One Book at a Time in the Multiple Reading Age

“One book at a time,” I say, staring at a stack of books.  It is my new mantra.  One…book…at…a…time.

I have never joined AA.  Well, I don’t drink alcoholic beverages. But the AA slogan, “One Day at a Time,” is  so applicable to my  book addiction that I’ve adapted the catchphrase.

I have a huge stack of books on the coffee table.  I am reading perhaps 10 of them.  I pick up Anna Karenina, which I have read many times.  On page 760, Vronsky is off to the elections in town, while Anna must stay home in the country.  They almost quarrel, because she does not want to be alone.  But Anna knows she has to quiet herself and not alienate him.

“I hope you won’t be dull?”

“I hope not,” replied Anna.  “I received a box of books from Gautier’s yesterday.”

Anna, I received that same box of books!  But it isn’t enough when your lover is gallivanting.  Anna is isolated, an outcast. Her friends shun her after she leaves her husband for Vronsky.  And it is sad that Dolly, Anna’s loyal sister-in-law, is repulsed when she learns that Anna practices birth control and sees how little she cares for her baby.  Though Dolly is exhausted by childbearing, the idea of contraception negates her purpose in life and scares her.

THEN I TOOK A LONG AFTERNOON BREAK.  And I finished East of Eden, one of most brilliant American novels I’ve ever read.  You will not be able to put down this warped family saga, a 20th century take on Genesis.  And, believe me, there is no scarier character in literature than Adam Trask’s manipulative wife, Cathy.

ALL RIGHT, I PUT AWAY MY BOOKS to surf the net. And I almost succumbed to an inner voice that told me to buy a new copy of Anna Karenina,  a volume in the Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection.  Fortunately, I realized in time that I already have that same translation in an Oxford hardcover with a different cover.

One day at a time!

I made progress.   I limited myself to reading from two books today instead of ten.


Do I Have a Crystal Ball? The Tolstoy Renaissance

War and Peace in my bike helmet on a summer’s ride.

There is a Tolstoy Renaissance this summer.

How do I know? Hundreds of (probably idle) internet surfers and (possibly)  Tolstoy fans have visited my posts on Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

I’m not surprised.  Tolstoy is the consummate entertainer.  He is to some of us what Jane Austen is to the hundreds of thousands of readers who participated in  the death bicentenary Lollapalooza.  I fall into Tolstoy’s novels as if I am listening to a  Grateful Dead song.  His books are absorbing Oscar-winning movies or popcorn reads. I come up for air hundreds of pages later,  concerned about Nicholas Rostov”s military exploits,  or Marya Bolkonsky’s attempts to  persuade her servants to move her beyond Moscow as Napoleon approaches.

My husband holds Tolstoy responsible for my back problems.  “Have you considered the e-book?” he asks when I sit down every New Year’s Day for my annual rereading of War and Peace.

“I’m reading the first hundred pages in the Constance Garnett, the second hundred in the Pevear and Volokhonsky, the third in the Anthony Briggs, the fourth in the Rosemary Edmonds, and the rest in the Maude.”

And so every year you will find me wilting under the weight of my huge Penguins, Oxfords, Modern Library editions, Yale, Folio Society, Vintage classics, and Heritage Press editions.

A recent addition to my Anna K collection, the Vintage Russian Classics Series edition (Maude translation)

Mind you, I don’t criticize Tolstoy at my posts. I don’t even summarize (the blogger’s curse: it’s easy, so we do it).   No, I like to keep it light: my most popular Tolstoy posts this summer are (1)  “Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?” and (2) “The War and Peace Collection.’

And I must admit these enthusiastic posts make me laugh!

From the pop AK post:

I collect editions of Anna Karenina the way a friend collects Bakelite bracelets. At the moment I have five, one of them a glitzy Folio Society edition. I have four different translations, but my favorite is Aylmer and Louise Maude’s, the translation approved by Tolstoy–and get it while you can, because Everyman and Dover are now its only print publishers, I think. (You can also find the Maude in a used Oxford World Classics edition, but beware, the 2016 paperback has a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.)

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint of Edmonds translation

My most popular W&P post is exuberant.

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

No, Kat, you cannot!

But War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

The Maude translation.

Last January, during my annual rereading of W&P,  I claimed the translation by Louise and Alymer Maude is my favorite. (It is by far the most graceful.)  In another post I chat about the virtues of the Anthony Briggs translation.  (Also very good.)

In my favorite W&P post, “Not Quite Writing about War and Peace,” I admit that I used to identify with Pierre.

