Anna Karenina

wrBy Leo Tolstoy

(this review contains spoilers if you haven’t read the novel)

I read a great 1957 edition of the novel with excellent illustrations by Roland Topor. The work by Tolstoy was very good as well.

The final excerpt from Bukowski’s ‘The Captain is Out to Lunch…’ collection has Bukowski stating ‘Screw you, buddy! And I don’t like Tolstoy either.’ I have always considered that maybe Tolstoy could be a bit fatuous but many people have recommended Anna Karenina to me. After the recent ‘Sting Debacle’ where I found that Lolita was an amazing read and I shouldn’t have tarred it with the Sting brush of insipid mediocrity simply because he did a ‘shout-out’ to Nabokov, I decided to read Tolstoy. The strength of the novel is the fact that the characters are nearly all ambiguous, they have both negative and positive qualities and Anna herself is the principle embodiment of this discord. I don’t think she is quite the feminist role model that many have made her out to be as she is inconstant and at several points shows her dependance on the patriarchal system she wants to escape from. But does she want to escape the patriarchal system? It could be said she simply wants Vronsky’s love and that is the primary motivating factor and when she is not sure of this she kills herself. Hardly the actions of an independent woman. But still in other instances she is: her appearance at the opera when all society has spurned her is very courageous and her ongoing lack of compromise in dealings with her husband when he holds all the cards.

The other characters all contain a variety of sometimes conflicting qualities and there is none that you can empathise with fully. This is a strength of the novel and one that I didn’t expect – I thought things would be far more definite. The only negative is the way Levin is converted at the end – it just seems a little trite. His conversion, where Tolstoy states that he will still do things that offend people, be irritable and sin etc… but he will at last have found a meaning can be seen as summing up the novel. All the characters are the same – they are human and imperfect but Levin is saved because he has found meaning. It’s unclear whether the only meaning that can be found is Chrtistian because Anna’s husband finds meaning in spiritualism after she has left him. Levins brother in his novels, Vronsky in the new war. I think these are interpretations that are present although Tolstoy seems to come down only on the side that  that only Christian faith can provide the substantial meaning. As a member of wealthy Russian society he would have to be seen as stating and promoting this. I think the overiding themes are that of the ambiguity of humanity – both good and bad and the search for meaning. As you can see from this short analysis this is a complex novel and it raises many good questions which I continue to think about after finishing. The main talking or thinking point is how to consider Anna, who is understandably  the pivotal force of the novel.

I definitely recommend reading Anna Karenina if you haven’t already. It isn’t too difficult a read and took me less than a week. But, Tolstoy is not Dostoevsky, obviously.

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The Edge of the World

andermanBy Janusz Anderman

I came across this book because it had an introduction written by Jerzy Pilch well before he became an established novelist. Sadly the introduction is not too interesting and this book of short stories even less so. The prose is all very modern and cut up and it did nothing for me. The only line I liked was when a taxi driver said ‘no, no it’s from Gogol’ after an incomprehensible scene. It made me laugh. Probably it isn’t too bad but short stories aren’t my thing and I couldn’t manage to invest sustained time and effort in understanding the prose for only a few pages of enlightenment before you then move into the next story. He doesn’t seem to have written much recently and there are moments in this collection of short stories, but, not enough for me to read anything more by him. I think this book is more a reflection of its time in the twilight of Communism and it doesn’t quite stand up on its own twenty years later.

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The Last Supper

huelleBy Pawel Huelle

I think writing this novel was very ambitious and for the most part it succeeds. Great central idea and there are many wayward threads which are tied together loosely. This isn’t a strand of predictability in any part of this novel which is refreshing. There is interesting comment on many spheres of human existence here. Some of the discussions of conceptual art are excellent along with religion, sexuality, politics and all of these are couched in an amusing way with scenes and dialogue from the main characters. So, why would I not give this novel full marks? Something about it is a little too forced – maybe the meta-fictional aspects. A couple of the characters are not quite rounded enough – they are more caricatures than characters. This may be intentional as the central premise of the novel is the Last Supper and a modern reproduction of the original so maybe all the characters in the novel can only be are caricatures. The other problem is that some of the dialogue is a little too modern. This may not be intentional and could actually be a translation issue. Though the review by the Guardian on the cover states that Huelle writes in an engaging ‘chatty’ style. This is a good thing apparently. Gosh, we wouldn’t want people to actually feel like they were reading a book instead of having a ‘chat’ with the author. So the combined weight of both these issues means that I won’t be using superlatives in the way that I did recently with Fado by Stasiuk. However the many good things about this book mean that I will read more by Huelle. Not in the next while however. I have read too much contemporary literature recently and really need something substantial to read. So, Tolstoy next.

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fadoBy Andrej Stasiuk

This is the best book I have read this year. Possibly for the last two years. What makes it so good is the prose, the subject matter, the ideas and the cohesion of the elements. These are a collection of short stories and when I found this out on receiving the book I wasn’t too happy as I generally don’t find short stories very satisfying. However these all follow a similar theme – that of travelling and memories and it could almost be thought of as a diary or journal but in no chronological order. This book does what all supreme works of literature should do – it makes you dream. After reading a paragraph you then sit and think about your experiences so half of the time I spent reading this book I actually spent staring into space myself. It is contemplative, amusing and there is a fantastic turn of phrase. I now know that I will visit Gallicia in South Eastern Poland in the future and that I will travel through the Carpathian Mountains. Stasiuk makes you want to see what he has seen and to revisit your own memories while experiencing and creating new ones. There have been a number of his works translated into English and strangely enough this book was reviewed on the guardian book blog as I was reading it. There will be reviews of Stasiuk’s other writings over the coming months as I buy and work my way through them. This gets FIVE stars. I haven’t been this excited since… I first read Gombrowicz and… since Arsenal went one up in the Champions league final through Sol Campbell’s header.

Soundtrack: The entire Velvet Underground and Nico Album. (Which also gets FIVE stars)

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Mass For Arras

arras By Andrzej Szczypiorski

This was an interesting novel and different to what I have been reading recently – apart from the writer Szczypiorski being Polish. I am in a contemporary Polish vein of literature at present and have been excited and surprised that somewhere in the world contemporary literature is… good! This is good – it’s not amazing but after the novel is finished you are left with a detailed study of how people can be blinded by their subjection to an ideal. In this case the dogma followed is extreme and not necessarily consistent with the central tenets of Christianity. In my opinion this novel is Szczypiorski trying to work out in his own mind how the appalling activities of the holocaust could have been carried out by ordinary human beings and placing this in a historical context. I think he is successful in showing the decline of society and the descent into the unspeakable crimes that occurs in Arras. The way he portrays it is exceptional and powerful and understandable. The holocaust wasn’t, for the most part, perpetrated by monsters – just ordinary people who had lost their way. It would be easier if we could believe there were hundreds of thousands of monsters and not ordinary people that did these terrible things. Whereas there were perhaps hundreds of monsters and hundreds of thousands who were carried along and without which the couple of hundred would have been thwarted. Szczypiorski enables us to see how this may have occurred in the historical example of Arras and its rulers application of Christian precepts taken out of context. Not a light read but an interesting one and Szczypiorski is successful in achieving what he set out to do.

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