If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d be astounded by the size of the book deals, movie options and tie-ins that would no doubt be thrown at his feet. He might also be shocked at our word counts and trends for tight, fast moving plots. But he was writing in another time. When people took weeks to move from dacha to country house to palace. I love long books. I love Tolstoy. I never found him long-winded. I read War and Peace when I was in college one summer for pleasure and couldn’t put it down. I was so in awe of his skill-the way he created wonderful feminine characters-that I wanted to go back in time during the Imperial Age of Russia and dance at those balls, sit in those drawing rooms, fanning my blushed cheeks, ears perked on the gossip that so inspired Tolstoy. For better or for worse, I wanted to walk in the shoes of the women he created. And many ways, I did. That was his genius.
And he knew it. Oh, yes he knew it. To look at him, you’d never think the old curmudgeon could understand the girlish excitement of a first ball, feel the sharp, exquisite pangs of unrequited love or a forbidden passion so volatile it destroyed everyone in its wake. Over the years I’ve tried to lock Tolstoy down. I’ve read a lot about him. I’ve read his novels that were not so popular, his short stories and I’ve penned a paper or two in college. And I think this makes him so special-his observation skills and his love of women.
Tolstoy’s life is a complex, drama-ridden contradiction. He was a count by birth, a member of the aristocracy but chose to live in later life dressed as a peasant with bast shoes and simple Russian shirt. After years of turbulent marriage to Sonya Tolstaya, he abandoned his beloved characters and wrote didactic works of little artistic merit, and refused to discuss the novels that made him so famous.
War and Peace made him physically ill to read. He considered Anna Karenina his first real novel, though that came after. He seems to have suffered from a form of artistic shame akin to an actor being unable to watch himself on film. He lived over a 100 years ago. Yet, he’s as vital and relevant today as when his greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were first editions.
His books have been adapted with varying success. Not every one hits the mark.
In War and Peace, the story revolves around the ebullient Rostov family during the Napoleonic Wars and leads into the War of 1812 when Moscow was invaded by Bonapart’s Grand Armee. The story opens on a charming window of the main character, Natasha Rostova, about to attend her first ball. The character is loosely based on Tolstoy’s sister-in-law Tatyana. She’s at the age where she is not yet a woman, but still childish. Everything is new and she’s excited, and who wouldn’t be with Tolstoy at the helm we know we’re in good hands.
We see Natasha grow in her love for Prince Andrei, and a wordly widower who wants to marry her. Overnight, she is transformed from the girl who sings gypsy songs, with the shawl hanging off her shoulder to a woman deeply in love and desperate.
Audrey Hepburn played Natasha in the 1956 film with Henry Fonda. I’m not a huge fan, but she captured the quirkiness and youth of the character, in her Audrey Hepburn style and maybe that’s why she’s not my definitive Natasha Rostova.
Clemence Posey’s portrayal in the 2007 version-captured the closest essence of Natasha as I see her, hopeful, a little fragile and awkward in the beginning, reemerging a stronger, more sober woman, after the death of Prince Andrei. I admit to being shocked when Tolstoy killed off the Prince, and I never understood why he did that; I didn’t like the ending where Natasha and Pierre marry. It was my throw the book moment. 600 pages into a doomed romance and I felt a little cheated. But Tolstoy had other plans. I do understand that Tolstoy puts himself his novels. He’s Pierre through and through so perhaps it reflected author wish-fulfillment to marry these two chums in the end. Both of them were searching for something in their lives and it was a good way of creating surprise.
It was 1873 Anna Karenina first appeared as an installment serial in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy had turned his back on his loveable Natasha Rostova and dove into, “the first novel that I have attempted.”
He got the inspiration from attending the autopsy of a woman who committed suicide by walking in front of a train. That death was a touchstone that ignited his imagination. The woman became a temptress, locked in an unhappy marriage to a cold, older man who abandons her son for a Russian officer only to never have peace for her decision, and ultimately to take her own life.
The novel is considered the greatest ever written. I don’t doubt it. There are two main character arcs. Anna and Levin, another Tolstoy avatar. While Anna’s happiness rises at realizing her love for Vronsky, Levin’s happiness plunges because of unrequited love for Kitty who is also in love with Vronsky. The arcs are near mirror images that intersect and overlap. Anna has no choice, she seems driven to leave all for Vronsky and once their passion is ignited, Anna’s steep nose dive into tragedy begins, Levin by contrast, has won over Kitty’s heart and their happiness is soaring. It is interesting to note, the character of Kitty reminds me of an underdeveloped Natasha Rostova, in Levin, I see a bit of Pierre. The contrast also between the two characters is striking; Anna-dark, Kitty-fair, Anna-fallen woman, Kitty-loyal wife. Brilliant characterization. Cautionary tales for what happens when love is right, warning for love that has no place.
My favorite film adaption is the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean. The novel is dark, it’s tragic. I don’t get that sense from the 2011 re-telling with Keira Knightly.
I’ve noticed that if I like the Vronsky, I will like the Anna actress, but if I don’t like the actor cast as Vronsky I won’t like Anna. I loved the pairing of Marceau and Bean. I thought it brought the right amount of chemistry together and stayed true to the novel’s vision.
Anna appears carefree, unconcerned even until she meets Vronsky at the train. Terrific foreshadowing.
The sense of inescapable tragedy and destiny are only enhanced through this beautiful film. It’s as if she can see her own ruin in his eyes as he pursues her almost to stalking. She tries to resist but she’s torn. She has to walk the road to perdition. One doesn’t feel so much the pull of a great and tender love, rather two people playing out desperate roles that they cannot escape because society has no place for them.
Sean Bean’s manic portrayal of hopelessness and terror at what his lust has unleashed is powerful. Let’s face it, Vronsky is the bad guy here, he’s the one who sets the whole thing in motion.
Jacqueline Bissett and Christopher Reeve also captured this tragic nuance in the eighties mini-series, Anna Karenina. I thought Bissett’s portrayal of Anna’s descent into paranoia and dependency on laudanum poignant and spot on. I like these two together.
I think it’s important to remember that Anna was older, passed the first blush of the ball room yet her beauty was still potent and vivid. And we get that sense of how potent indeed, when Kitty realizes, with sinking heart that Anna is not dressed on lilac, but black that showed her beauty off to the best advantage.
Finally, my sentimental favorite is the ravishing and tragic Vivien Leigh who seemed to be channeling the very character of Anna herself.