What I learned from Anna Karenina

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I have been lacking in my posts once again. My only excuse is that my thesis is in its death throes and I’m trying to deliver the final blow. Die! Die! Nearly there.

When I haven’t been contemplating my life choices and cursing word counts, I finished reading Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina.

It’s a nice, impressive one at add to the bookshelf; nothing like a bit of classic Russian literature to impress visitors. It was a surprisingly easy read though, particularly compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Anna is still sitting on my bedside table, Crime and Punishment is gathering dust very impressively in the corner of the bookshelf.

Anna taught me a lot about writing. The subject matter was dense and foreign to me, the language was littered with French and Russian phrases which required translation, and all the characters are pretty unlikeable, yet I had to keep reading.

Levin was an insecure, overly intellectual snob, Vronksy was vain, Anna was her own worst enemy (spoiler alert: other than the train), and Oblonsky was an irresponsible philanderer. But I wanted to know more. I wanted Anna to get her divorce and go to the country. I wanted Oblonsky to go home to Dolly and look after his thousand kids, and Levin… Levin, smile you miserable bastard! How did Tolstoy make me care so much about these flawed, desperate characters?

They say a writer must write what they know. It is so much more than that though, everyone knows something but not everyone is a writer. My theory is that it comes down to observation and words. The minute details of every scene, every conversation and every description in Anna Karenina make it easy to picture and imagine that you too are sitting in a box at the Petersburg opera, or sipping vodka with peasants after a tough day’s harvesting. Tolstoy must have been a perceptive observer of the world around him. But he also must have been a great sculptor of words. I think sculptor is the most appropriate word because crafting meaningful sentences is about more than stringing words together. It’s foraging for the perfect word, the right medium to convey your message, and melding it with others to create something bigger than the words along. Finished sculptures seldom resemble the clay they started as. You could be the best observer but if you can’t find the words to describe what you see, you may as well not have seen anything.

I think that’s probably my take-away from Anna Karenina. Along with some other stuff about cheating on your husband, wheat prices, and train platform safety. It’s probably a little lofty to aspire to write like Tolstoy but his descriptions are something I’d like to incorporate more into my own writing. Elaborate descriptions are a bit of a weak point for me. A background in journalism has left me equipped with short sentences and scenes heavy in dialogue. But as soon as this thesis is laid to rest, I’ll turn my attention back to basics and back to describing.

As for reading, War and Peace is up there on the list, but everything in moderation. I’m cleansing my palate of Russian Society with a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.

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