Saturday, February 23, 2013

There are as many kinds of love as there are hearts

Drawing of Anna Karenina by the
lovely and talented Kathy Rose
It's definitely one of the most well known stories and classics of the last few centuries. Some people say that spoilers about the plot itself are fair game, as this is a classic. I say let he who has read all the classics throw the first spoiler stone. There will be information about the story here but definitely not the major spoiler(s).
Anna Karenina is the type of woman that you either love, hate or pity. I have not met anyone who has read the book and was not enchanted in some way by the heroine. Despite the fact that the book is named after her, she doesn't appear until the eighteenth chapter in the book. When there is so much build-up about a much talked about character, it's almost surreal how Tolstoy has built his path to her like a pedestal. We meet Anna like Vronsky meets Anna for the first time. Charming, sensual, fashionably ladylike woman in the middle of Russian winter, on a train, moving like a queen. Theirs is love at first sight, if such love exists at all. If nothing else it is definitely attraction at first sight. But those are times of decency and chivalry in interaction so theirs is nothing but polite introduction. What is shockingly intriguing is that you sense Anna is a tragic figure. She is kind, gentle and a well-mannered lady who travelled far just to convince her brother to stop cheating on his loving wife. Little does she know she will soon have to convince herself of the same thing.
"She felt her eyes open wider and wider,
her fingers and toes move nervously;
something inside her stopped her breath,
and all images and sounds in that
wavering semi-darkness impressed themselves
on her with extraordinary vividness."
Her husband is a cold, emotionless man named Alexey. The man she chooses over him has the same name which alludes to the dreamstate of how life could be simple had her husband only truly felt love and kindness toward her instead of just duty to take care of her and their son. As it takes two to have an affair it also takes two to make a crack in the marriage. Anna is well aware of that and through her trials becomes more and more bold. Her affair with this young man shatters the entire web of her life and turns her into a pariah. Knowing this she tries to fight it for as long as she can but ends up caving. "I have nothing but you now. Remember that," she says to him after their first tryst. If only she knew how prophetic that will turn out to be.
Accompanying Anna's tragic love story is a whole tangle of Russians, learning of love, freedom, honesty, liberty, loyalty, promise and propriety. Her friends and family, all alike in love, suffer and learn through their own trials of life and love. The tale is long, exquisite and detailed and it is far from possible to squeeze it into two or three hours. It is also impossible to do it justice in any other form but the written one. So no, an HBO mini series wouldn't do either. Tolstoy has a power to draw you into his character's lives. And just as I understood Anna's attraction to Count Vronsky (and disinterest in her own husband), I was not enchanted by Vronsky myself. Her love and devotion were obvious and the magic and sparks were palpable. But unlike modern romance novels heroes Vronsky didn't appear as a hunky young man, stealing a bored wife. He didn't have to steal anything, for Anna was never Karenin's in another way but by surname. She was married young and believed she would come to love her husband eventually. When that didn't happen, she turned her affections to her beloved little son. Until a storm entered her life and turned everything upside down.
Greta Garbo as Anna (1935)
Many of the people around Anna knew what was happening and didn't speak of it. Her husband included. It seems like despite his political power and reputation he had no strength to pull his wife from the arms of her lover or look himself in the eye. Tolstoy has the ability to describe people and their surroundings in such detail that despite the fact that it is very meticulous, it isn't redundant or unwelcome. Vronsky used to play with his moustache when he was nervous and Anna could feel love awakening inside her in every part of her body, in her eyes, her fingertips, her insides ...But the story of this society is of so much more than just Anna, her good and bad decisions and her eventual downfall. Why is it then entitled Anna Karenina? I feel that Anna was forgotten by everyone. Her family and her friends. Her lover had the freedom to go and carry on as if nothing had happened, his reputation wasn't tainted. But she was a married woman whose husband wouldn't grant her what she wanted and so she left everything to be with her lover. And so everyone stopped thinking about her, wasn't giving her any attention, love or even thought. So Tolstoy decided to remind us of her. To not let US forget that she is in those pages, breathing and suffering, craving love and connection like everyone among us but only ever getting disdain and dirty looks.
"And though she felt sure that his love for her was waning, there was nothing
she could do, she could not in any way alter her relations to him.
Just as before, only by love and by charm could she keep him.
And so, just as before, only by occupation in the day, by morphine at night,
could she stifle the fearful thought of what would be if he ceased to love her."
Out of sheer love and admiration of this book I vowed not to watch any movies. I only watched the Greta Garbo version and only that because... well of Greta. Only that movie is old and short and only about Anna. And of course it left me unsatisfied. I declined many other interpretations of Anna for various reasons but the stage-like version of 2012 drew me in because I knew I was in for a treat for the eyes with the costumes and the scenography. Just like when at the dance, Anna wears black and Kitty, the betrayed one (by Anna) wears black. Such nice, subtle points of a movie. Keira Knightley, despite not being the perfect choice, she is simply a good choice for period dramas. And she was good as Anna because I can't ever complain about her acting chops. Her Vronsky, on the other side, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, was positively pathetic. Beyond boyish and squirmy. No reason Anna should ever fall for him. She could do better and he could go do another role. Jude Law with his receding hairline, however, was quite convincing as the bitter Karenin. I liked the theater-like retelling of the story where everything was continuous and nothing and no one was ever free because at every corner you could bump into someone and therefore had to be careful of your actions. Just like society then was. 
In all fairness the movie is nothing truly special but it has a magical touch. Which was most likely given to it by Tolstoy himself and the whole truth that this story as many others should be read not watched. Again and again.


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