When I first read WAP many years ago, I identified with Pierre, because as a young woman I talked very seriously at parties. When I read the first chapter, where poor Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honour of the empress, tries to interrupt Pierre in his earnest conversations and  get  him to chat more lightly with the groups, I had to laugh.

And then I explain why Princess Marya Bolkonsky is now my favorite character.

These days I am a little weary of Pierre, especially during the Freemason scenes.  And so this reading, for the first time ever, I identify with Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who was based on Tolstoy’s mother.  It’s not that she and I are alike, because that isn’t quite how fiction readers identify:  it’s more that I understand why she is the way she is, and why I am the way I am.  She is not socially graceful, like Tolstoy’s more sympathetic heroine, Natasha, who sings, dances, and chatters happily until she goes though a love-related depression.

Marya grows up in a serious household of intellectual men, and doesn’t think about marriage, living in the country as she does.  Her raging father makes her do math and practice piano every day.  He intimidates her, though she loves and respects him.  She is deeply religious, almost Zen (well, Christian!) in her refusal to judge others, and is also very kind to the hangers-on who live with them, like her companion, Mlle. Bourrienne.

The good news:  I never met a translation of Tolstoy I didn’t like.   Warning:  you will not understand W&P unless your edition has notes.

The best translator?  I agree with Mona Simpson, who said in her review of Anthony Briggs’ translation in 2006 at The Atlantic that Briggs manages to do something new but she still prefers the Maude.

And yet, if it is a bilingual novel (it certainly is a novel about a bilingual culture), the previous translations don’t convey that as definitely and easily as this one does. Briggs has developed a swingy, natural way of describing how characters go from French to Russian, depending on the circumstances, and he comments on the tone of their French, using the quality of their language as another way of suggesting qualities of character.

That being said, I still prefer the Maudes’ translation. But either way, Tolstoy is one of the most translation-proof writers, because his originality lies not in language (at least not for the reader in English; in all the available translations it’s fairly standard), nor in theme (he sticks to the big-ticket eternals: Life, Death, Love), but in character and in the intricacy and contrapuntal symmetry of his plots.

Are you reading Tolstoy this summer?  Is it going well?  Any speed bumps?

Musings on Anna Karenina on a Spring Day

Anna Karenina in Vintage Russian Classics Series

On a sunny spring day in 2017, I sat on the porch rereading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I was sipping tea and reading a hefty Vintage paperback edition of the Maude translation of the novel instead of preparing a lunch from a Martha Stewart recipe for cousins visiting from Marshalltown.  Knowing they would be late, I lounged on the Barcalounger, surrounded by bookcases and boxes filled with the overflow from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale. The branches on the maple tree in the yard had finally leafed and the porch was in shade and alternate wavy bars of light. One cat perched on the top of the  Barcalounger  chewing my hair (she likes my shampoo) and the other sat on my lap tapping me with her paws to be petted.

My first Anna, the David Magarshack translation

I cannot tell you how many times I have read Anna Karenina. Or rather I can, but won’t. I first read it under inauspicious circumstances at the age of fifteen, after my father semi-kidnapped me from my grandmother’s house, with my grandmother and mother sobbing for me to stay, and even physically trying to restrain me. (My father was separated from my mother, and it was the first time he had paid attention to me in my life, perhaps to get back at my mother, she thought.)  We camped in the basement of Dad’s friend the poet’s house in Coralville, where I was “literally,” as the poet said, sleeping under the workbench among his carpentry tools. I spent hours reading Anna Karenina on the cot under the workbench, under a glaring light, because I had no privacy and there was nothing to do.  Corvalville was too far away from Iowa City to see my friends every day after school.  And so I was stuck with Anna, though I’m not sure she left much impression on me.

The next time I read it I was 20, and I had been married for a year to a kind older man. It is foolish to marry when you are young, I realized as I watched my husband get drunk night after night, pass out on lawns, and eventually get fired from his  job for leaving the  premises to go drinking in a bar.  “Why does he drink so much?” a friend hissed at me.  I tried to cover for him, as one does.  “He only does this at parties.”  The cover-up was part of the relationship with an alcoholic.

