Karenina’s Kids | by Yiyun Li


In 1899 Anton Chekhov wrote to Maxim Gorky, an up-and-coming author whose tales had caught his and Tolstoy’s consideration:

The day earlier than yesterday I used to be at L.N. Tolstoy’s; he praised you very extremely and stated that you simply had been “a outstanding author.” He likes your “The Honest” and “Within the Steppe,” and doesn’t like “Malva.” He stated: “You may invent something you want, however you may’t invent psychology, and in Gorky one comes throughout simply psychological innovations: he describes what he has by no means felt.”

In one other letter, Chekhov suggested Gorky towards his tendency to write down like “a spectator within the theater who expresses his delight with so little restraint that he prevents himself and others from listening.” One wonders if Gorky ever heeded this recommendation. In his fiction, characters are sometimes given stage instructions: “cried with jealousy in his voice,” “exclaimed admiringly,” or “laughed an indulgent snigger.” The three-volume Autobiography of Maxim Gorky, splendidly populated with every kind of characters, would have been extra participating if not for Gorky’s recurring emphasis on “this extraordinary Russian life,” “the distress and murky lives” of Russian individuals, or his personal awakening: “My swelling coronary heart nearly cut up below stress of many unusual feelings, and I felt an encompassing, inarticulate love for all human beings and all of the earth.”

Carmen Boullosa
Carmen Boullosa; illustration by Johnalynn Holland

I considered Gorky whereas studying Carmen Boullosa’s new novel, The Guide of Anna, even earlier than Gorky himself is briefly talked about in it. “Anna” within the title refers to Anna Karenina, so I considered Tolstoy additionally, and he too makes an look, extra demandingly, as he “barges” into two characters’ goals. It’s a high-wire act for a novel to current not solely Gorky and Tolstoy, but in addition their characters—one group taken straight from Anna Karenina, and one other that appears to have stepped out of Gorky’s work. The audacity of taking such a threat is probably all that issues. And falling quick is a feat too, when it’s falling in need of the not possible.

Boullosa is without doubt one of the main Mexican voices in modern literature.* Her novels share a mischievous pleasure in storytelling, world-building, and mixing historical past and fiction into dreamlike landscapes. Her vivacity and humor are infectious: a reader typically feels jostled. Her Texas: The Nice Theft, a novel set on the Texas–Mexico border in 1859 and that includes a big solid of characters dwelling in a historic second rife with political and racial conflicts, is exhilarating each in scope and creativeness.

The Guide of Anna begins with some hypothetical questions: What occurs to Anna Karenina’s kids—Sergei, her son with Karenin, and Anya, her daughter with Vronsky—after her loss of life? And what occurs to the kids’s guide that Anna was engaged on, which we’re given solely a glimpse of in Anna Karenina? “She’s writing a guide for kids and doesn’t inform anyone about it, however she learn it to me,” Stiva, Anna’s brother, tells Levin. It’s the solely time that Anna’s work-in-progress is talked about.

Years in the past, a radio host stated to me wistfully earlier than we went on the air, “If solely Tolstoy didn’t let Anna die. We should always have a guide with Anna dwelling on and marrying her lover.” To want for another destiny for a personality—or a continuation of the story—is proof of a reader’s attachment. Solely a handful of novels, although, maintain these reimaginations. Most, in any case, are like individuals we meet: we take them for who they’re, and we don’t really feel the urge to rewrite their pasts, or make modifications to their futures.

To take characters out of their authentic habitats and create a variation on their tales shouldn’t be a brand new concept. Loads of Jane Austen’s characters meander within the panorama of up to date literature; see, for example, Pleasure and Prejudice and Zombies. “The madwoman within the attic,” free of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, unfolds her personal story in Jean Rhys’s Huge Sargasso Sea. In The Guide of Anna, Boullosa ingeniously provides Sergei and Anya a distinct sort of existence: they keep their fictional origin and are recognized to the opposite characters within the novel because the Karenin siblings given beginning to by Tolstoy’s pen. Like movie star kids rising up within the public eye, they’ve gained notoriety not due to who they’re, however who their mother and father are.

