11 March 2011

I'm a failure as a classicist, I guess.

I just didn't like Anna Karenina, you guys.

I did like the writing. Many of the similes were striking--I remember particularly Stiva's "almond-butter smile," just a perfect fit for his jovial smarm. And I loved Levin's saying in regard to his upcoming wedding that "he was as happy as a dog that has been taught to jump through a hoop and, having finally understood and done what was demanded of it, squeals, wags its tail, and leaps in rapture on to the tables and windowsills." And I liked Levin's dog Laska a lot.

But I didn't like any of the people--OK, not quite "didn't like" even, I felt little for them at all. (I just learned the word cathexis, "mental or emotional investment in a person, object, or idea," and that's exactly what I didn't have.) When I felt (almost universally negative) things towards the characters--irritation with Anna, contempt for Vronsky, disgust towards Stiva--there was always the knowledge that I was rather feeling these emotions towards Tolstoy himself, thinking, "Really, dude?" And while I can intellectually appreciate the novel as a snapshot of its time--politically, economically, philosophically--I was hopelessly bored every single time the conversation turned to 1870s Russian issues. And that happens a lot, so I was hopelessly bored for most of the book.

Reading a Classic Novel and not liking it can feel like a personal failure, can't it? That the book must be good, that it's me, that I'm missing something. Then my St.-John's-primary-source-bred tendencies kick back and say, "No, each individual must evaluate each work from themselves, on their own terms. One must never be intimidated by authority into acknowledging value you don't find." Then my mom-instilled-politesse counters: "True, but don't be the grouch in the corner at the book club meeting tomorrow, OK? If everybody else loved it, let them love it."

So that's the plan: unusual levels of self-effacement in tomorrow's discussion, then Ms. K goes back to the library. And now? I can say I've read it.

**POST-BOOK-CLUB UPDATE** OK, that was an amazing discussion. And it turns out my feelings about the book were in keeping with everyone else's, so I feel absolved of all guilt!


  1. Don't sweat it, sweetie. Everybody knows Good is the new bad.

  2. Gass has a great essay that opens "A Temple of Texts" called something like "To a Young Classics Student" or something. Amazing essay. One nearly verbatim quote from the essay is, "If you didn't like Hobbes, it is not Hobbes who must feel uneasy about it."


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