Illustration of Anna and Karenin at the races by Angela Barrett (Folio Society)

The Rosamund Bartlett translation (Oxford)

I had to leave and I knew it.  I had to find the energy to leave. As so often in these circumstances, there is both co-dependence and a flattening fatigue before you get your act together.  An intense reading of Anna Karenina helped me escape and process the situation.  I identified with her and imagined myself in the 19th-century Petersburg society, where  I fantasized that would fit like a charm, despite my jeans, t-shirts, walking sandals, and drip-dry hair, and the fact that my very average prettiness had been much exaggerated by my mother. Still, I  perfectly identified with Anna’s revelation that she did not love Alexis Karenin, just as I knew I didn’t really love my Alexis.   My situation was not as sticky–no children, no high society, no house–but eventually I had to face it.  I went off with my clothes and books in a shopping cart, like a bag lady.

I was in my fifties when I last read it. After a certain age, you read differently.  There is less identifying with characters; more focus on less familiar parts of the text and subtexts.   I concentrated more on Kitty and Levin during that reading than Anna and Vronsky.  But there is one constant in my reading and rereading:  I prefer the 1918  translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, which Tolstoy approved, to all the others.

I now snap up paperbacks of the Maude, because I see it being edged out by modern translations and worry that it may fall out of print altogether. You can’t have too many copies: sometimes I give them away. I like to have a copy of Anna Karenina in every room, says the Tolstoy-obsessed reader. When I leave off reading, I note the chapter number (the page number does no good) on a slip of paper and return to the book later in another edition in another room, between household tasks or while cooking. The strikingly designed red Vintage Russian Classics Series tome is my newest: I bought it for the print size, which is slightly larger than the print in my other copies: two Oxford editions, a paperback with the Maude translation and a hardcover with the new Rosamund Bartlett, the Modern Library edition of Constance Garnett, and a 1975 Folio Society edition with Rosemary Edmonds’ excellent translation.

Weddings, marriage, and infidelity: it’s all a big part of Anna Karenina. The critics say it is a family novel, and, indeed Tolstoy confided in his wife that what he loved about it was the family aspect. He did not entirely approve of Anna: he was inspired by fragments of Pushkin about an unfaithful wife; he also had seen the corpse of Anna Pirogova, a landowner’s mistress who committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. But during many drafts, he made her a more sympathetic character.   And He was influenced by the development of the European novel, especially French and English novels, says W. Gareth Jones in the 1995 introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition:

…Tolstoy showed that he had understood the development of the European novel, its capacity to range over society, to cram its pages with a throng of individualized characters and yet to maintain an overall design, and convey an author’s view of life.

And I personally find Anna very sympathetic.  She tends to excite controversy among reader. Some find Tolstoy’s portrait of her sexist; others find her selfish; still others love her. I love Anna in all her different facets:  Anna, graceful and animated in a black gown at the ball, dancing with handsome Vronsky; Anna, negotiating a truce between her adulteours brother Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, who is shattered at finding a note indicating he is having an affair with the former governess; Anna, terrified at the races when Vronksy’s horse falls and has to be shot. Ironically, later in the book, when Anna has fallen in love with Vronsky and wants to leave her husband but keep her son, her brother Stiva Oblonsky tries to persuade Karenin to divorce her. Tolstoy tars Stiva and Anna with the same brush:  they are  adulterers. But there is a double standard;  Stiva’s adultery is tolerated and Anna’s makes her an outcast and leads to tragedy.

When Anna coaxes Dolly to forgive Stiva for adultery, she is warm, listens closely, and feels compassion for Dolly’s grief.  Anna does not yet have her own marital problems.  Things are not complicated for her.  Her simplicity and honesty are obvious.  This exchange sums it up:

“‘But suppose the infatuation is repeated?’

‘It cannot be, as I understand …’

‘And you, would you forgive?’

‘I do not know, I cannot judge…. Yes, I can,’ said Anna, after a minute’s consideration. Her mind had taken in and weighed the situation, and she added, ‘Yes, I can, I can. Yes, I should forgive. I should not remain the same woman—no, but I should forgive, and forgive it as utterly as if it had never happened at all.’”

When I was young, and failed to understand the complexities of marriage, I identified completely with Anna.  Now that I do understand, I consider Karenin’s grief (he is repulsive, but he grieves), and Kitty’s new maturity after marriage, and her role in helping Levin’s dying brother.  Every time I read it I see a scene in a new way.

So back to the Barcalounger for more AK.  And, remember, any time you come to my house, there are plenty of copies for you to read!

Gosh, It’s Hot! & a Giveaway of the Folio Society Edition of Anna Karenina

A landscape by Gauguin.

A landscape by Gauguin.

I love the Gaugin-like colors of summer. A couple of weeks ago the scene was as idyllic and golden-green as I’ve ever seen it.  Then the temperature climbed.