Boullosa’s novel is ready in St. Petersburg in 1905, twenty-seven years after the publication of Anna Karenina. Sergei, the boy deserted by his mom, has grown right into a middle-aged, married man, filled with uncertainty and disgrace, sensing too nicely that his being can’t be separated from the novel that uncovered his mom. Dwelling upon his destiny leads him to think about torments from others. “You’re Karenina’s son; she fell in love with Vronsky and deserted you. And what did she see in Vronsky?”—such is the chorus that plagues Sergei’s thoughts.

His tormentors, enthralled by his creator, are literally extra involved along with his social standing. Throughout intermission at a live performance he’s accosted by an envoy:

He takes a step into the field, cornering Sergei. “I’ve learn Tolstoy’s novel so many instances that you would even say I’ve memorized it. I’m overcome by the unbelievable alternative to talk with one in every of its characters….”

An identical destiny befalls Anya, although, as Boullosa writes, she “barely seems within the novel by which she was born, and that provides her persona extra breadth.” Hardly recognized to her beginning father, hardly liked by her beginning mom, and raised by Karenin with “mixtures of affection and hostility, tenderness and betrayal,” Anya, greater than her brother, is a superb creation, totally Boullosa’s. A fictional character like Sergei, Anya nonetheless has sufficient insouciance to deal with their origin story, monumental to her brother, as merely unintended. Just like the society women in Tolstoy’s novels, Anya strives to take pleasure in totally a fabric life lived on the floor.

What an inconvenient predicament then that her personal servants can’t neglect her mom—downstairs the maids speculate in regards to the contraceptives Anna used to keep away from childbearing after Anya’s beginning. And what a disappointment when she fails to draw the suitable individuals together with her fictional origin. On the live performance, she shouldn’t be acknowledged as Sergei is:

Anya has handed unnoticed by the eyes of this explicit reader. Neither her magnificence nor her likeness to the protagonist caught his consideration. “One other one who forgot I used to be ever born,” she says below her breath.

However it’s 1905, and the tsar’s courtroom and aristocratic society are now not the middle of the historic narrative. Gaponists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, sailors onboard the battleship Potemkin, and myriad different characters collectively enter the novel and placed on what Lenin referred to as “the nice gown rehearsal” for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Anya’s maid marches subsequent to Father Gapon himself, the Orthodox priest and chief of the Meeting of Russian Manufacturing facility and Mill Staff, on what got here to be often known as Bloody Sunday. The spouse of Matyushenko, the chief of the Potemkin mutiny, works in Anya’s kitchen. The footman working for Sergei and his spouse, Claudia, makes up a music to entertain himself that’s by chance picked up by the protesters as their battle hymn.

This intersection between fiction and historical past, nonetheless, doesn’t make the historic figures within the novel into profitable characters. As an example, Alexandra Kollontai, the Marxist feminist who later had a distinguished political and diplomatic profession serving the Soviet regime, reveals up within the novel on Bloody Sunday. “Any longer issues are going to be totally different,” she broadcasts on the march. In actual life Kollontai was a witness to Bloody Sunday, however that truth alone doesn’t make her a convincing character. The novel may have simply organized a persuasive connection for her: a childhood good friend working as a maid on the Karenins’, an opportunity encounter with Anya or Sergei, or an encounter with Clementine, a seamstress-turned-anarchist whose two makes an attempt at public bombings bookend the novel. However the connection that goes unmade raises a theoretical query: Is it the birthright of a historic determine to be included in a novel set of their interval? To what finish ought to a novel embody a historic determine like Kollontai—merely as a garnish?

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

One doesn’t need to look far to find historic figures as strong characters. Napoleon in Struggle and Peace has a memorable efficiency, peeling a glove off his white hand; sighing over the wounded Bolkonsky on the battlefield, “Voilà, une belle mort”; and saying, in one in every of my favourite moments, when he’s offered with a portrait of his younger son proper earlier than the Battle of Borodino, “Take him away” whereas “pointing to the portrait with a gracefully majestic gesture. ‘It’s nonetheless too early for him to look upon a subject of battle.’” This isn’t solely historical past’s Napoleon, but in addition Tolstoy’s Napoleon, a dramatist who writes for himself, the one actor who issues.

