понедельник, 12 февраля 2018 г.

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop -2017

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

'I can't imagine a nicer Christmas present' Lionel Shriver, Observer 'A passionate, hilarious, joyful love letter to Russian literature' Allison Pearson, Sunday Telegraph 'A delightful primer and companion to all the authors you are ashamed to admit you haven't read' The Times Viv Groskop has discovered the meaning of life in Russian literature. As she knows from personal experience, everything that has ever happened in life has already happened in these novels: from not being sure what to do with your life (Anna Karenina) to being in love with someone who doesn't love you back enough (A Month in the Country by Turgenev) or being socially anxious about your appearance (all of Chekhov's work). This is a literary self-help memoir, with examples from the author's own life that reflect the lessons of literature, only in a much less poetic way than Tolstoy probably intended, and with an emphasis on being excessively paranoid about having an emerging moustache on your upper lip, just like Natasha in War and Peace. ***A SPECTATOR Book of the Year*** ***An OBSERVER Book of the Year*** ***A TIMES Book of the Year***


‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’
Woody Allen
An enemy of baked goods of all kinds, Tolstoy was not one of those insufferable people who breeze through life unencumbered by frustration and angst. Comfortingly enough, he was a person who struggled to understand why, at times, life felt intensely painful, even when nothing that bad was happening. His empathy for the pain of the human condition is surprising in some ways, because he lived a monastic existence and indulged in few, if any, pleasures. Unlike the rest of us, he really had very little to feel bad about. Tolstoy was very much not a doughnuts-and-beer kind of guy. He only ate cake if it was a family birthday, and then it had to be a particular cake, his wife’s Anke pie, a sour lemon tart named after a family doctor. Mostly, he ate simply and repetitively. One of the researchers at the Tolstoy Museum at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana recently uncovered evidence of his fifteen favourite egg dishes, which he ate in rotation. These included scrambled eggs with dill, and peas with eggs. He didn’t drink alcohol. He didn’t eat meat. And yet still he frequently felt that he was a terrible person.
Perhaps as a result of this tortured way of thinking, long before self-help manuals became hugely popular in the early twentieth century, Tolstoy had already written one of his own. It was full of the sort of inspirational quotes we’re now used to seeing on fridge magnets and as advertisements for mindfulness retreats. Some of the sayings are his own quotes:
We only truly come alive in ourselves when we live for others.
If a rich man is to be truly charitable, he will give away all his wealth as soon as possible.
In itself, work is not a virtue, but it is an essential condition of a virtuous life.
The other sayings are from writers and thinkers who inspired him: Rousseau, Plutarch, Pascal, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau among others, as well as quotations from the Talmud and the Bible. In Tolstoy’s defence, A Calendar of Wisdom was deeply serious and well meant. The book itself is calming, fascinating and often unintentionally entertaining: ‘If you are in the grip of carnal passions and overwhelmed by them, you will become entwined in the creeping bindweed of suffering’ – Buddhist wisdom. (Bring on the carnal passions, I say. Worry about the bindweed later.) Also known as A Circle of Readings or The Thoughts of Wise PeopleA Calendar of Wisdom consisted of a page of inspiring quotes for each day of the year, collected by Tolstoy over sixteen years and a popular edition was published in 1912, two years after his death.
A lot of the quotes directly contradict the messages of today’s self-help movement, which encourages us to devote ourselves passionately to the art of learning to love ourselves, or, at the very least, to move away from self-hate. In A Calendar of Wisdom, it’s the other way round. Pride and a love of the self are wrong; and if we are going to hate anyone, we should hate ourselves. (It literally says this. This sentiment is very typical of Tolstoy, who disliked doing anything pleasant, easy or fun.) Tolstoy prescribes an extreme, ascetic way of life, where lustful desires are especially dangerous and overeating is a sin because it denotes a lack of self-respect. Here are some of his other entries. On 4 June: ‘Because Christianity has become perverted, we now lead a life that has become worse than a pagan’s.’ Some of his edicts are painfully enigmatic. On 27 October: ‘The light remains the light, even though a blind man cannot see it.’ And anything relating to women is generally bad news. On 2 June: ‘A woman has a great responsibility: to give birth. But she doesn’t give birth to ideas – that is the responsibility of men.’
