I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between how much I loved the writing in a book with how little I cared about the story.
Anna Karenina is a thousand-page soap opera. That’s about it. There’s a good couple and a bad couple. Things happen.
But hardly a chapter went by where I wasn’t floored by Tolstoy’s incredible insights into human nature. His talent for seeing into souls and painting them perfectly on the page is practically supernatural.
Anna Karenina had some of the same major story beats from War and Peace: the long aristocratic hunting vacation, the good man who publicly calls out the scoundrel who’s acting inappropriately towards his wife, the overt Christian sermonizing in the final act, the angelic woman who tends to a dying man.
That last part was by far my favorite part of the book. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Tolstoy is never better than when he’s writing about death.
Are we supposed to sympathize with Anna? I didn’t like her husband at first, either, but he really does turn out to be a decent man, I thought. Clearly, this is a cautionary tale, but still, I would have called the book Kitty Levina.
So I’m flipping through folk music CDs at the library one day and I see this compilation called Songs Inspired By Literature. I check it out and give it a listen, but it’s mostly forgettable.
Except for Bob Hillman’s song “Tolstoy.” In fact, I saw this CD again last week and checked it out just for this song. The next time I teach Tolstoy in World Lit, I need to bring this in.
It merits all the usual superlatives: fresh, original, and (especially for folk music) fun. The music is a resonating punch of running guitar chords, set to a brashly declarative lyric that shifts from appreciation of the author to brief plot summaries to bracingly apt images that serve as metaphors for the Russian giant’s achievement.
At one point, Hillman praises Tolstoy’s work for its “gargantuan themes” and for being “impossibly long,” and offers this modern example of something that could illustrate what he means: “Down to the quivering lip and the look in your eye / When your father died / And you couldn’t quite say what you wanted to say / But you touched his hand and he knew you were there.” It’s not random, it’s an uncanny impersonation of exactly the kind of subtle psychological insight Tolstoy crafted out of simple glimpses of ordinary life, seen as a panoramic tapestry.
And, ironically, he delivers this paean to epics in about two and a half minutes. Listen to it free at Rhapsody.
Friday was productive. I didn’t plan anything special, but by about the middle of the day, I realized that it was a really good one.
After a simple error identification and correction exercise on the projector for a warm up (courtesy of Yahoo!), most of my classes were studying Oedipus Rex, which I’d perform aloud as they read along and stop two or three times per page to summarize in my joking, pop-culture heavy style (“So Oedipus is getting all paranoid and Tiresias just keeps throwing down sarcastic one-liners,” or “‘Get hence, ye scurvy, pockmarked, wrathful knave’? I didn’t know Paris Hilton lived in ancient Greece!”). Most of this goes over reasonably well.
The middle of the day was just a few minutes spent correcting an assignment from last week in class and a brief quiz over today’s Oedipus reading, then I checked that they had brought in novels for this quarter that fit my length and difficulty requirements (almost all did). The last half hour was given to letting them read on their own (a grade being given for staying on task), and those without books were given the first chapter of Anna Karenina to copy–the rationale being that copying work of such terrific quality is a decent exercise in itself (a language arts version of tracing, really; an elementary activity which we too often ignore because it’s not jazzy enough for the postmodern classroom), it’s the only way most of them will ever get to encounter this famous classic (“Every happy family is alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), and the farily boring nature of the work should be an incentive to bring a novel in next time (though this sometimes backfires: some of the lowest achievers–those who tend never to bring books–actually love basic skills work, cherishing its lack of higher thought and engagement. Some remedial students would jump at the chance to copy the dictionary all day, every day, if it meant never having to think or do real work.).
Anyway, it was during the silent reading time of one of these classes that, as Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute was playing over king.org (which my computer speakers waft into the room most days), I realized what a pleasantly productive day this was. In class after class, nearly everybody was engaged in useful mental training. Too many educrats these days chant their lemming mantra that a class must be noisy and rowdy to be learning something, but I find that kids today are overstimulated, and creating a calmer environment is a necessary antidote; if work is mature and challenging, they’ll usually respect it and rise to the occasion.