The historic figures in The Guide of Anna—Kollontai, Father Gapon, the sailors on board the Potemkin—fulfill their roles within the historic narrative of 1905, however they, like wax figures in a museum, don’t encourage creativeness or curiosity. One needs that Boullosa’s creative contact prolonged to them, in order that Kollontai weren’t solely historical past’s Kollontai, but in addition Boullosa’s.

Characters in fiction begin with uncertainties and finish with but different uncertainties—as individuals do in actual life. Figures in historical past find yourself with carved-in-stone certainties. The gratification of recognizing a historic connection in a novel is much like that of recognizing a minor character who has stepped out of Anna Karenina and into The Guide of Anna. It’s the gratification of being within the know.

Is that sufficient for a reader? Characters—and, for that matter, you and I—are, in the long run, not knowable. It’s an creator’s accountability to make up a actuality, nonetheless fantastical or unreal it might be, that permits the readers an phantasm of getting nearer to the unknowable. The dilemmas and maneuvers of Sergei and Anya of their actuality—being fictional characters amongst actual individuals—give us the phantasm that now we have come to know them in The Guide of Anna. The historic figures within the novel retain a couple of biographical information and keep flat and unknown.

“I’m too good for the world of recent literature,” Rebecca West wrote to the editor of the Occasions Literary Complement after the publication of an uncomplimentary survey of her profession,

and the best way I come off so badly is that I do know that I’m not ok for my world. I fall quick and I fall quick and solely in components of The Birds Fall Down have I ever felt that I used to be coming close to what I needed to do.

That assertion alone makes West’s novel a must-read for her admirers. The Birds Fall Down takes place similtaneously The Guide of Anna, when tsarists and revolutionaries are set to alter the course of Russian historical past. Lenin, who’s about to take the reins of the Russian Communist Celebration, is glimpsed briefly. A reader gasps not merely at Lenin’s presence, however as a result of a younger revolutionary, having assassinated a high-ranking celebration official who additionally served because the tsar’s spy, reveals that he and Lenin are related. Will we get to know Lenin in The Birds Fall Down higher than we get to know Kollontai in The Guide of Anna? Not essentially. However now we have rooted for the murderer in our studying: he acts out of integrity, and, extra importantly, had he failed within the assassination, we might have seen the novel’s heroine, an harmless teenage woman, murdered by the double agent. What aid to see her in security. What terror to know that the assassination paves the best way for Lenin to rise in historical past. One life saved resulting in tens of millions extra misplaced: it’s way more chilling for a reader to catch a glimpse of Lenin in The Birds Fall Down than of Kollontai in The Guide of Anna.

The Birds Fall Down and The Guide of Anna are each self-indulgent novels, and I say this in essentially the most admiring approach. Each West and Boullosa are sure about what they need to obtain. Nonetheless, there’s a threat in writing a self-indulgent novel. It’s not that the novel is perhaps misunderstood or rejected by detached readers—who amongst us needs our kids to befriend individuals who don’t take care of them in any respect? The danger of writing a self-indulgent novel is that the creator’s certainties might change the characters’ uncertainties, and it’s the latter that make up that illusory actuality of fiction.

“You may invent something you want, however you may’t invent psychology.” Tolstoy’s assertion is price an extended essay, however a shortcut to understanding it’s by Sergei and Anya. With their fictional origin, they’re the 2 characters in The Guide of Anna that come most alive on the web page—a cliché that maybe may be allowed this as soon as. The siblings’ grownup existence is invented by Boullosa. Their psychology, nonetheless, shouldn’t be. Their psychology shouldn’t be even invented by Tolstoy. Their childhoods are. Their psychology, like yours and mine, may be described and dissected, however, like yours and mine, it stays elusive.

What’s invented by an creator may be became one thing else by a stroke of the pen. Sergei’s blissful marriage to Claudia, deftly maintained by her resourcefulness and care, might need been an sad one to a different girl. Anya, the spitting picture of her mom, might need married a wealthy man as an alternative of relying totally on Sergei’s monetary help and goodwill. However Sergei’s disgrace will stay. Anya’s precarious in-between standing can’t be altered.