Tolstoy saw these quotes as a guide to life at a time of crisis: a gathering of ‘a circle of the best writers’ whose ideas would lead to salvation. As Roger Cockrell, translator of the latest edition of the Calendar in English, writes, Tolstoy’s overall aim is ‘to urge us all to strive, through unrelenting effort, for self-improvement’. I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard. (Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.) But he had an instinct for the sort of thinking that would become hugely popular a century later. And he had a strong conviction that the only way to fight back against the pressures of modern life was to define the right life lessons and apply them to yourself. This book follows the same impetus and aims to channel the Oprah side of Tolstoy. It’s what he would have wanted. Please, no overeating while reading it. Neither Oprah nor Tolstoy would like it.
The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place: life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully. While Tolstoy looked for answers in his time in didactic philosophy and religious texts, many of us seek comfort in reading about the lives of others, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The pithy sayings in The Calendar of Wisdom are useful, inspiring and sometimes even life-changing, but it is great works of literature that really change us as people, by showing us the inner lives of others and by revealing our common humanity. These works allow us to imagine different versions of ourselves, only without having to kill any old ladies (Crime and Punishment), have a friendly conversation with Satan on a park bench (The Master and Margarita) or throw ourselves under trains (Anna Karenina). Warning: there might be a few spoilers in this book, which is surely to be forgiven when most of these works have been around for well over a hundred years.
It’s no surprise that Tolstoy himself didn’t use fiction as a basis for the advice in his self-help book. We can’t expect Tolstoy to admit the usefulness of novels. In the latter part of his life, he had a huge spiritual crisis and all but renounced Anna Karenina and War and Peace as the writings of a sinful, frivolous fool. No wonder he turned to the Bible. But I want to argue the opposite of what Tolstoy came to believe. Philosophy and religious writings may have their place. And self-help aphorisms from the Greeks always bring solace. But it is in literature – whether novels, plays or poetry – that we really see who we are – and, perhaps even more importantly, who we don’t want to be.
But, first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. There will be no footnotes, although I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible where I’m quoting from, and there’s a detailed reading list at the back of the book. Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again. It’s also about the times in life when you behave like an idiot, which, for some reason, for me have been remarkably frequent and don’t seem to be getting less so as I grow older.
Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves. It’s just not true that in order to read the Russian classics you have to be part of some kind of secret society of special people. You definitely don’t have to know any Russian or have any plans to ever learn Russian, even though, with me, it was an obsession with studying Russian that pushed me towards these books. You don’t even need to know any Russian history, although you will certainly pick up a lot of it in passing. And you don’t have to fuss about whether you’ve got the right translation. Or whether you’re missing the entire point. Or whether you need to be sitting next to a samovar. It’s accessible to all of us.
I have two university degrees in Russian, and I spent a long time acquiring fluent Russian, using a combination of iron discipline and bison grass vodka. But even after all this, I am no expert. I am a shambling amateur who wants to encourage other shambling amateurs. These books have brought a lot of joy and hope to me, which is something I would never have expected and which endlessly surprises me, as I grew up in a house where we were very much not the sort of people who sat around saying, ‘But don’t you think Nikolai would have been better off with Sonya in War and Peace?’ (Frankly, who would want to live in that household?) What I have learned about the Russians is that there is no need to be afraid of them. And there is certainly no need for them to be seen as uniquely ‘serious’ and ‘academic’, which we all know are synonyms for ‘dusty’ and ‘boring’.
