this month than I have during previous attempts, I still could not get through the seven hundred and fifty four pages of this particular edition. Why oh why can I not get through it?
Before talking about why my need to read this novel is so intense, I need to tell you that this Reading Challenge conclusion is not [primarily] about the contents of Anna Karenina, in case you haven’t already figured that out. Although February was a short month, albeit a day longer than in most years, I’m not going to extend this challenge for the following reasons:
- I’m not about to bullshit you with the “I really will finish it in the next two to three days” bit.
- I am feeling quite under the weather, and can’t bring myself to keep my eyes open and myself awake to read this, when I just want/need sleep and to feel better.
So let’s talk about language. Language is a large part of Anna Karenina, and not just because the edition I have been attempting to read is a translation from Russian to English. French is spoken by the characters of the novel, and many times is used to either create more well-rounded children¹ or make a lecture or statement seem less harsh or formal². This just fascinates me: that sometimes certain languages can lessen the blow of an insult, or heighten a conversation through the use of specific terms.
Lately and more frequently, I have been reading blog posts, news articles, short fiction pieces and the like that discuss language. Most recently, in the February 22nd edition of The New Yorker, the fiction piece entitled “Sine Cosine Tangent” reminded me of such a simple, commonly underestimated fact about language that has also presented itself in Anna Karenina: words and how they are used have such strong implications, effects, consequences.
Take for example, a sentence from this short story: “I watched standing up.” Okay, so our narrator tells us a simple fact about how he watched, in this case, a spot on television on which his estranged father appeared. The fact that this is an ending sentence, and not an introductory sentence, makes it abrupt; significant. What would it mean if the narrator was sitting down? Perhaps he watched standing up because when his father left, our narrator was sitting at a desk. Perhaps sitting while watching means getting comfortable; paying attention. Standing up implies impatience, perhaps frustration, disbelief.
Besides the breaking down of words that the narrator does in this story – more language fun! – he also admits to wanting to read “lengthy and intense European novel[s], written in the nineteen-thirties, and translated from the German…”While Anna Karenina was translated from Russian in the 1870s, this “wanting” is similar to what I feel towards not just this classic but other classic European novels.
My infatuation with classic literature comes from my infatuation with the unknown, the unfamiliar, and language. I feel as if I was not born just in the wrong decade, but in the wrong century; I’m in love with the fairy-tale like parties and balls, English manors and flighty adventures. Perhaps my nostalgic personality is the big driver of my love for the classics; I want to forever preserve the past. Not that I don’t like the present; my surprise at loving The Goldfinch has inspired me to reach beyond the modern novels I was introduced to, and likely turned me off from contemporary fiction, in college, and try to enjoy something from at least this
century decade. Although I am also infatuated by the language of historical and classic novels, I’m beginning to sense shifts in contemporary language, and how explicit our discussions and words have become.
So while I don’t see myself no longer reading classic novels, I feel my need to read contemporary novels increasing. Which is also important to me for the sake of my blog; I’m hoping that by talking more about what is happening now in literature, I’ll be presenting a better platform for anyone looking to discuss books and writing and language.
What literary infatuations do you have? Are you in a similar bookish boat that I am? I hope my Reading Challenge failure this month will not stop you from following me into my next Challenge, or from sharing with me your challenges, failures, and successes. See you soon!
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)
What puzzles me is just why people forcefully persist in reading what they don’t like.
Perhaps it is carried over from school when we were all forced to do what we did not want to do.
Perhaps it is a challenge like eating.something totally vile and proudly digesting it.
Dare I suggest it is peer pressure whispering this is top notch first class stuff and anyone who does not like it needs to take a good look at their tastes.
You bring up an excellent point. With so much out there to read, it seems more simple to fall into those canon texts to get “the best” out of reading, although getting the best out of reading involves exploring genres, following what you personally like and not worrying about what experts tell you what is and isn’t worthy.
I rarely felt negativity towards the act of reading something – being “forced” to read something – I didn’t like in school; I think turning that dislike into fuel for discovering why a certain book was put on such a high pedestal (thus pinpointing why you don’t agree) puts the reader at an advantage for the development of their own tastes. Although that extra exploration is hard when it’s challenged by book-shaming and novel renouncing.
Its one of the snags with education it gets us into culture and then we tend to run with the experts.
The refreshing thing about children is they are not cultured but we spend a lot of time making them so, and then regretting the loss of innocence. My old dad, God rest his soul , believed you could tell a man’s class by the newspaper he read.
I’m 74 and in those days we were far more class conscious.