The danger Boullosa takes in writing a novel that includes Tolstoy’s characters pays off as a result of beneath the slim Guide of Anna is Anna Karenina, a novel that encompasses life, from haymaking to ballroom dancing, with characters in excessive society and the servants’ quarters. Her novel is crammed with impish touches that jogged my memory, as I learn, of watching dragonflies subsequent to a pond once I was a toddler. They flit round, they pause in midair, after which at an surprising second they skip throughout the water’s floor so evenly that there is no such thing as a ripple to be seen. I laughed out loud when Sergei tells Claudia that Uncle Stiva, Anna’s brother, is contemplating going to Texas for a budget land there. Absurd and electrifying, however after all it makes good sense that Stiva thinks of Texas as an answer to his monetary break. Having crossed the border between Anna Karenina and The Guide of Anna, Stiva has remained Stiva.

The tales of Sergei, Claudia, and Anya are solely half the novel. The opposite half is in regards to the 1905 revolution. The characters—servants, orphans, artisans, industrial employees, sailors—comply with the politics that takes maintain of their hearts, and act as their beliefs dictate: they pray, march, unionize the employees, plant bombs. If there’s a trait shared by them, it’s that regardless of their actions, they don’t suppose a lot. Characters with out psychology are nearer to props.

The novel opens with an anarchist, Clementine, a skillful seamstress from a younger age. In Anna Karenina, after returning with Vronsky to Russia from Italy, Anna wears a gown ordered from Paris to the theater—by then she is already shunned by society. In The Guide of Anna, Vronsky’s mom, out of disdain for Anna, has donated her attire to a charity for fallen ladies. Carrying one in every of Anna’s attire after the one she made for herself was confiscated whereas she was in detention, Clementine strikes across the metropolis trying bombings and assassinations.

One reads with nice hope for Clementine, however she finally ends up being a personality made up of some information—she needs to awaken Russia together with her bombings, she chastises the artisans for his or her lack of rebellious spirit. When she blows up herself and others, her disappearance results in a response akin to a shrug from the bystanders within the novel, and from readers, too. Stripped of the gown, poor Clementine shouldn’t be a lot, a laughable heroine who can’t be taken severely by the novel, by historical past, and even by her personal comrades. Is it Boullosa’s intention to deal with the revolutionaries as a joke? I don’t know. But, understanding historical past, we all know that they’re something however a joke.

Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky; drawing by David Levine

Even earlier than Gorky was talked about, I had an uneasy feeling that his characters had slipped into The Guide of Anna. Vladimir, Clementine’s co-conspirator who’s blown up together with her within the bombing, Aleksandra, Anya’s maid who marches on Bloody Sunday, and all the opposite followers of Father Gapon—they possess a high quality vital for film extras: they’re achieved mimes. It’s not a shock that on the finish of the Bloody Sunday part, the novel reveals the characters’ origin: “The center of Gapon’s motion was made up of all of the wretched individuals dwelling within the Haven [a flood-prone area without public utilities], a scene that resembled one out of Gorky’s work.” If Gorky is a spectator who expresses his delight so loudly as to distract different spectators, the Gorkyesque characters in The Guide of Anna are a troupe of actors performing with emphatic gestures and facial expressions.

Tolstoy’s novels have an equal vary of maids, orphans, clerks, corridor porters, seamstresses, coachmen, and peasants, however even those that seem fleetingly are given subtlety and depth. Take, for example, the mirror within the Rostovs’ Moscow home in Struggle and Peace. A era of younger counts and countesses have a look at themselevs within the mirror, a commonplace exercise. Lots of of pages later, when the home is left to the care of the servants because the French military approaches Moscow, “the yard porter, arms akimbo, smiling joyfully, stood earlier than the large mirror. ‘See there!’ [said the porter,] marveling on the smile spreading throughout his face within the mirror.” What pleasure, what amazement, what an unforgettable expertise to see oneself for the primary time in a mirror.

Gorky would have clapped ferociously in order that we wouldn’t miss the significance of such a second or its echo of the start of the novel. However a servant in Tolstoy’s novels by no means simply serves the engine of the plot. This can be unfair to Boullosa, but when a guide is so deeply rooted in Tolstoy’s work, the bar is inevitably set at Tolstoy’s, somewhat than Gorky’s, top.

