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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry’s and Jeff’s views are problematic – Van, too – to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to societal expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

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Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Bill Burnett And Dave Evans – Designing Your Life

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Getting the most out of it.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 254
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-74024-5
First Published: 15th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 2nd October 2016
Rating: 4/5

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans created a course for students at Stanford University to help them ready their futures. Drawing from the methods designers use to create and prototype, the authors constructed a course with a difference, one that went against the grain to be of particular lifelong value. After much success, they’ve decided to turn the course into a book in order to help a greater number of people.

Designing Your Life is the kind of book that sports lots of common sense of the sort we tend to forget. It sports a lot of things that lead to ‘ah ha!’ moments. And it’s the literary version of those times when someone says ‘now bear with me…’ and you think ‘oh god, here it goes’ and then after a while of talking that you still think suspect, ends with a lot of very good ideas and value.

To be sure it reads as very American but the suggestions and topics in focus should, this reviewer believes (as a Brit), be relevant to most people. Burnett and Evans – who address themselves in the third person, which makes you wonder who was writing when and becomes something to really appreciate because of the complete collaborative atmosphere it projects – write in simple, easy to understand terms, giving full credit to other ideas which they detail for you in case you haven’t come across them previously. The authors seem to favour the idea of ‘done rather than perfect’ – the writing is plain but it does the job and the book’s complete lack of any filler content (student stories are detailed in order to provide context and examples) just goes to further the overall feeling that the authors know what they are doing. This is to say the book has been designed as much as the lives have been designed.

It turns out that the part of the brain that is working to help us make our best choices is in the basal ganglia. It’s part of the ancient base brain, and as such does not have connections to our verbal centers, so it does not communicate in words. It communicates in feelings and via connections to the intestines – those good old gut feelings. The memories that inform this choice-guiding function in our brains Goleman refers to as the “wisdom of the emotions”; by this he means the collected experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for us in life, and what we draw upon in evaluating a decision. Our own wisdom is then made available to us emotionally (as feelings) and intestinally (as a bodily, gut response). Therefore, in order to make a good decision, we need access to our feelings and gut reactions to the alternatives.

It’s a book to read quickly – we are talking lives after all and one of the authors’ thoughts, so often running in the background, is that we spend a lot of time thinking about and considering the present, agonising over the past and our choices, time that can be put to better use working on propelling ourselves towards our futures. Among the topics and concepts are jobs (don’t waste time on applications that get put into a keyword database, rather try and set up interviews with people who are doing what you want to do – do not think of these as interviews), ‘failure immunity’ (accepting that failure happens but not letting it get to you; categorising failures so you can dismiss minor one-offs and focus only on strengthening your weaknesses), and a ‘life dashboard’ that may seem a bit gimmicky but has a great idea behind it, that of working out your health/work/play/love balance and adjusting accordingly. The chapters on getting a job are particularly good and, like all the other topics included, sport both things you’ll inevitably already know and lots of things you kind of know but not in the way the authors are talking about them.

On that note, a key concept of the book is ‘reframing’ – dotted throughout are sentences that we’ve been taught to believe, accompanied by Burnett and Evans’ suggestions for different angles to view them through. The authors ask: when you try to solve a problem, are you solving the right one?

An example: dysfunctional thought – ‘I should know where I’m going’; reframed – ‘I can’t know where I’m going until I know where I am now’.

The only caveat with this book is that it’s not going to help everyone. This is something the authors address when they say that sometimes you might have to take the job to pay the bills or feed the family and do that until you’re in a place where you’ve space to look at your life in the way this book explains, but it’s not quite as simple as that. You’ll notice that by and large the stories in this book are of people who are relatively privileged in life when compared to others and have had the opportunity to learn skills that they can go back to and think about. Whilst the book may indeed work for a broader section of society than that looked at, it does come from a certain situation and place in life, and the angle the subjects are viewed from may suggest to some readers that this isn’t a book for them. It also isn’t a cure all; while the ideas in general are great, some are likely not to work, for example the idea of having a life design team to support what you’re trying to do – such a thing, as outlined in the book, would take a lot of time and while that suggested 3-6 people are spending time working on your future with you, they’re using time they could be working on themselves. You would need a number of extremely supportive and dedicated people in order to make such a thing work unless, perhaps, you happen to still be in education where everyone is doing the same thing. The firm suggestion that everyone involved get a copy of the book is a little too obvious in its hopes.