Gosh, it’s hot!  It has been in the nineties for almost a week.  But life goes on, and I still bicycle for transportation.

You don’t need to dress up on a bicycle:  shorts and a t-shirt will do. My face is lined and craggy and no nips and tucks will happen so I do automatically put on light makeup before I go out.

And then…

Like the Wicked Witch of the West,  I was melting in the heat. “I’M MELTING, MELTING.”  Well, she melted in water, and I melted in makeup.

As the makeup melted, it produced a strange powdery effect.  I could SMELL the powder.  Ugh. I didn’t feel dehydrated, but I stopped and drank half a bottle of water.

Then I went into the store.  The air conditioning felt good.  But as I was handing over my credit card, sweat broke out on my hands and arms. This is the second time this has happened when I go from the outdoors into air conditioning.  SO EMBARRASSING.

And what’s with that anyway?  Is it a sign of dehydration?  I drank a glass of water before I left home.  How many glasses of water do we have to drink when it’s 92 degrees?  And why does this happen when I go from the heat into air conditioning?

Well, I’m home, and no more sweating issues.

anna karenina folio society 146b1ee977ccb45d7987003937251524A GIVEAWAY OF THE FOLIO SOCIETY EDITION OF ANNA KARENINA.

Last year I bought a used edition of the 2012 Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina (the Maude translation).  The book is very beautiful, and I love the illustrations, but it is simply too big to read lying down.   I prefer a paperback!

The giveaway of this beautiful book is open to Americans or Canadians.  (Alas, the postage is too high to send it farther.)  Leave a comment or email me ( with a sentence or two about why you want it.  There is never a lot of competition here!  And if you want to help with the postage, I’ll accept it, but even that is not necessary.  You’re doing me a favor because this takes up the space of at least two books.

Here’s the Folio Society description:

Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude
Quarter-bound in buckram with cloth sides blocked and printed with a design by Angela Barrett
Set in Ehrhardt with Bulmer display
Frontispiece and 14 full-page colour illustrations
768 pages
Book size: 9½” × 6¼”

Here is an illustration:


Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?

anna karenina maude 0679410007.1.zoom

The Maude translation of Anna Karenina (Everyman)

“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”–Anna Karenina, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

I am a fan of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, though I prefer his heftier classic, War and Peace, which is an action-packed popcorn read, almost like reading a movie.  But since Anna is shorter (though still long), it is more popular and accessible both to the literati and the common reader.  It was chosen as an Oprah book club selection in 2004, and though it’s not “the Harlequin romance of its day”  described at her website guide , her fans read and loved it.  And that’s what matters.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

In fact, everybody loves  Anna Karenina.   Rufus Wainwright, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jilly Cooper, and David Brooks list it as one of their favorite books–and could a singer, a literary novelist, a pop novelist, and a New York Times columnist be more different?  The novelist  Robert Hellenga told me in 2014 in an interview here that he has read it “so often that I tend just to dip into in when I need a shot of writing adrenaline.”

I collect editions of Anna Karenina the way a friend collects Bakelite bracelets. At the moment I have five, one of them a glitzy Folio Society edition. I have four different translations, but my favorite is Aylmer and Louise Maude’s, the translation approved by Tolstoy–and get it while you can, because Everyman and Dover are now its only print publishers, I think. (You can also find the Maude in a used Oxford World Classics edition, but beware, the 2016 paperback has a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.)

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

I love almost all translations of Anna Karenina–I enjoyed David Magersack’s in high school,  and recently discovered Rosemary Edmonds– but some critics are so adamant in their partisanship that they get hysterical over new translation.

Anna Karenina Tolstoy d7d5ccfc3d1fb38a346a32d3be6bdadb

Constance Garnett’s translation (the revised version(

One of these partisans is the brilliant critic Janet Malcolm. In her article, “Socks:  Translating Anna Karenina,” in The New York Review of Books (6/23-16),  she eccentrically endorses Constance Garnett’s translation.  She explains that English and American readers have “until recent years…largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912.”

She quotes the scholar Gary Morson, who is infuriated by the new translations.  He wrote,

“I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.”

I admit, Constance Garnett’s Tolstoy hasn’t worked out for me.  I found it clunky, but it was a revised edition of her translation.  (You can download a free e-book version of her original translation, and perhaps that’s the one to read.)  And Garnett has a reputation for writing rapidly and sometimes skipping parts she doesn’t understand. Malcolm thinks this is a sexist interpretation of her work.  And she may be right.

But Malcolm also admits Garnett made thousands of mistakes, and that the revisions in a recent Modern Library edition are often awkward.

