So I have managed to get through Anna Karenina for the first time (not that long actually after reading Madame Bovary for the first time). And realistically for the last time. There are certainly some very fine passages, but the novel as a whole didn't grip me enough to even contemplate reading it in its entirety a second time (it is simply too long). I generally found the philosophizing sections, mostly but not entirely found when Levin is center stage, to be boring. (I really don't think that many modern readers are going to be too interested in Levin and Kitty, and I'm fairly sure they get sidelined in the various movie adaptations.) I absolutely could have done without the last 25-30 pages when Levin comes back to some kind of faith in God. In contrast, I would at least contemplate rereading The Brothers Karamazov again, which also has very long and sometimes tedious philosophical passages. Certainly Dostoevsky comes from a darker place than Tolstoy, but I can't recall if he ends in the same place (acceptance of God's existence and reliance upon His mercy) in this novel or if it is a more ambiguous resolution with different brothers finding their separate ways (and some remaining in the "dark," i.e. sticking to their nihilistic theories). There's definitely something about reading the novel as a young man and again as an old(er) man, which I could pull off for Crime and Punishment and The Brothers K* but obviously can't for Anna Karenina. This essay by James Hynes, while a bit snarky in places, captures quite a few of my thoughts on the novel (even reading it as a older reader).
In general, I agree that Tolstoy does have keen insight into the difficulty of communication -- how even when we attempt to be sympathetic to others, there is some barrier to really understanding the other person. And he is quite good on how people may be in accord for a long stretch, and then fall (a bit) out of sympathy for all kinds of reasons, esp. other problems in their lives that suddenly intrude. He's quite good on how fragmentary people's thought processes are with many different things going on in the background. He doesn't develop this quite as much as Virginia Woolf and certainly not Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, but he definitely seems one of the parents of stream-of-consciousness in literature, which I will return to below.
I definitely agree with Hynes that Anna Karenina is one of the most spoiled novels in history, but just in case:
Seriously, who doesn't go into this novel knowing that Anna throws herself under a train? Of course, knowing this, you find the opening scene where a railroad worker is run over to be maybe just a bit heavy-handed in the foreshadowing department. Maybe the opening worked better when the audience truly came to the novel fresh. Certainly, it is hard to recreate a time when railroads were still a bit of a novelty and the danger factor was much more on people's minds than it is today. (Though the railroad has actually become a bigger part of my life after the office relocation. I hear the horns blowing several times during the day.) Even though Tolstoy apparently found himself more sympathetic to Anna than when he started writing the novel, women just couldn't "get away" with adultery. If anything Anna has a longer run of the good life (before and even after her declaration to her husband) than other adulteresses in literature, esp. Emily Bovary.
And so this brings me to Molly Bloom, perhaps the third most famous adulteress in literature (assuming we don't count Helen of Troy, who was forced into adultery by the gods). While the official line on divorce in Ireland (at the time Joyce was writing) was hardly more enlightened than in Russia during Tolstoy's period (and possibly even worse), Joyce still signals that attitudes are changing. Moral slips (from either side of the marriage) don't have to have fatal consequences. While Bloom is Jewish and an outsider to much of Dublin's society, you still get the sense that even for a full-blown Irish couple the disgrace of adultery (or even attempting to get a divorce or more likely an annulment) isn't going to lead to some fatal stand-off. And society is better for that, Joyce seems to say.
I can't really tell if Ulysses is a direct response to Anna Karenina or not. There's an awful lot going on in the novel. In many ways, Joyce is responding to the entirety of Western literature, starting from the Greeks, but it really struck me as I got to the "fatal five"† chapters of Anna Karenina that Joyce was riffing on Anna's disorganized thoughts‡ and showing what would happen in a more accepting framework. Instead of choosing death (to essentially spite Vronsky!), Molly finds herself back in love with Bloom (or at least partially so) and chooses love/life. Obviously it is easier to forgive if one is not the injured party (and how much better if one doesn't even give up one's lover and remain married). Perhaps Anna would have chosen differently had her husband gone ahead and given up their son (which he might have been convinced to do during his first magnanimous phase). I'm struggling to remember if Bloom had had any slip-ups (or at least any successful assignations since he certainly seemed open to the idea) or if the moral weakness was only on Molly's side. For that matter, I can't really remember why she ended up fooling around with Boylan, other than he was handsome and charming (not too dissimilar from Vronsky perhaps) and good in bed. Well, another reason to try to tackle Ulysses again in a year or two.
Some of the other parallels are weaker. Joyce may have been making a bit of a comment upon the trope of the character representing the author, as Levin is a transparent stand-in for Tolstoy. (Again, almost anyone coming to the novel today knows this, but it might have been a surprise at some point.) Most commentators say that Joyce the author is actually split between Stephen
Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. On the other hand, Bloom has a much more even temperament (than Levin, for instance) and is maybe closer to Oblonsky, without his public successes and ease in society. Boylan is certainly a pale shadow of Vronsky and hardly merits more than a mention here and there. Joyce certainly downplays the implications of adultery on family life, whereas it is absolutely central to Tolstoy. On the other hand Joyce does seem to be following Tolstoy in making this a novel about ideas and the human thinkers who run around town and try to sway others to their point of view.
I'm hardly the first to make the Anna-Molly connection, but it struck me powerfully when I got to the last few chapters and saw where it was heading. Even knowing the outcome didn't detract from the power (and perhaps horror) of her irrevocable decision. Hynes touches on this connection, and perhaps R.P Blackmur as well. He is on the obscure side now, but was an influential critic in the 1950s and 60s. He has a series of essays on the major (massive) novels that were the touchstones of what the educated folk read back in his day. Indeed the book is simply titled: Eleven Essays in the European Novel (Essays about Anna Karenina; Ulysses; Madame Bovary; Doctor Faustus; The Magic Mountain; Crime and Punishment; The Possessed; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov). With the possible exception of the Thomas Mann novels, this list still comprises the core of European novels that a literature major would be expected to know today (and come this fall I will have read all but the Mann). Proust is missing of course and Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of Kafka's Castle. Calvino might be added to the list and possibly Musil's The Man Without Qualities. Perec might be added as another experimentalist following to some extent in Joyce's footsteps. There is an outside chance that in the future the European canon would include outsiders such as Stefan Zweig and Irene Némirovsky (Suite Française and some of her earlier works). But it's a pretty good starting point, even today. Anyway, I haven't decided if I am ever going to scale Mann's Mountain. If I do, then I will probably at least skim Blackmur's essays to see if we are of the same mind about these novels.
* There are probably 4 or so other novels that I really enjoyed in my 20s but worry whether I will enjoy them as much now. I have no idea when I would ever have the time to get around to this "experiment." I think I need to be in a better frame of mind in general before I risk it (after all, I definitely wasn't as grabbed by Cat's Eye the second time around -- it was better to have the memory of a great read than the reality of the second-time reading). On the flipside, I did like Bulgakov's Master and Margarita as much on second reading, though that was a particularly odd case as I read two new translations back-to-back, literally chapter by chapter. As usual, Pevear & Volokhonsky was the best. Probably I would start with Bell's Waiting for the End of the World, then Crime and Punishment, and fit Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage in there somewhere, then Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and eventually Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom. In many ways, it is easier for books that I partially liked but partially resisted (like the Faulkner) since I know I will read it differently the second time around and might well appreciate it more.
† Part 7, Chapters 27-31. ‡ In Chapter/Section 18 of Ulysses.
I'll definitely read these two passages back-to-back again at a later point.