Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Omniscient Third

In my self-directed study of the art of writing (ie, in my reading of writer’s and bookmonger’s blogs) I have heard over and over again of Tolstoy’s brilliant narrative in Anna Karenina, which I completely failed to notice the first time I read it. So I decided to give it another go, and I must say that I’m loving the story this time, too.

The first time I read Anna K was during the 2nd-most unhappy six months of my life (a pretty miserable time but not quite as bad, I think, as my first semester at university). It was October in the year 2000. Like many Australian 20-somethings, I went to London seeking fortune and adventure, but found when arrived there that my money was worthless and my earning capacity negligible. My first job there, as a secretary in the supply-chain department of a publisher, brought in enough money to cover my rent, but not much more than that. It was a hard, lonely time. I had some Australian friends in London, but they were mostly architects and IT professionals on handsome salaries, with penchants for endless rounds of expensive poncy bars and brand new restaurants that served bland tasteless food. I gradually dropped out of that scene and found myself killing time, wandering Oxford Street alone. Eventually, inevitably, I wound up in Borders where I discovered that, in London, books were not nearly as expensive as drinks or food, and I settled in for a long reading bender of a distinctly Russian tone: Nabokov (much more Russian than American, really); Turgenev; a contemporary bloke, Victor Pelevin and, of course, Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky hit the spot. Nothing in my life was so desperately, tragically, hilariously bad as it was for his characters. When I exhausted his supply I turned to Tolstoy, hoping for more of the same from Anna Karenina. However, I was disappointed to find it an overly-long and boringly-detailed soap opera. I ploughed my way through the text – I had shelled out £9 for it after all – but afterward closed it with a feeling of disappointment and a dry, metallic taste in my mouth.

Soon after that, the sun came out on London and the whole outlook of my life there changed. There is nothing like a London summer (although so far Townsville winter is sort of coming close). I found a better job. I took a holiday in Italy and had the obligatory weekend in Amsterdam; I made some new friends and found that life was rosy once more, blah blah blah, and I don’t think that I have read another Russian author since then. My reading focus turned more to Americans: Hemmingway, Miller, Scott Fitzgerald, and Bellow, and I started to wonder more and more what it was that made a good book good. I gently reminded myself that I used to like writing stories, myself.

These days I spend more time reading than ever, though much of it is online. I seem to be far more likely to act on a book recommendation from a fellow blogger than from one of my real-life friends (sorry, real-life friends), and since I have spent so much time pondering Point of View (thanks in particular to this blog), I decided to pick up and re-examine Mrs K, the most masterful example, I've been told, of the Omniscient Third Person. This time, I am really appreciating the effect of Tolstoy’s way of getting inside each of his characters’ minds. He clearly, dearly loves each character though he presents them along with all their foibles and self-delusions. He conveys the drama of each scene, as well as all those tiny details (the ice-skate drilled directly onto the sole of Levin’s boot; the paperknife used on the pages of a new book) that are more than just embellishments, and that I am relishing so much this time. And I do enjoy the more Dostoyevskyesque characters, those who wallow in their own maudlin internal monologues like the manic-depressive Levin and his consumptive brother Nicholas (Nicholas’s common-law wife is a former street-whore, which is, of course, very Dostoyevsky). But, I am glad to say, I appreciate the buoyant Oblonsky and the cold social-climber Vronsky just as much.

And the story is so romantic. How could I have missed that last time?


MR said...

Having recently finished Anna K myself, I think it took the whole of Central America and a plane ride to Santiago to get through it, I can say I enjoyed it to. To me the story is completely disjoint with extra side line stories that just do not need to be there but instead it is a collection of the wonderful jumble of the conflicting thoughts that goes through ones head and digressions into the general ambiguity of life and relations. Only a small bit of the story is about Anna but instead each character provides a different slant on such, life central questions as marriage and infidelity; lust, love and passion; socialism vs capitalism, the value of money and the distribution of wealth; excess, exuberance, mediocrity and depression; the conflict between the outer and inner person, outer elegance and inner turmoil; the pressures and influence of society; and the need to find meaning and feel alive. There is more I´m sure but having gone straight from Tolstoy to Flaubert´s
Madame Bovary my memory is failing me.

Naomi said...

Ha, how self involved am I! I tend to only read to either make myself feel better or with a view to improving my writing skills ... but of course you're right, Anna Karenina is like a massive collection of debates on all sides of life and love -including the inside.

I'm now thinking of it like a really good dinner party with a great mix of people, and everyone gets to have their say.