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.
I’m not normally a big fan of the Las Vegas Sun, but you can depend on their sports guy, Jeff Haney, to come up with some snarky ways to report on the athletic world.
Case in point, his piece last Wednesday where he went to the trouble of drawing up a chart to compare a new celebrity auto-bio by UFC thug Tito Ortiz with…Anna Karenina. I cut it out and put it on my classroom door. It got some chuckles. Clever, Jeff. Real clever.
While we’re on the subject of Las Vegas and humor, I recommend this editorial from yesterday’s Review-Journal, summarizing some of the more salacious scandals with which our politicians have entertained us in the last several years. Did you know, for example, that we have a 400-pound judge on suspension for gross incompetence, or that, a few years ago, more than half our city council went to jail because they accepted bribes and sexual favors from a crime-controlled strip club? Hilarious! Why more of this doesn’t make the national news is beyond me. Oh wait, I forgot. What happens here…