Why is Garnett our only choice?  Because Malcolm and Morson  hate the award-winning translators Ricahrd Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and skip anything in between). I am a fan of P&V’s stunning work, and their translations are now widely taught in American universities. Their lyrical translation of Doctor Zhivago made me finally appreciate Pasternak:  the only other English version is a lacklustre 1958 translation cobbled together hastily in a couple of months after Pasternak won the Nobel. Reading that had led me to assume that Pasternak won only for his politics.

Pevear, an American, and his wife, Volokhonsky, a Russian, have a fascinating philosophy of translation.  They don’t want to write elegant Victorian-style English:  they like to “Russianzie” the English, to capture Tolstoy’s own sometimes awkward, quick style,  complete with occasional inversions, without attempting to pretty it up.  And yet, it is elegant, if different from the Edwardian translators.

This new philosophy of more literal translation has been applied occasionally to Greek and Latin classics lately, so I am familiar with it. People try different things to capture the nuances of a language.

Malcolm wants a certain elegance.  But if you think she loathes P&V, wait till you see what she has to say about Marian Schwartz.

She writes,

Another argument for putting Tolstoy into awkward contemporary-sounding English has been advanced by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and, more recently, by Marian Schwartz,4namely that Tolstoy himself wrote in awkward Russian and that when we read Garnett or Maude we are not reading the true Tolstoy. Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to “re-create Tolstoy’s style in English” surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness.

I understand wanting to pass on tradition and preferring the old to the new, but I also appreciate the “quiet revolution” of the new translators, as Susannah Hunnewell refers to P& V in The Paris Revew.

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky. Though ­almost unanimously praised by reviewers and Slavic scholars, they have a few critics who accuse them, in fierce blog posts, of being too literal or prone to unidiomatic turns of phrase. Pevear, who is sometimes drawn into the online jousting, never apologizes for erring on the side of the unfamiliar sounding over muting the original.

I’m in both camps:  the old and the new. It is always good to have more than one translation at bookstores.

Classics We Haven’t Read & Why You Should Read Anna Karenina

Not chatting about books, are they?

These bicyclists aren’t chatting about books, are they?

Bicyclists on a long ride are usually too busy pedaling to chat about books, but during the third hour of a mind-numbing ride into a fierce Nebraska wind, we were so bored that we actually considered the question, “What classics haven’t you read?”

What haven’t I read?  Moby Dick.  I once made it as far as Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Beautiful writing, but was I just a tad bored?  A tad or two.  My husband’s laudation of Melville’s style, and even the critic Michael Dirda’s contention that Moby Dick is the Great American Novel cannot persuade me to read it.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

My husband admits he has not read Anna Karenina.   It is one of my favorite books.

Possibly the opening lines of Anna Karenina terrify men.  He denies it.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.  The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him.

Marriage, families, confusion, adultery.

In addition to exploring the consequences of men’s and women’s infidelities, Tolstoy’s novel is filled with extraordinary scenes that make this a dramatic pageturner (and, yes, I just reread it, in the wonderful award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).


1.  BEST ICE-SKATING SCENE.   Levin, a landowner, comes to Moscow to propose to Kitty.  He ice-skates with her and endearingly learns a new trick.

Just then one of the young men, the best of the new skaters, with skates on and a cigarette in his mouth, came out of the coffee room and, taking a short run, went down the steps on his skates, clattering and jumping.  He flew down and, not even changing the free position of his arms, glided away over the ice….

“Ah, that’s a new stunt!” said Levin, and immediately ran up to try it.

Although he stumbles, he skates away laughing, reminding Kitty of what a dear man he is.  Unfortunately, she thinks of him as a brother.

2.  3.  BEST ILLICIT ATTRACTION SCENE AT A BALL (OH, JANE AUSTEN, IF ONLY YOU’D KNOWN…).   Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to heal the rift between her brother Stiva and his wife, Dolly:  by chance she meets Kitty’s new boyfriend, Vronsky, at the train station. He is very attracted.  At the ball at which Kitty expects him to propose, he dances almost exclusively with Anna.

Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.  She seemed to be struggling with herself to keep these signs of joy from showing, yet they appeared on her face of themselves.  “‘But what about him?’ Kitty looked at him and was horrified.  What portrayed itself so clearly in the mirror of Anna’s face, she also saw in him.

3. SOLACE WHEN YOU’RE DUMPED.  Kitty has a nervous breakdown when Vronsky leaves Moscow to pursue Anna Karenina to Petersburg.

