solitary_summer: (burning head 1 (© clive barker))

[Holiday reading, somewhat belated.]

Anna Karenina I enjoyed, with reservations. I liked the psychology a lot, and the characters/characterisation (Oblonskij, Dolly, Anna's son; Karenin even); there are lovely scenes, lovely details. The contrast in the end is powerful, the juxtaposition between Anna's bleak outlook on life, when she drives through Moscow and is no longer able to see the world except in the worst and most negative light, coming to the conclusion that there can only ever be struggle and hatred between human beings, and Lewin finding a positive meaning and a spiritual frame-work for his life. What I didn't care so much about, if that makes any sense at all, was the story itself, which seemed a tad... I'm not sure if moralistic is even the word I'm searching for, but vaguely that. Which is perhaps unfair and anachronistic, because if (for the sake of the argument only, because it would obviously render the whole novel pointless) Anna and Wronskij rode off into the sunset in the end and lived happily ever after, would it even have been possible to publish the book at that time? And it's no cheap, superficial moralism either, because Anna's dilemma is described complexly enough, she is so wrecked by her guilt and situation precisely because she is a good person with deep feelings; he doesn't let society off easily, either - the way Karenin and Anna were manipulated into a loveless marriage by Anna's aunt, the hypocrisy that allows Wronskij to continue his social life, but forces Anna into the isolation and depression that will ultimately kill her. And when Tolstoi describes the pseudo-religiosity into which Karenin is lured, the seance Oblonskij witnesses - in my opinion these are perhaps the harshest, most sarcastic and judgmental passages in the whole book.

Perhaps part of the problem is that for me the love between Anna and Wronskij is never really tangible. It has to be there, and not only because we're told it is; Anna wouldn't risk so much for anything less and Wronskij is destroyed after her suicide, but I didn't feel it.

And I didn't particularly care for the Lewin/Kitty story-line, either. I liked Pierre in War and Peace, I didn't like Lewin. We're constantly being told what a wonderful person he is, but he rather started to grate on my nerves after a couple of hundred pages, although I'd be hard pressed to explain what exactly causes the irritation. I half-suspect that it might be that he is too close to myself at least in some respects, but I'm not entirely sure, either. His mood swings, his quick dismissal of ideas that don't interest him? (Kitty should have smacked him after that first fit of jealousy, not taken it as a compliment and proof of love.)

My main problem, however, is with Lewin's epiphany, which quite spoiled the ending of the novel for me. I had no issues with the religious/spiritual approach in any of Dostojewski's novels so far, and was fine with Andrej and Pierre's spiritual search in War and Peace, but this was just a little too dogmatic for little atheist me. The assumed necessity of a link between theist religion - orthodox Christianity, specifically - and the existence of an ethical code, the ability to be a good man is too pronounced, too exclusive, for my taste. I do realise Tolstoi wrote from an entirely different perspective in an entirely different time, but something within me balks at reading that and blankly refuses to accept it even in the context of a novel. Although in all honesty, I'm not so sure I even disagree all that much with the basic idea, if the words 'God' and 'church' were removed. But can one do that without entirely twisting the the meaning? Does or doesn't the whole philosophical construct collapse if you remove that particular element? Tolstoi does leave the door wide open for other religions, including non-theist ones like Buddhism and Konfuzianism...

(What I found rather likable though, is that Lewin's epiphany didn't immediately render him a saint. He still is, and knows he'll continue to be, prone to fits of temper and anger, will still quarrel with his wife and won't all of a sudden love his brother; he's not perfect. I like the humanity of that.)

Lewin/Tolstoi dismisses intellect, reason and science too readily here for my taste. I do see the need for a spiritual approach to life, but I also do think that these aspects can - and indeed must - complement and balance each other. For me the realisation that perhaps/probably there is no ultimate, perfect answer to all the question, no ultimate meaning, doesn't necessarily have to lead to despair or negativity only. I don't quite understand why the realisation of his own mortality frightens and shocks Lewin so that it almost incapacitates him. Perhaps I'm inclined to resign too easily, but for me it seems natural that at some point of your life you'll have to accept that you'll eventually die, that in all probability you won't change the world or even leave a lasting impression, that you won't find the Meaning of Life, but can only try to discover the meaning of your life as best as you can. That this is already quite a lot. But surely that doesn't mean that from thereon it has to be only gloom and depression? That you can't enjoy life for what it is, that you don't still have an obligation towards other human beings? The struggle is painful, certainly, but the acceptance seems liberating to me, in the same way that shaking off the restrictions of the kind of religion that is based on a system of fear/reward/punishment is liberating. I think you have to be able to accept imperfection and insecurity inherent in every aspect of life, and that perhaps it's a very male thing to despair at not being able to do so.

