Anna Karenina, Singapore, Country living and dreams

January 15, 2014

How does one go about the business of eating a elephant? Cut it up into little pieces and take your time about it – that’s why I don’t believe one can possibly just read Tolstoy’s paramour Anna Karenina.

Some books require the reader to live to experience the breadth and depth of the narrative – perhaps one way of gaining a degree of intimacy with the characters is by superimposing one own’s life to the many of the twist and turns of the heady plot.

Anna Karenina is set during an explosive period in Russian history. A fin de siècle period where Tsarist Russia was experiencing not only an unprecedented cocktail of political, economic, social and technological change – but it was also a period when the divisions between the have’s and the have’s were starkest – wonder no more why two decades after Anna Karenina was published, the red star was raised in the Kremlin – as the story unfolds one is led into a world of class divides characterised not only have huge disparities between the rich and the poor, but there are even constant reminders how the rich have absolutely nothing whatsoever in common with the have not’s – the corseted class politics of how the upper crust worked, lived and played and preferred to converse only in French along with morbid disdain for all things Slavic bears startling similarities with modern day Singapore. Their grotesque fixation with class politics along with the many social rituals that pockmarked the period which even the most forgiving would find it difficult to label as the height of hypocrisy – these are reoccurring leitmotivs in the equivalent of what I consider to the prototypal reality TV of it’s day.

I realise the main montage of the plot is supposed to feature the tragic love story of Anna Karenina and the dashing Voronsky – but I for some inexplicable reason, I have always found them shambolic, kitsch and cliche.

I much prefer Constatin Levin. For one, I can identify very much with what I can only describe as his and my own personal philosophical struggle: City Life versus Country Life. Tolstoy I imagine had to be a sort of closet farmer as so much of the book is devoted to farming.

I am not just talking about farming in a poetic sense. But as any frequent reader of Anna Karenina would testify, there are actually great disquisitions and not just vignettes about farming that not only dwell into the nitty gritty specifics of farm management 101, but they might probably even be instructive and directional as a Farmer’s almanac – and this prompted me (I think it must have been my seventh reading) Why devote so much space to such an obviously parochial, insular and mundane subject? What for instance does collectivism or tabula data relating to pine trees have to do with a bloody love story?

I think that the answer to this question can be found in one of the book’s key themes: How can one make life better? For example, when Levin is in the city, he feels out of place and is constantly provoked by its inauthenticity, pretentiousness and vapidness. The city brings out the worst in Levin – this is where he’s constantly struggling with awkwardsness – bickers no end with Kitty. The city even hurts his brain, this is where Levin wonders no end why upper crust Russians tutor their kids to speak French instead of Russian, which he considers a travesty of reason.

For Tolstoy and probably the likes of me, country living represents authenticity – there are numerous references to not only a reverence of authenticity of relationships – but many of the themes even veer to the metaphysical and spiritual – what we today would term ‘new age’ philosophy even – such as the intensely edifying feeling of cutting grass with a scythe with the peasants (something which I can identify with). There’s also the reoccurring theme of the aristocratic compact between the landowner and ‘his’ peasants – which may not be politically correct for one to speak at length these days about. But is still very much a dominant feature of plantation life.

Country living in Tolstoy’s definition is best summed up in the following: “what we need is not what intellectuals usually have to say,” Instead, we need practical wisdom that can be applied to the everyday and turned into good habits. The character of Levin exemplifies this – though he’s an aristocrat, he lives a Spartan life, one that his mother-in-law constantly harps about – he doesn’t harbour socialist views about how society should be ordered, but he subscribes to the idea of dignity of labour – ‘Everyman should be paid a fair wage…no more…no

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Levin’s characterisation in the novel is how he’s constantly justifying what many in Tsarist high society consider his eccentric life, where he is content to dress like a farmer, nat on haystacks and tuck into good wholesome peasant food – the idea, if it can be congealed may take the shape and form, “most people’s ideas do not come from actually reflecting on their particular experiences but from learning a set of views held by people with whom they identify or wish to associate.” This is true in the book and probably a timeless observation of all stratified socieites -many of the Petersburg’s high society live by widely accepted rules of propriety, and rarely question their way of life. Levin is total opposite, constantly evaluating his life choices and how they will makes his life fulfilling.

One redeeming feature of the book that probably no one except me considers a high point is when Kitty (after considerable persuasion from a Levin who undertakes to be a better man and husband) manages to persuade her to move the country – at first she loathes the idea, but eventually she too comes to see the world through Levin’s eyes and in this uneventful way that constrast markly from the torrid affair of the main protagonist – the couple achieve every lasting happiness in the simplicity of country life.

This is the best part of the book for me. I know it may not resonate with others who may prefer the passionate twist and turns of Anna and her man child lover, but for me the tale of Levin and Kitty hold out much more – one which choose not to elaborate. As in life, I wish to take certain thoughts, dreams and aspirations to my grave and never to tell a soul.

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“City living is an inversion of logic. Because what you have is a whole lot of people who just work, work and work to buy meaningless stuff that they either don’t need, can do with less or could find better value elsewhere – but that is not the worse aspect of city living. The real solvent of city living in my considered opinion is the rich are not truly comfortable with the idea of money yet – they walk around believing that what they can afford to own maketh a man. They even want to be seen in places where the rich regularly hang out. They think they are cultured, when they are down right insensitive, inconsiderate and lacking in finesse, as what they don’t realise is by just breathing and the mere act of living they are hurting so many others who may not be as privileged as them.

The problem is they try too hard.

But a truly rich man is one who understands money is merely an instrument. This man has absolutely nothing to prove – he doesn’t need anyone to validate his existence, that is confidence – such a man is truly dangerous, as his nett worth could be worth millions and yet he will eat with the poor and amble along confidently in his slippers – as money to this man is simply a means to an end, never a God. But a servant – as money in isolation is nihilism, it is a truly meaningless thing by itself.

How can his fortune maketh him? Money can only acquire an agency when it’s linked to the idea of community and purpose – it is this philosophy which is the corner stone of the planters life – so the man who is fortunate to come to wealth must always think deeply about life, that is my definition of a rich and cultured man – he is first and foremost a thinking being – someone who is just so comfortable with the idea of money – who from time to time may even allow a fisherman or a harvester to buy him a meal in the warung – not the empty headed parvenu’s that one frequently comes across in the city, these people are nothing…they as are hollow stuffed with straw…

I think if city people can just try harder to get this simple idea into their heads, then there would be less class divide and we can all get along better – this has always been my hope.”

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