Her sister Dolly tries to comfort Kitty.

Come now, Kitty.   Can you really think I don’t know?  I know everything.  And believe me, it’s nothing…  We’ve all gone through it.”

But poor Kitty has not gone through it yet.

4.  MOST TRAGIC HORSE-RACING SCENE.  Before Vronsky rides in a steeplechase race, his mother and brother object to his scandalous passion for the married Anna (they would prefer him to have a chic, light affair), and Anna tells him she is pregnant.  During the race, his mistreatment of the horse, Frou-Frou, leads to her death, and foreshadows Anna’s fate.

5.  MOST AGONIZING FALLEN-WOMAN-REJECTED SCENE.  After Anna and Vronsky live together in Europe, she refuses to believe that Petersburg society will ostracize her.  She goes to the theater, and is publicly humiliated.

He knew she had gathered her last forces in order to maintain the role she had taken upon herself.  And in this role of ostensible calm she succeeded fully.  People who did not know her and her circle, and who had not heard all the expressions of commiseration, indignation and astonishment from women that she should allow herself to appear in society and to appear so conspicuously in her lace attire and in all her beauty, admired the calm and beauty of this woman and did not suspect that she was experiencing the feelings of a person in the pillory.

A brilliant book, a tragedy, but also with many joyous scenes of love and family life (which I haven’t included here).  No one wrote better than Tolstoy.

Happier Olympics & Blimey!

Torah Bright, silver medalist in half-pipe Sochi

Torah Bright won silver medal in the halfpipe, Sochi.

I love the internet.

Sometimes I tire of looking at the screen, though.

I was happier before the internet.

This evening I turned off the computer  to watch the Olympics.  I was waiting for the figure skating pairs.

First there was the snowboarders’ halfpipe.

“Torah Bright with a 93 sets the standard here,” a reporter said.

Torah Bright, 27, the Australian defending gold medalist, won the silver tonight.  There is always a story about a defending gold medalist: Bright crashed during her first halfpipe run in Vancouver four years ago, then came back in the second to win gold. This time she crashed and came back to win silver.  So many news segments about defending gold medalists–and then we’re despondent if they don’t win, as in the case of Shani Davis, the American speed skater.

I wish I were a snowboarder.  It looks like fun.

I am not athletic.  I can do your basics:  walk, bicycle, run.  My husband gave me cross-country skis and snowshoes.  I could not even stand up on the skis.

And I couldn’t even stay upright when I walked to the library this afternoon.  I was reasonably warm in my parka, I was carrying a big cup of coffee, I had actually left the house without R.E.M. on my portable CD player, so I could think my own thoughts…

…and then I fell on the ice.

I  was very annoyed that I spilled my coffee.  I brushed the dirty snow off the top, washed the lid at the library, and went home intending to transfer the contents to another cup.

Fortunately my husband was driving home and stopped to pick me up so I didn’t have to fall on the ice again.


anna-karenina-leo-tolstoyI found a mistake in a scatty article, “The 10 Worst Couples in Literature,” in The Guardian.

Why bother with a trivial article?

But look at this line:

“…Anna and Vronsky would have had life a lot easier if they had just stuck to their marital partners – Anna especially.”

Yes, Anna especially, because Vronsky wasn’t married.

Now perhaps the writer is an idiot, or perhaps it’s the copy editor, but it is a good idea to read Anna Karenina before you decide both Anna and Vronksy have “marital partners.”  Do they mean spouses?

Horse Races in Fiction

Kentucky Derby 2013

Kentucky Derby 2013

I love the races.

I always bet on horses with names like “Loopy Dazzle” and “Champagne Cake.”

I couldn’t read the Racing Form if my life depended on it.

But the horses are beautiful and the races are exciting.

Recently I’ve read two novels with horse-race scenes, Zola’s Nana and D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.

And so I decided to make a list of fiction with horse races.

First, three classics I have reread recently:

Nana by Zola1.  In Nana, Zola’s novel about a courtesan, Nana rises from prostitution to a starring role in an operetta to spoiled mistress of a banker, a count, and others.  No one can resist Nana. She fascinates with her perfect figure–men become obsessed by her when she plays an almost-nude scene in the operetta–and out of the theater she is a genial girl who enjoys socializing with old friends from the slums and her many lovers.  The problem:  avarice.  She squanders several  fortunes.