But that's what Lewin does in the end, give up a search that can never come to an end, because there is no end, at least none that the human brain/mind/soul can discover or grasp, accept these imperfections and insecurities, and focus on life itself, his wife, his child, find happiness in that, but are the dogmatic trappings of religion, its concept and language really necessary? Does it have to be in the name of 'God'?

Then again, easy to say that, more than a century of increasing atheism later.

And see, this is where I'm unable to determine whether I basically agree with Tolstoi's philosophy, if you just changed the wording a little, or whether we're on opposite sides in this argument.

Longer ramble than I intended... I'll leave Dostojewski's Idiot for another entry.
solitary_summer: (cat (© clive barker))

Holiday, pt. 2

[ more pictures here ]

To sum up, and contrary to the evidence of the picture above, it rained. A lot.

In slightly more detail, I arrived in Maishofen. It started to rain. And went on raining. Thursday it finally cleared up and I managed a hiking tour, which was mostly pretty, but where I found out that despite the morning runs my form is still? again? sadly lacking. (Yes, it was kind of steep, and also a few days before my period started, but still...) Also, I need to do something against my cow-phobia. Saturday It started to rain again, and that pretty much was it. So it didn't really matter all that much that - Tuesday, I think - I ran against the door-frame and bruised and maybe, but probably not, slightly cracked my little toe. Trip to the hospital, X-ray, which at least killed an hour or so. Couple of days of hopping around, which was less than amusing. Saturday before I left if finally cleared up again, but by then I still couldn't wear my hiking boots without the toe hurting. Sat on the balcony in the evening with a glass of wine, watching first dusk fall, and then a thunderstorm approaching from the west, lightning flashing over the mountains... which was pretty much the only time I felt truly relaxed and almost happy.

And yes, I do realise that it's horribly self-indulgent and petty to whine about such minor irritations when a couple of hundred kilometers further west streets and houses were swept away by flooding and land-slides.

So what I did was try to at least get out on the bike for a couple of hours each day when/if the rain stopped, and read. A lot. Tolstoi's War and Peace, which for the greater part I liked very much. My only (very minor) issue is with the second part, where occasionally he gets a little too long-windedly didactic in his theoretical historic passages for my taste. The problem, I guess, is whereas his historic approach was probably ground-breaking and new when he wrote the novel, it is rather less so a century and a half's worth of historical and sociological theories later, and you occasionally get a little exasperated, when what you already understood and found interesting the first, second and third time, is explained over and over again. And there's the occasional over-dose of patriotism and partiality for Kutusow... Also while you get to like the characters so much you want them to be happy, the epilogue with everyone happily married and I don't know many children is a little too sweet for my taste, but, again, minor irritations. Great writing, great characters throughout, loved it. Cried through Andrej's death; he's perhaps the character I liked best, always searching for something...something more, something beyond, and never quite reaching it, never really finding peace, only in the end, 'waking up from life'.

Finished Dostojewski's Crime and Punishment this time, and was very impressed with it. The first time I got stuck somewhere around Marmeladow's death, because between the endless, all-pervading misery, the apparently pointless murder and Raskolnikow's constant mood-swings and near-hysteria, I found it rather tiring to read, but once Raskolnikow's motif is explained it and his true tragedy becomes apparent, that it is not remorse for the murder that tortures him, but the fact that he fell short of his own standards because he could not coldly commit and bear the murder that was supposed to prove him one of the few, great people set apart from the masses who for the good of humankind in his opinion are above rules, conventions and laws. The problem of course is that partly he is right, because history has double standards and allows people to spill a lot of blood and will still call them great, but the sheer arrogance of deciding that he is one of these people and committing a murder almost exclusively with the purpose of proving this is breathtaking, as is the hurt pride in the self-disgust at having failed. (It is rather symptomatic that he's convinced that his sister is willing to martyr herself for him, but when she does appear in person it turns out she's not quite the self-sacrificing suffering saint, but a woman with a brain, personality and standards, who's in fact perfectly capable of weighing her options and making decisions for her life.)

Somehow, this novel and Raskolnikow's character seem to be almost prophetic for a good part of the 20th century...

Aber wenn du Blutvergießen aus Gewissen erlaubst, so ist das entsetzlicher als eine offizielle, sanktionierte Erlaubnis zum Morden...

I can't put it into wordes, but there's something about both novels, the sheer scope and depth of emotions, the subjects adressed, that is... TM's 'heilige russische Literatur' makes a lot of sense.

Also read Gogol's Dead Souls, which was a good, amusing read, but I do hate unfinished WIPs, so it's probably a good thing I didn't know that when I bought it...

Barbara Nadel, Belsazar's Tochter and Ake Edwardson, Der Himmel auf Erden, because they were on sale and you can't read Russian classics all the time.

Re-read a good part of TM's Doktor Faustus, still/again very much intrigued & noticed that TM is the first author in a long time whose books I actually re-read.

Gave up on Josef Winkler (too depressing) and Amos Oz (just couldn't get into it).


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March 2013

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