Thursday, December 6, 2012

Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy
translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Marissa Volokhonsky

It seems fitting that a new film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s stunningly beautiful novel, Anna Karenina, debuted at the same time that retired General David Petraeus crashed his high horse and fell from grace.  Both stories involve military officers and notable married women who fare less well in the court of public opinion than their paramours.  The essential difference between these two stories is that the former is one of the great works of fiction while the latter is fodder for the tabloids, with elements of Greek tragedy thrown in to prove that humanity hasn’t changed much across the millennia of our documented existence. 

Anna Karenina, one of two main characters in Tolstoy’s novel, is a high-born aristocrat, married to an older man with whom she shares little other than their son.  In the opening scene two things happen:  she witnesses a man fall in front of a train and she meets the man who will become her lover.  At her brother’s home later that day, Anna’s sister-in-law is aggrieved over Stiva’s affair with their children’s governess.  Anna begs Dolly to forgive Stiva and stay with him because that is the best choice for herself, her children, and her husband.  Women in that place and time – pre-Soviet Russia – depended on marriage for their survival both economically and socially. 

Anna’s marriage to Alexei Karenin, an important and painfully uninteresting government official, is slowly killing her soul, but she accepts her lot in life until she becomes involved with the young and dynamic Alexei Vronsky.  Count Vronsky, a military officer and man about town, is under pressure from his mother to marry a woman of high birth.  When he meets the beautiful and quietly passionate Anna he falls for her and loses all interest in other women.  Anna tries to ignore the passion that Vronsky stirs in her to no avail, and soon the two are the talk of the town.  Anna’s husband warns her to stay away from Vronsky, not so much because he is jealous but because of what the talk is doing to their/his reputation.  She abandons the marriage without regard to the consequences so that she and Vronsky can be together, sending shock waves throughout society.  Karenin offers to divorce her but this is not an option because she would lose her son whom she loves dearly;  and so the three live in an increasingly uncomfortable limbo. 

Tolstoy paints a photorealistic picture of the double standard applied to women:  while Stiva suffers no serious consequences for his infidelities, Anna’s choice sends her into social exile.  No longer welcome at soirees and shunned in public, Anna’s mental health begins to deteriorate.  Her total dependence on Vronsky devolves into possessiveness and jealousy which eventually drive him away.   His passion spent, Vronsky heeds his mother’s advice that he needs a “proper” wife in order to advance his career.  He abandons Anna, leaving her bereft and at the mercy of her husband, who has a surprisingly forgiving aspect to his character.  Unable to resolve her internal conflicts and tormented by guilt, Anna makes a devastating choice which echoes the opening scene.

This story line is but one of many in Tolstoy’s book, each of which is rich in descriptions of life in Czarist Russia.  Konstantin Levin,  the other protagonist, is a philosophical character who leaves his government job to return to his rural roots.  He personifies Russia on the cusp of industrialization and sweeping social change, fascinated by the possibilities of mechanized farming and free serfs while afraid of losing generations of tradition and economic stability.  Like Anna, Levin lives outside of social convention, but unlike her he is free to do so.  His story of love and marriage is a contrast to Anna’s and heightens the unfolding tragedy of hers. 

Tolstoy was not a proponent of equal rights for women, but he was sympathetic to the inequities they faced.  Previous translations of Anna Karenina into English have failed to capture the nuances of Tolstoy’s writing and as a result have left many readers to conclude that he was misogynistic.  Richard Pevear and Marissa Volokhonsky succeed in keeping Tolstoy’s words alive across the two languages where the old school standards have left many student readers cold.  These two scholars respect Tolstoy’s original text and attempt to capture both the letter and the spirit of his words.  Thus their translation goes beyond literal and into psychological, cultural, and personal understanding of what Anna Karenina was about.  According to a New Yorker article by David Remnick (“Translation Wars”, November 7, 2005), Volokhonsky – a native Russian speaker – takes the first pass through the text, making notes on the author’s choice of words and idioms as well as analyzing the author’s intent, based on how he used the language, as she goes along.  Then her husband, Pevear, translates her translation into a first English draft.  After that, the two go through as many iterations as necessary until they are both happy with the result.  It takes them years but their technique has yielded numerous prizes and awards for breathing new life into classic works of Russian literature by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Translation of even the simplest piece of writing from one language to another is nicely described in Vladimir Nabokov’s poem on the subject, lifted from that same New Yorker article:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O Pushkin, for my stratagem.
I travelled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza, patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose—
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Anna Karenina, so beautifully translated and so true to Leo Tolstoy’s original words, takes the reader deep inside Russian high society.  I hope that before you run out to see Keira Knightley attempt to capture the essence of one of literature’s most beloved tragic heroines, you do yourself a favor and buy or borrow the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, published in 2000 by the Penguin Press.  Anna Karenina is an intricately woven tapestry of Russian society and history in the period leading up to the Russian Revolution.  It reveals the living and working conditions of serfs and their growing discontent and it exposes the decadence of the aristocracy which will soon fall to the Soviets.  Finally, and most important, Anna Karenina – the book – explains the plight of women in a way that is timeless and universal, and relevant to the Petraeus scandal.

David Petraeus’ lover, Paula Broadwell, is highly intelligent, a graduate of West Point and Harvard, a competitive athlete, and is described by those who know her as an over-achiever.  In other words, she is no bimbo.   And yet, the media have slapped the label “mistress” on her as if she does nothing but sit around in her negligee waiting for her general to rescue her from boredom.   It would be nice if the media either neutralized the female label or used something similarly pejorative such as “gigolo” or “Narcissus” or “playboy” when describing Petraeus.  Moreover, the assumption is that she seduced him and not the other way around, and therefore she is responsible for the shame he brought to his wife and family, the CIA staff he directed, the Army he represented, the nation he served, the president he failed, the soldiers he commanded, and the citizens whose lives he was supposed to be protecting.  The only people she hurt were her husband and children.   Petraeus will likely rehabilitate his image by becoming a news commentator for one of the cable news channels.  Broadwell’s future is less certain. We can only hope, for the sake of her family that she does not do as Anna Karenina did. 

The Petraeus/Broadwell episode highlights a subtle misogyny which continues to pervade our culture.  While much has changed for women in the 135 years since Tolstoy published Anna Karenina, women are still thought of as the temptresses who lead men to ruin.  It might be worth considering the possibility that after Eve picked the apple, Adam took it by force and then blamed Eve because she was naked.  The Bible has been translated so many times and in so many ways, there is no way to know for sure.   In the interest of humanity, we would all do well to question our assumptions and choose our words carefully, especially when labeling others.

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

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