There is a glorious horse race scene.  The odds are against the horse, Nana, who is named after her.  Here is an excerpt from the George Holden translation:

Then the crowd witnessed a splendid sight.  Price, rising in the stirrups  and brandishing his whip, flogged Nana with an arm of iron.  the dried-up old child, with his long, hard, dead face, seemed to be breathing fire.  And in a furious burst of audacity and triumphant will-power, he poured his heart into the filly, picked her up and carried her forward, drenched in foam, her eyes all bloodshot. The whole field went by with a roar of thunder, taking people’s breath away and sweeping the air with it, while the judge sat waiting coldly, his eye fixed on his sighting mark.

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy2.  In  Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, there is perhaps the most dramatic horse race ever.  Vronsky, Anna’s lover, rides in a steeplechase race, but his tension beforehand, caused by his family’s objections to Anna, and his visit to Anna immediately before the race, does not bode well.  During the race, his merciless treatment of the horse, Frou-Frou,  is a harbinger of what will happen to Anna.

Here is an excerpt:

Vronsky did not even look at [the last water jump], but hoping to win by a distance, began working the reins with a circular movement, raising and dropping the mare’s head in time with her stride.  He felt she was losing her last reserve of strength, not only her neck and shoulders were wet, but on her withers, her head, and her pointed ears the sweat stood in drops, and she was breathing short and sharp.  But he knew that her reserve of strength was more than enough for the remaining five hundred yard.

3.  In D. H. Lawrence‘s short story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,”  a boy has an uncanny gift for predicting winners of horse races. He rides his rocking horse for hours to predict the winner of the Derby…  and then…

Next, two contemporary books:

Derby Day Taylor American4.  In Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, D. J. Taylor  describes the double-dealings of horse owners, thieves, a power-hungry woman, and bookmakers before the Epsom Derby. Taylor seems to write effortlessly, and in this elegant novel, set in Victorian England, he deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative. ( I recently wrote about this  here.)

Here is an excerpt:

A riot of colour.  Colour everywhere.  The horses are of every imaginable hue:  black, baby, chestnut, grey, a multitude of shades in between.  The jockeys’ silks–scarlet, magenta, carmine, green-and-white, quartered blues and yellows–rustle in the breeze.  In the distance a sea of faces, sharp and distinct where the people press up against the rail, fading–as the crowd diffuses up the hill–into a remote generality.  Nothing Mr. Frith could ever do can convey the enormity of the scene or its infinite particularity, the sway and eddy of fifty thousand shoulders, the women fainting in the heat and being taken out, the flashes of light as the sun catches on the raised opera glasses in the grandstand, the cacophony of individual shouts–‘Baldino!, ‘Septuagint!’, ‘Pendragon!’.  The band is still playing ‘The British Grenadiers’ on the near side of the paddock, but nobody hears it.

Horse Heaven jane smiley5.  In Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, tycoons, trainers, breeders, jockeys, and others behind the scenes in southern California race their horses and have a chance at the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup.  The characters are eccentric and amusing, the details about racing are absorbing, the plot is addictive, and I especially loved the passages from the horses’ points-of-view.

I would have to reread this book to write about it intelligently, but I did love it when it was published.

Here is an excerpt I found online (unfortunately I couldn’t find one from the horses’ point of view).

The first thing Mr. Maybrick did after he poured his coffee was to call his horse-trainer. When the trainer answered with his usual “Hey, there!,” Mr. Maybrick said, “Dick!,” and then Dick said, “Oh. Al.” He always said it just like that, as if he were expecting something good to happen, and Mr. Maybrick had happened instead. Mr. Maybrick ignored this and sipped his coffee while Dick punched up his response. “Can I do something for you, Al?”

“Yeah. You can put that Laurita filly in the allowance race on Thursday.”

Now for pop novels.

The Dark Horse Rumer Godden6.  Rumer Godden’s Dark Horse.  Not a very good book, but entertaining.  (I picked it up for $1 at a sale.)   In the 1930s, a millionaire buys the Dark Invader, a beautiful horse that has failed as a racehorse in England; the horse and his groom are shipped to India to be given a second chance.  The groom, Ted, a jockey whose career was wrecked by alcoholism, reveals how the horse was ruined by a sadistic jockey.  Ted is hired to stay in Calcutta with the horse; the Mother Superior of a nearby convent proves to be very horse-smart; and everybody finds redemption.

7.  My husband suggests  Dick Francis‘s mysteries and Faulkner.  I don’t know which Faulkner, but he says there are a lot of horsey scenes.

Let me know your favorite horse race books!

Bicycling on Sunday & Tolstoy’s Adulteresses on Monday

Raccoon River Trail,

Not my picture, but this  is my trail.