Designing Your Life is a very good book with some excellent ideas that do work – there are examples in day-to-day life aplenty, never mind in this book. The reframing idea is important because it gets you to think outside of the box and outside of the normal social thinking that whilst well-intended (or sometimes not!) can indeed hamper a person’s progress. But it’s best to keep yourself objective when reading it, and some may find it better placed as a guide rather than a project.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina

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In which war and peace both have a place in an affair.

Publisher: Various (I read the Penguin Classics edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1878
Date Reviewed: 7th November 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Anna Karenina
Translated by: Pevear and Volokhonsky

Anna catches Vronsky’s eye whilst he is supposedly courting Kitty. The attraction is mutual and so they begin an affair to the sadness of both Kitty and Karenin, Anna’s husband. It may not be all doom and gloom for Kitty – she’d turned down a proposal from Levin due to Vronsky and Levin still wants her, but Anna’s life will be very different as there is more to consider than she wishes to think about.

Anna Karenina is a tome of a book that focuses on the lives of five main characters and several secondary ones. Whilst the climax may deal with the titular character she is not the be all, end all – that’s to say the book’s about far more than the one woman. At 800-odd pages, no matter the edition, it’s a slog sometimes, but a good book nonetheless.

You likely won’t be surprised to hear that Tolstoy is wordy. There are limits as to how much can be put down to translation and Tolstoy can drone on on occasion – compared to Dickens it’s nothing but it does make for lulls in the text. This is somewhat but not completely to do with the themes of the novel; Anna Karenina owes much to philosophy – economic, religious, political, social.

This philosophy is explored through the character of Levin who in part represents the author himself. The narrative of Levin and Kitty’s courtship is comparable to that of Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia, and beyond that much of Levin’s thinking is based on Tolstoy’s own. This is surely why there is so much non-Anna in the book and knowing that it relates to Tolstoy can make it far more interesting than it would be by itself.

Whether because the author flipped back and forth himself or because he just wanted to explore the ideas (the likelihood is of Tolstoy flipping) there is a lot about Levin’s thinking that is objective. Tolstoy sends Levin’s thoughts flying in one direction before pulling him back the other way, not on every subject but a vast many. Of course he comes to particular conclusions in the end that may or may not fit the reader but he gives ample time to other viewpoints beyond his own. He appropriates lifestyles and thoughts whilst Levin figures out what he wants – and he aims to be respectful even if it doesn’t end up that way. Besides this consideration of one character, Tolstoy provides counterparts in Levin’s friends and family. Levin’s story isn’t exactly thrilling; it is the inactive (as opposed to physical action, extroversion) musing that balances out Anna and Vronsky’s social life.

To Anna then – yes, it feels odd not to have spoken of her thus far but somewhat right nevertheless – Tolstoy succeeds in luring you in. Everyone who meets Anna falls a little in love with her and damn it if you won’t also. It is in this way, the almost interactive nature of the text wherein Tolstoy makes you love her too, that the author shows you why people do the things they do. Making the reader fall for Anna does the job better than any descriptions, even if descriptions are what make you fall. Things get a little awry later insofar as reasoning goes – not everything Anna does makes perfect sense – but in general she is a fantastic character in that whether you like or dislike her she will make her mark on you.

With Vronsky it’s a little different. You don’t ‘have’ to fall for him and likely you won’t. Tolstoy sets him up as only a semi-hero from the start. Because you hear so much from both men – husband Karenin and lover Vronsky – you’re never in danger of putting them before Anna, which is quite possibly what Tolstoy planned. You will feel for all three characters in the triangle at various points, Tolstoy showing no major favouritism, rather exploring to an objective outcome the effects of an affair in such a time and society.