It’s time to take all the doubt and fuss and snobbery and pretence out of this kind of reading. This book is a celebration of the art of reading on its own terms, which is always the most personal thing, and about giving yourself licence to read how you want to read, without feeling that there’s always someone else who knows more than you and that maybe you don’t really get it. However you get it, you’ve got it right. I say: read these classics in part if you can’t face the whole thing. Don’t be afraid not to finish or to come back years later. Read them slowly, without stressing over whether you’re understanding every detail. Read them in bed, read them on the bus, read them in the place that Vladimir Putin would call ‘the outhouse’. (He once gave a memorable speech in which he assured his people that Russia’s enemies were not safe anywhere, even in the outhouse. Please find yourself the safest possible outhouse, which Putin cannot know about, and treat yourself to a few pages of Three Sisters.)
As well as shedding some light on some of life’s most difficult moments by using examples from these eleven classic Russian works, I’ll be looking at some examples from the lives of the writers who wrote them, too. Frequently, there’s a mismatch between what the authors seem to advocate in their books and what was going on in their lives. Tolstoy is the classic example. Many of the contradictions, nuances and intricacies of Anna Karenina and War and Peace can be explained by Tolstoy’s later spiritual collapse. When he wrote these books, he empathized hugely with his characters and showed the truth of their lives and feelings. Later on, he felt torn about whether this was a good use of his time and stopped writing those kinds of novels. To know that he was conflicted makes these books even richer with meaning.
The gap between the life of the author, the life of the reader and the text itself has always puzzled me. The thing the reader and the writer have in common is that they’re both real and they’re both living the life of a human being. They know how difficult life can be. And they know it’s almost impossible to express human experience accurately, vividly and believably. However, these two people meet each other on the page, thanks to the story. The story is the stand-in for human experience. It’s pretend, it’s make-believe. The contract between the writer and the reader says that the writer must agree to make the reader believe in this made-up story. And it’s through this agreement that those two people have a meeting of minds and ‘discuss’ human existence. This is an extraordinary contract, and it’s one that is particularly deep in Russian literature.
I’m interested in what these books can teach us about life without us actually having to live through the things described in them. Novels are a way of trying on other people’s lives, judging, forgiving, understanding them. They are as good at showing us how not to live as they are at showing us how to live. In fact, they’re often better at the former. As many critics have noted, the first line of Anna Karenina is intensely memorable and reads beautifully. But the truth of it is not really proved in the novel: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ In the novel itself, there are no happy families. If Tolstoy wanted to show us one, he could have done. But he doesn’t. Instead, he shows us a host of unhappy families, who, ironically enough, do often share things in common: the inability to communicate, the feeling of always thinking that someone else has something better than you, the idea that there must be more to life than this. If anything, Tolstoy’s lesson is this: ‘How Not to Live’. These are sometimes cautionary tales rather than manuals for living. Maybe that’s more real and memorable and therefore more useful than any self-help manual.
Because life is not simple and Russian literature is definitely not simple, there are several outliers in the list of eleven classics featured here. Several don’t count as novels. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse form; Akhmatova’s Requiem is a set of ten poems; Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a play, as is Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Gogol might even argue that Dead Souls is an epic poem. (It isn’t really. It’s clearly a novel.) So, while this is a book mostly about fictional worlds, it’s more precisely about classics of their time and what they have to teach us about life for all time.
There are many books that could have had a place in this list. But I have had to leave out a lot of great works (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry) in order to avoid this book being as long as War and Peace itself. Apologies to Russophiles whose favourites are not present. Of all the books I most wish were here, one is certainly Gogol’s The Overcoat. For me, this is a short story the plot of which sums up Russian literature in a nutshell. It’s about an insignificant copying clerk who saves up for an overcoat. He saves up for a long time. A very long time. On the day the overcoat finally comes into his possession, it is stolen from him. Shortly afterwards, he falls ill and dies. That is Russian literature’s idea of a life lesson. You have been warned.

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