It rained, it rained, it rained, but then yesterday we bicycled 32 miles.  It is a lovely trail, and my husband always tells me to write about it. I tell him I have nothing to say about bicycling, and it is true.  What to say?  Pedal, glide, change gears, chain falls off, put chain back on, pass people on the trail, look at the brick factories, look at the grain elevators, stop and have a snack, sit at a picnic table and read.

Nothing really happens here–it is a tranquil place with very little going on–and bicycling is popular.  The bike trails in the city and country have changed lives:  it is possible to live without a car, we can get anywhere in our “big” little city by bike, and thousands of people from all over the country come for a cross-state bicycle ride (known for partying and sleepless nights).

When writing about bicycling, what to say?  We talk about the wind, where we’re from, cows ahead on the trail, and share our sunscreen.  At the depot the woman who sells the candy and pop wants to talk.

We ride to a small town, and want to take a break in the picnic shelter, but the sky turns blue-black and we have to go.  We coast downhill, then climb uphill for several miles, and beat the rain.  It is the first time in years we’ve bicycled this far without taking a break.

I feel very slightly sick afterwards and take Advil.

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoyAdultery in Anna Karenina & War and Peace Adultery has a high price for Tolstoy’s women.  We have only to compare the consequences for Anna Karenina, the beautiful, sympathetic heroine who falls in love with Vronsky, and Princess Hélène, the cheating wife of Pierre in War and Peace, to realize that Tolstoy disapproved of both.  Anna has a conscience and Helene has no remorse, but both die prematurely.   Anna commits suicide, and Helene is struck down by an unknown sickness.

Whether consciously or not, Tolstoy gave them names which, if not quite homophones, do sound similar:  Anna and Hélène.  (When you reread the books back-to-back, you notice other characters who are nearly doubles, though not in names: Kitty-Natasha, Levin-Pierre…)

Adulteresses often die in literature, especially in the 19th and early 20th century:  Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary and Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening of suicide; Mattie in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, whom Ethan is in love with, does not die, but is crippled in an accident; refreshingly, Willa Cather allows adulteress Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady to get away from the small town by breaking the rules, investing money through a shady lawyer.

Anna Karenina was based partly on a real-life incident.  At an inquest, Tolstoy saw the corpse of Anna Pirogova, the rejected lover of one of Tolstoy’s neighbors, who threw herself under a train.

Tolstoy portrays Anna as a lively, brilliant, married woman.  When she dances the mazurka with Vronsky at a ball,  it shatters Kitty, who has expected Vronsky to propose.  Anna is infatuated with Vronsky, but decides to leave Moscow the next day, knowing she has erred in hurting Kitty; telling Dolly, her sister-in-law, that she has erred; and Dolly making light of it, saying she doesn’t want Kitty to marry Vronsky anyway.

Vronsky follows Anna on the train back to Petersburg, and after a year they become lovers. Anna’s husband, a sarcastic, cold-blooded bureaucrat, doesn’t want a scandal, but she is hopelessly in love with Vronsky and finally leaves her family. When Karenin won’t let her see her son, she agonizes.  And later, when Vronsky loses interest in her, and she is an outcast, she throws herself under a train.

In War and Peace, Helene is an unsympathetic character.  She is described as stupid and cruel, she marries Pierre for her money, and considers him foolish for interfering in her love life.  Pierre hates her, cannot believe he married her, and loves Natasha, who is engaged to his friend, Andrei.

Helene in War_and_peace9

Anita Ekberg as Helene

The odd thing is that beautiful Helene, unlike Anna, does not lose her place in society.  She is considered a wit, and in sophisticated Petersburg everyone blames her husband, fat, smart, intense Pierre, for their marital difficulties.  He tries to leave her, and she continually follows him.

But Tolstoy kills her off, just the same.  She gets ill–everyone expects her to recover–and we are shocked when she dies, though she is a dreadful character.

Kitty in AK, a beautiful, happy young woman, is desperately in love with Vronsky, and becomes very ill after the non-proposal; her parents take her to a spa in Germany, where she recovers, partly by befriending a woman who does good to all the sick people, and trying to do good, too. Natasha in War and Peace also becomes ill after she and her fiance, Andrey, break up:  unlike Kitty, she has been almost unfaithful, and tried to elope with Helene’s brother.  Natasha recovers from her illness slowly, and for a while goes to church with a very religious woman.

I love both books so much that I could read them every year, but I am promising myself that I won’t read Tolstoy in 2014,