Catch-up no.4 and no.5: Anna Karenina and The Rebel Angels

I’m combining these two partly because they’re the last in the series and I’m getting a little bored, and partly because ‘Anna Karenina and The Rebel Angels’ sounds a bit like a geeky rock band – excellent!

The Rebel Angels, by Canadian national treasure Robertson Davies, was my reward to myself for finishing the Tolstoy which, if I’m honest, was frequently a marathon-like experience (as opposed to, say, Wolf Hall, which was a very similar length but never anything but complete enjoyment).

The Rebel Angels is like a modern Umberto Eco Lite, by which I mean it’s suffused with religious and mediaeval references, but swaps an ancient monastery for a twentieth-century university and… well… simply isn’t as good as The Name Of The Rose. It has at least one similarity with Anna Karenina in that long sections of both novels involve nothing happening and lots of dialogue about reasonably irrelevant subjects, before massive amount of incident packed into short spurts.

The Big AK has the reputation for being one of the greatest novels of all time, if not the greatest, and I would be disingenuous to pretend that this wasn’t one of the reasons I (a) began to read it, and (b) carried on reading it even when Constantine Levin, the ‘male lead’ is discussing agrarian reform. Again.

If I felt I could add a scintilla of value to the pages and pages of text written about the novel I’d probably be an English Lit academic, but I’m not, so let’s just leave it at this: some of Anna Karenina is very moving, some of it is very profound (the closing chapters, in which Levin wrestles with his agnosticism), much of it seems very remote and inaccessible because it’s almost entirely about the Russian nobility, and whilst it might succeed in reaching into the minds of its characters in a previously unattempted way, you do end up wishing they wouldn’t be so damn fickle.

I guess that Anna Karenina is really one of those books that’s so great it is best studied rather than ‘just’ read. Like, apparently, it features the first use of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, in chapter twenty-eight of part seven, when Anna thinks over the events of the last days “amid the incessant rattle of wheels and the rapidly changing impressions in the open air” as she is driven along the streets of Moscow in a horse-drawn carriage. So there you go.

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