Up to now I’ve prevented discussing Anna’s guide, which supplies the title to Boullosa’s novel. Or Anna’s portrait—not the mediocre one painted by Vronsky, however the masterpiece painted by Mikhailov throughout Vronsky and Anna’s sojourn in Italy. In Anna Karenina, Levin pays a go to to Anna lengthy after she is forsaken by society. That evening he’s led to see the portray first: “It was not a portray however a stunning dwelling girl…. Solely, as a result of she was not alive, she was extra lovely than a dwelling girl may be.” After which he sees her, the true lovely girl, and practically falls in love. On the identical go to, he learns from Stiva that Anna is writing a kids’s guide, which she is unwilling to offer to the writer Vorkuev, one other visitor that evening, as a result of she claims that “it’s all so unfinished.”

Each Anna’s portrait and Anna’s guide seem in Boullosa’s novel. The previous is a crucial ingredient of the plot. The latter is offered as its personal chapter.

Anna’s guide—the one Boullosa imagines that Anna has written—is a darkish and sexual fairy story. Anna, on the primary web page, writes to Sergei that she hopes that at some point, if he has a daughter, the story “will communicate to her” when she is a grown girl. Why does Boullosa let Anna go away the guide for her hypothetical granddaughter as an alternative of Anya, her personal daughter? May it’s that the granddaughter, as an alternative of Anya, could be a twentieth-century girl, woke up and liberated? I have no idea the reply, as I’ve not but grasped the that means of the fairy story. In an interview Boullosa referred to as it “In Search of the Scary Clitoris”:

And in A.Ok.’s pages she conquers her personal clitoris within the context of a fairy story, in a mode of well-liked storytelling that I suffuse with laudanum to have the ability to give A.Ok., if not her personal voice, the voice of her clitoris.

The fairy story options Anna, the daughter of a poor woodsman, who’s granted luxurious and freedom by a fairy godmother named the Illuminata. Together with this Cinderella transformation comes a forbidden key, by which Anna discovers the pleasure of masturbation. The story is febrile, with components of a number of fairy tales (Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, the woman who trod on the loaf, and others) morphing into each other. There are moments when it feels limitless. Little question it’s because Anna is writing it below the affect of opium. Maybe studying it requires us to be in an analogous temper.

It’s true {that a} second-rate manufacturing inside a novel may additionally go away an everlasting impression—for example, that mediocre portrait of Anna painted by Vronsky in Anna Karenina. From an explanatory observe at first of The Guide of Anna, we be taught that the kids’s guide written by Anna, talked about briefly in Anna Karenina, was the seed for Boullosa’s novel. The fairy story might carry an necessary message—each reader should come to his or her personal conclusion about it. I must declare the place of naiveté, unequipped with any theories that could be required to decipher it.

The Guide of Anna shouldn’t be the primary time Boullosa has explored posterity and recreation. In her novel Cleopatra Dismounts, Cleopatra’s legend is given a contemporary presentation by Diomedes, who information her dying phrases, and thru Diomedes’ scribe, whose job is to make copies of Diomedes’ report. “In these texts, Diomedes was making an attempt to recapture Cleopatra’s voice, making an attempt to get her to talk by him. Isn’t recapturing a kind of assimilating, consuming, digesting?” asks Diomedes’ scribe. By recasting Sergei and Anya of their grownup lives, by recasting Anna as a author, The Guide of Anna has executed its share of assimilating, consuming, digesting, too. Cleopatra and Anna and different Boullosa creations level to an analogous preoccupation of the creator: each life deserves a retelling, and there are a lot of methods to take action.

Heavens on Earth, one other Boullosa novel, begins with a letter starting, “Expensive Reader”: “This novel shouldn’t be written by an creator, however somewhat by authors plural. There are three characters who declare to admit inside its pages, and two who declare to have written it.” The Guide of Anna doesn’t start with an analogous declare, although if it did, it might need been some model of this: “This novel shouldn’t be written by an creator, however somewhat by authors plural: Tolstoy, Gorky, and an imagined Anna Karenina.”



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