J. B. Cheaney was born in Dallas, Texas, and has lived in six different states, moved home a total of 23 times, and raised two children. She is the author of four novels for young readers: The Playmaker, My Friend the Enemy, The True Prince and The Middle of Somewhere. Here she discusses Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
J. B. Cheaney on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I first read Anna Karenina at the age of 22, when I was newly-married with lots of time on my hands. My taste in fiction was a little pretentious but not entirely; genre romances and mysteries really did bore me, and I read plenty of good literature among the mediocre in the library fiction stacks. Occasionally I'd pick up something long and forbidding, with lots of Russian names. The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment... and Anna Karenina. I remember making an impression on the book (getting through it) without the book making much of an impression on me.
At 28, I tried again, this time as a young mother with less time on my hands. Quite unaware when I started with 'All happy families are alike' that I was letting myself in for one of the profound reading experiences of my life. Quite unaware that fiction could wrap itself around me so completely. Compelling page-turners were one thing; I'd often experienced not being able to put a book down, literally - carrying it open to the bathroom, propping it up while washing dishes, rushing through a telephone call so I could get back to the story. But this reading experience was so packed there were times I had to put the book down. I could not go on but had to breathe everyday air for a while. I particularly remember after Part Four, when so many hanging conflicts come to resolution: when Levin finally proposes to Kitty and she accepts, when Anna has her baby, when she compels Karenin's forgiveness over her supposed deathbed, when Vronsky attempts suicide... After all that, I could read no further, but had to put the book down, go outside and take a walk to digest what I'd taken in.
'Oh why didn't I die, that would have been best!' Anna exclaims at the end of Part Four. She doesn't die when she would have chosen, and when a lesser novelist would have finished her off. That is Tolstoy's point: we all have to live, with ourselves and each other. That kind of living (i.e., with ourselves and each other) is sometimes famously difficult. I mentioned the book to my sister once, and her reaction was instant and visceral: 'I hate her.' Not it, but her (an opinion, incidentally, that Anna fully shared). The fact that a reader would feel so forcefully about a character shows how well Tolstoy did his job.
'You have to love your characters, even the ones you don't like,' I tell aspiring fiction writers. Even more important is not to despise them. In that way a novelist is like God, who grants his creatures the integrity to be true to their essential natures, whether noble or venal, whether they lead to heaven or hell. Anna Karenina is said to be about a lot of things: the insidious effects of a repressive society, the revolutionary effects of freeing the serfs, the varieties of religious experience, the wages of sin. But I don't think it's 'about' anything, any more than individuals are about anything. It just is. Many novels show how we have to live with our choices, our mistakes, our fate, our calling. Tolstoy shows how we have to live: happily or unhappily, and draw what lessons you will. The man had some well-known eccentricities and hang-ups, but in this book, and to some extent in War and Peace and Ivan Illych, he achieved godlike love of his own creation. Anna Karenina is not so much a book to be read as a life - many lives - to be experienced.