I have a dozen things I am supposed to be focusing on this summer: writing the last two chapters of my book, fundraising for A.C.T.'s new mid-Market theater, planning all the details of next season and beginning to program the season beyond, to name a few. But for the past month, what have I snuck off to do whenever I have had a spare moment, like an addict looking for a fix? I am re-reading (for the third time) Anna Karenina.
This is not how I planned to spend my summer; as I noted, I have a laundry list of far more pressing things, plus a few pleasurable ones I've taken on like climbing a mountain in Desolation Wilderness and driving up the coast with my son Nick. But when Nick got home from Columbia in May and told me he was taking a Russian Literature seminar this fall, the reading list for which included Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I wandered off to Green Apple Books to buy him the new Volokhonsky/Pevear translation I had heard so much about.
Soon I was irrevocably hooked. I was leaving the dinner table early to descend into the madness of Anna and Vronsky's obsessive love affair, I was lying in bed far later than I should watching Levin agonize about Kitty and his unproductive farm in equal measure, I was carting that five-pound tome across the country and back as if my life depended on it. As my intuitive self was devouring the book, the rational part of my brain was asking why. What is it about Tolstoy's writing that was so mesmerizing at this particular moment in time, and why did it strike me so differently now than it did a decade ago when I last re-read the book?
Anna Karenina is, above all else, a novel of observation. In a culture without television or internet, in which people lived vast distances from each other and saw each other only rarely, the intensity of connection between individuals when they did meet was extraordinary. As life takes its emotional toll on character after character in the novel, Tolstoy lets us watch as they read each others' expressions and listen to the nuances of each others' voices to guess what has really been going on behind closed doors. The tiniest shift of the emotional dial registers enormously, as the characters observe each other fall in love, become disillusioned and endure humiliation and loss. The tone shifts from happiness to despair on a dime; we the reader must be supple enough and quick enough to catch every shifting feeling if we are to fully appreciate the ever-changing landscape of the novel.
As I read Anna Karenina in this gorgeous new translation, it occurred to me that the kind of acute emotional intelligence and awareness that Tolstoy takes for granted in the novel has been all but lost to us today. We are so quick to tweet our every move and to display our achievements and opinions on Facebook, that the tiny nuances of live interaction are relatively invisible to us. Perhaps one had to live in a culture in which time and space stretched indefinitely in all directions to have a behavior pattern that is so steeped not just in feeling, but in the articulation of and awareness of feeling.
Tolstoy's characters throb with sadness, joy, excitement, despair, boredom and desire, as they try to find a language for their internal experience and watch the barometer of their lives shift and change. Anna Karenina makes such riveting reading because the interior universe of the human soul is endlessly complex when it is plumbed and when it is perfectly described. The novel is long because it has to be -- it would be impossible to chart such acute emotional journeys in shorthand. But we live in a 140-character, high-speed, voracious culture in which we never stop long enough to pay attention to that interior landscape and have all but lost the language to describe it.
As Wittgenstein observed, what we don't have language to describe will one day cease to exist. Total immersion in the world of Tolstoy is a restorative in our linguistically-challenged universe of clichés and sound bites. Perhaps this is why a novel like Anna Karenina is so intoxicating. It is like a forbidden liquor in a dry county, and I can't get enough of it.