Explore he does. Of initial interest, perhaps, in our modern view with our particular mores, is the fact that it’s not the affair itself, the affair as a concept, that is the issue in this book. The society of which Tolstoy writes does not care for morals in this way – people have affairs all the time. What it does care about is divorce and the actual physical relocation of a couple from the bonds of marriage. It is Anna’s move to Vronsky’s side that heralds the start of her troubles, a queen moving anywhere she wants on the board that will eventually be brought down no matter how far she goes. Anna’s incapability to accept the changes in society’s view of her causes many problems and whilst Tolstoy invariably strikes her story with a God-like hand he then sits back and lets it play out. He may be saying something, moralising as he does with Levin, but he wants the reader to see things for themselves, to come to their conclusions without too much help.

There are no evil-doers in Tolstoy’s book, no wicked husband, no wicked wife, no stepmothers keeping children from balls. A huge part of the book’s triumph lies in its objectivity – again that same word. Yes, Anna decides to have an affair when she had previously loved her husband and could have said ‘no’, but even though Tolstoy has a narrative all prepared for her that may be upsetting and unnecessary to us nowadays it is somewhat a result of the era rather than the character herself. And Vronsky may become rather disaffected and you may emphasise or dislike him for it but you can see his reasons and they aren’t bad; there’s a misunderstanding afoot. Karenin is shown in a fair light, very fair, but whilst you will feel sorry for him Tolstoy never rams him down your throat, indeed he gives Karenin a bit of get-up-and-go that will have you wishing he had held back.

The questions are thus: is this right or wrong? Why? What should be happening? What is going to happen and ought it? There is certainly something to be said regarding Tolstoy’s choice to end the book with several chapters devoted to Levin rather than the aftermath of the triangle but whether that’s moralising or simply down to Tolstoy’s wish to talk about himself is hard to decipher.

A note on Kitty, then, because I’ve left her out, and Dolly because there’s a short piece that is mightily compelling: Kitty’s a nice enough character. She represents the home life Levin hopes for and is obviously meant to balance out Anna’s presence in the text. She’s the wife whose existence brings Levin to the place Tolstoy wants him to be, who grounds him from going too far with the appropriating. It could be said she’s what stops Levin from just throwing his money away and pitching in with his workers – which may sound like appropriation itself but is a welcomed change from it because it becomes uncomfortable reading about a rich man helping out in the fields and being jolly about it because it’s a novelty and nothing he’ll have to do full-time. Kitty’s character lends the book a younger feel, providing readers who may be on the cusp of age but not quite someone they can relate to as they wade through a mature text. Dolly? She helps Tolstoy explore the emotional effects of affairs, more so than Karenin, because of her husband’s (Oblonsky) inability to stay faithful. Society may see affairs as almost inevitable but Dolly reminds us not everyone feels that way. The compelling short piece? Tolstoy has Dolly consider for a moment how her life might have been had she not had children. It is only a moment, it takes place amongst a few pages only and is neatly tied up by the end of the chapter with the assertion that she much prefers life the way it is – as you would expect of a novel from the 1800s. But it’s there and it reveals perhaps a tiny inkling of Tolstoy’s possible opinion that women ought to have more say and a bigger role in society. When added to the statement several chapters before that a woman’s lack of rights stemmed from a lack of education and vice-versa, it becomes quite the poignant concept in terms of Tolstoy’s message.

As said, Tolstoy waffles on occasion. He repeats himself and talks about things that would be edited out these days. Worthy of 800 pages this book is not, but it’s also not bad. The writing is fair and insofar as one can judge when referring to a translation the text is easy to read and alluring. It can be funny. And when not bogged down in meetings that will never get anywhere it’s a quick read. I must recommend the translation I chose, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s. The colloquial English grammar at times overlooks the fact it’s Russian but it’s a much simpler read than some. The Maude translation, which I read 500 pages of, is quite clunky and poorly written. (Not to mention it seems one of the Maudes disliked Tolstoy – they knew each other – so what they were doing translating it in the first place and how much that infers reliability is quite the question.)

Anna Karenina is an undertaking. In deciding to read it you’re signing yourself up for the long haul and whilst it’s a good long haul it isn’t the most thrilling or satisfying one out there. There are parts you can take away with you but the likelihood is you’ll be relieved once you’ve finished.

Read it; it’s worth it and it feels good to say you’ve read it, but have another book on the go at the same time and remember to keep your wits about you because everyone has three to four names they go by.

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