Thursday, October 23, 2014

Anna Karenina, a New Translation by Rosamund Bartlett

When I saw that Oxford University Press had a new translation of "Anna Karenina" available on NetGalley I decided it was time to revisit the novel. Rosamund Bartlett is a Tolstoy scholar and her translation was remarkably readable.

The novel explores marriage through the stories of several couples.

The title character, Anna, is a remarkable woman with great inner and outer beauty who wins everyone's love and esteem. But she has never loved her husband, a workaholic man twenty years her elder. When the debonair Count Vronsky falls in love with Anna and pursues her she resists for a year then gives herself to him. Eventually Anna leaves her husband. Even when her husband forgives Anna he won't divorce her, believing that divorce would leave her unprotected should Vronsky abandon her. Unable to wed, Anna and Vronsky cannot appear in society as a couple, leaving and Anna feels isolated and alone. Plus, Anna has been separated from her son. She becomes emotionally frail and dependent on morphine, her insecurity and neediness pushing Vronsky away.

Levin loves Kitty who rejects his proposal because she thought she was being wooed by the more exciting Vronsky-- until Anna came along. Levin returns to his farm and struggles with the meaning of life before he and Kitty are reunited and married. Marriage is a struggle, full of clashes and misunderstandings, and yet the marriage survives and Levin finds a kind of faith and happiness.

The fading Dolly is married to the philandering Oblonsky, Anna's brother. She struggles to provide for her children while her husband spends money he does not have, enjoys society, and enjoys his women.

Anna should have been happy having the man she loved, a man who loved her. She frets constantly: should she ask for a divorce; she feels the loss of her son; she chafes at the isolation of her position. She reads and educates herself and takes on a ward and enjoys being her teacher. She and Vronsky have a daughter together. Vronsky badly wants to marry Anna and give his name to their children. Anna decided not to have more children, fearing it will ruin her figure and compromise her sexual attractiveness to Vronsky. Jealously and doubt are fed when Vronsky needs a life beyond a happy home and he enters into local politics.

Everyone knows how the story ends. We first see Anna when she arrives by train to help her sister and brother-in-law's marital troubles. A man is killed when he falls in front of her train--a very obvious foreshadowing.

What stuck with me this reading was Anna's use of drugs to sleep, and the question of how much her addiction affected her. Was her anxiety, depression and eventual suicide a result of cocaine use? Tolstoy does not address this issue. Drug addiction to morphine was not uncommon in the 19th c. My brother and I read From The Narrow Passage by David T. Gochenour, a distant relative. His wife was a secret addict when they married, and her unreliable behavior sent him to practice medicine on a ship for many years, traveling to Alaska and the Philippines.

It is hard to understand why an intelligent woman, living with the man she loves, and with no concerns of health or money, would fall prey to her imagination. From today's perspective, the use of drugs helps to explain her vulnerability. But it was not an issue dwelt on by Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina has long chapters that reveal Levin's position as a landowner, employer and farmer, which were hardly engaging to read. I just could not get into agricultural reform and labor problems after the freeing of the serfs. Sorry, Levin. I appreciate that Tolstoy included Levin's interests as part of his quest for meaning and faith. Attitudes of the characters on these issues reveal their values and personality. And it was in this work that Levin finds solace and meaning.

I was surprised to come across the stream-of-consciousness passages when Anna was at the train yard looking for Vronsky, and where she ultimately opted for suicide. This was a new device in literature. I felt the method very well illustrated Anna's internal conflict, her inability to focus and control her feelings or reason.

Broiderie Anglaise from
Kitty nurses Levin's dying brother, bringing her Brodiere Anglaise needlework with her. It was not a term I was familiar with. "English embroidery" was a whitework embroidery involving punched holes in the fabric finished with satin stitch. We are quite familiar with the mass produced versions--eyelet cutwork lace.

Articles on this translation say it is closer to Tolstoy's original, revealing his style and word choice better than previous translations. I did notice times where a word was used three times in two sentences, and it bothered me. I was interested to learn that it was Tolstoy's choice.

I am glad I read Anna Karenina again. I am not sure I will read it again in my lifetime. This was a good translation for my rereading.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Rosamund Bartlett
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199232086
Publication date November 15, 2014

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