I have a fascination with Russia. I took four years of Russian language in HIgh School. The Hermitage is on my bucket list. I am interested in their brewing traditions. I grew up during the Cold War, and the Russian Bear was a fascinating constant presence in the psyche of that time.
But I had only dabbled with Russian Literature. I think I read a Dostoyevsky short story or two, and I suffered through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but I never dared approach the real masterworks of Russian Literature. Frankly, I was intimidated by their reputation for sweeping drama and complicated casts. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to keep up.
With my 2+ hours of commuting a day, though, I have been listening to a wide range of books, and I finally decided to tackle Anna Karenina from Audible.com. Broken into 4 chunks of 8 hours each, it seemed a big bucket of spackel to fill a gaping void in my intellect.
It wasn’t until 20 hours or so into it that I admitted to myself that I had been duped by the literature-industrial complex. Anna Karenina is an under-edited amalgam of pampered aristocrats’ interior dialogues and arch manners. By the time Anna finally jumps under a train, my only regret was that I was not there to give her a shove.
I blame Tolstoy, or his absent editor. The description of Levin’s wedding managed to drag itself out for miles and miles of my commute, for no apparent purpose other than to make us suffer as much as we do when we ourselves are stuck in ceremonies of cruel length. Lengthy interior monologues, including attempts to remember prior thoughts, are catalogued as if it is possible to care what some silly, self-absorbed pompous nincompoop would be thinking. And, though perhaps it was just my translation, I grew tired of hearing that Anna “screwed up her eyes” with eye-rolling regularity.
While the characters were mostly unlikeable and completely unadmirable, the most surprising thing to me (though I’m not sure it’s possible to deliver a surprise over 32+ hours or 900 pages, pick your poison) was how little I cared for any of it – the plot, the setting (cities are bad, country is good), the costumes, the social mores, etc.. Each of the characters came with an emotional amplifier that blared out at inappropriate times. Inconvenience or awkwardness was never merely that – it was always “unbearable” or “impossible”, as though the laws of medicine and physics bent themselves to sympathize with a person’s desire not to see or speak with another.
For years I’ve been ignorant of Russian literature. Now that I’m no longer ignorant, I feel mildly stupider for having spent so much time among the Russian aristocracy, who have less dignity and moral self-awareness than the characters on your average reality show.