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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

“I actually had the idea, when you asked me for a subject for a painting, of giving you a subject: to paint the face of a condemned man a minute before the guillotine falls, while he is still standing on the scaffold and before he lies down on the plank.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky is often remembered in terms of his illness, his gambling, his radicalism – which would lead to his Siberian exile – as well as of his near-death experience, which intensified his already devout religious belief. All these themes can be found in his labyrinthine epic The Idiot which focuses on Prince Myshkin, a Christ-like holy fool who suffers from epilepsy, and on the secondary characters surrounding him.

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This often mystifying novel delves into complex political and philosophical issues, without offering any direct approach or reaching a simple solution. Arguments, misunderstandings, and disputes abound within these pages.

Dostoyevski’s characters offer contradictory yet wholly believable portrayals of different types of people. His ideas of guilt and punishment are very interesting, and I enjoyed the fact that most of his characters are the embodiment of a ‘grey morality’. And of course, Myshkin. The Prince is naive to a fault yet he can be particularly perceptive about others (eg. usually by reading their faces), he seems to understand the nature and character of others, even if he often finds himself at a loss for words. I read a review stating that he was useless and selfish. I couldn’t disagree more. His incredible empathy is the driving force his character. His ability to identify himself in others, and his immediate forgiveness of others make him anything but pathetic. Yes, he was too kind, and his kindness doesn’t not do him favour, but, others are also to blame for the events that lead to his ‘unbecoming’: they use him or don’t understand him, and when they call him an ‘idiot’, he believes them.

A flawed masterpiece that often looses itself along the way (eg. a character reading his ‘will’ takes up 40 pages). In spite of the byzantine plot, Dostoyevsky has an eye for people, and Freud was quite right in calling Dostoyevsky a psychologist.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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