A Book The Nonbelieving Literati Would Have Loved Hating

15 Mar

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy-book-cover-artOnce upon a time, several atheist bloggers formed a reading group called the Nonbelieving Literati. As I recall, the idea was that we would read and discuss one work of fiction each month, since many of us spent a lot of time reading non-fiction works about science, history, philosophy, etc. (Of course, when my first turn to choose a book rolled around, I broke the non-fiction rule and selected Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; big surprise, I know.) The thing that got me thinking about the literati was a recent post by ubi dubium, in which she shared her thoughts about Madame Bovary. I found it intriguing that she had just finished reading (or, rather, listening to) that book at approximately the same time I finished reading Anna Karenina. Based on what ubi dubium said in her review, my impression is that both books, which were written in the mid-19th century, explored many similar themes.

If the literati could have made their way through Tolstoy’s lengthy Karenina tome in one month, I suspect they may have found both much to love, and much to hate, in the book. One thing I love is Tolstoy’s striking depiction of life in 19th century Russia. Since the bulk of his narrative occurs in the Russian countryside, Moscow and St. Petersburg, he is able to portray social, physical, economic and political conditions as experienced by many members of rural and urban societies. To take one example, his description of the annual harvest process is thoroughly engrossing. Another thing I love about the book is its no-holds-barred portrayal of the hypocrisy that permeates patriarchal societies. Anna’s lover, Alexey Vronsky, suffers no social penalties for his – let’s say, breach of etiquette – in stealing another man’s wife. On the other hand, Anna, who leaves her husband and son to be with Vronsky, is  ostracized and condemned as a whore by the very same people who continue accepting Vronsky as their equal. One final thing I love about the book is Tolstoy’s intense examination of the psychology of his characters. His portrayal of Anna’s descent into despair, madness and seemingly inevitable suicide is particularly riveting.

The thing I hated about the book, and which I think would have annoyed my fellow literati, was Tolstoy’s use of an avatar, in the character of Konstantin Levin, to explore his own spiritual journey from doubt to Christian faith. The final section of the book dealt almost entirely with Levin’s spiritual renewal. Blech! It read as if Tolstoy couldn’t figure out how to close the story once he had dramatically crushed the title character under the wheels of a train. I think he should have ended it at the point when Anna’s lover led a group of volunteers to war. Sending the grief-stricken Vronsky, who had already attempted suicide earlier in the book, to die on a battlefield in a foreign land would have been plausible, and perhaps even fitting. Instead, Tolstoy moved to the fringe of fiction and entered the realms of quasi-autobiographical and philosophical rumination, and totally – I mean absolutely, positively, thoroughly – fucked up the end of his book. It’s a shame that he did so, because up until that point, it was a damn good read. If you ever read Anna Karenina, feel free to stop when she jumps off the platform. If you don’t, and you continue reading to the end, I guarantee you’ll find yourself wishing you had jumped with her.

— the chaplain


7 responses to “A Book The Nonbelieving Literati Would Have Loved Hating

  1. Lithp

    March 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    I’m not sure I really understand the complaint.

    • the chaplain

      March 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      I guess I didn’t make it clear that the digression into Levin’s spiritual awakening didn’t fit with the rest of the story. The book would not have been missing a thing if it had been left out.

      • Lithp

        March 17, 2013 at 1:19 pm

        That makes more sense.

        I really oughta put myself on E-mail alerts for follow up comments.

  2. the chaplain

    March 15, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Thinking about it a bit more, I guess Tolstoy may have wanted to contrast the hopelessness of people like Vronsky and Anna, who seemingly had no purpose in life other than their own self-gratification, with the hope and purpose that Levin eventually achieved through his new-found faith and commitment to living for god and others. There were points in the story where Levin’s doubts surfaced, but nothing that led one to think that the author would eventually explore the issue in depth and resolve it as he did in the final 80 pages or so of the book. Religion wasn’t a prominent theme of the book until the very end of the story. In fact, it barely surfaced until the end, which may be why this section read – to me, at any rate – more like a tacked-on ending than an essential part of the story.

  3. Recovering Agnostic

    March 15, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Any interest in resurrecting the group? Sounds like fun.

    • the chaplain

      March 17, 2013 at 10:43 am

      I might be interested if others were. I think we’d have to change the name, since it’s not original with me, and since most, if not all, of the participants would differ from the original group. I wasn’t actually part of the original group, I joined after it had been going for a few months. If anyone is interested in reviving a nonbelievers book club, let us know.

  4. Adam

    March 27, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Anna Karenina is, I think, my favourite book. I loved the realism in the interlay between the characters – for me they seemed to live.

    I take your point about Levin’s spiritual fulfilment. I think coming from a non-religious angle, it’s still a high-point of the book though. You can see it as Levin, modelled after Tolstoy himself, becoming a true man. The apotheosis of that is finding God, but there is a lot of other stuff contributing to that too – his marriage and the farm, for example.


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