[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.