Saturday, August 16, 2014

How Larry McMurtry Led Me to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

I always read the NY Times Book Review first after the Sunday paper arrives. On July 10th, 2014, I was thrilled to find a brief interview with Larry McMurtry. When asked who his favorite novelist of all time was, McMurtry said that would be Tolstoy, and that he considered Anna Karenina to be the finest novel ever written. That did it. I knew it was long past time to read Anna Karenina. I am a big Larry McMurtry fan, especially of his earlier novels. Leaving Cheyenne (1963) is my all-time favorite, one I chose as a pick for the West University Library book club in its early years. I also love the Houston series, including Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972) and Terms of Endearment (1975). Funny, I read all those novels when I was still living in upstate NY, never ever thinking that one day I'd be living and working in Houston, very near the Rice Village neighborhood McMurtry so often wrote about. I have also reviewed some of his novels for Library Journal.

So if Larry McMurtry thought that well of Anna Karenina, I wanted to read it ASAP. I went straight to Barnes and Noble's and bought a copy (Penguin edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2000). I wondered if I would see any similarities between the two writers. May I also add that a few days later, after I started the Tolstoy novel, I also read somewhere that William Faulkner also thought Anna Karenina was the best novel ever written...

Reading Anna Karenina took me nine days! But what to say here that everybody doesn't already know? I can only give my impressions. The psychological depth of Tolstoy's characters most impressed me, especially Levin and Anna. Their interior worlds are often unaligned with what is going one around them, thus Tolstoy deftly shares the façade, the persona, shown to others in polite society as well as what truly lies beneath. The novel gives quite a panoramic view of Russian society. Well, maybe mostly of the aristocrats, but because of Levin's ties to farming, we also see how the peasants live.

Funny to me that I also thought of Jane Austen as I read the first few sections of the book, largely because of the themes of courtship, love and marriage. And the novel also made me think of Woody Allen's movies because the characters were often neurotic and full of angst. Critics have long pointed to Tolstoy as one of the first authors to present streams of consciousness, well before James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

As for Anna Karenina, when we first meet her, we see that she is kind, caring,intelligent, beautiful and loving. She adores her son. But her scandalous affair with Count Vronsky drives her towards madness. She loses her son. If only the divorce laws and social codes of the times had not been so tough, maybe Anna could have stayed sane. And so, this is for me not only a tragic love story, but also a historical portrait of women's rights during Victorian times (they had few). Most of all, Anna Karenina is a family drama. Sometimes I had a little trouble keeping the all those Russian characters straight, especially since most of them had multiple names and/or nicknames.

The politics of the novel bored me. Sorry, but that's just my own modus operandi. The complex family ties and delicate maneuvers between family members are what intrigued me. I read Anna Karenina to live and breathe the lives these characters led. Also, I value having read this doorstopper novel just for its Russian gestalt, a certain broody, moody, philosophical, existential and minor key tendency I've always attributed to the Russian people, substantiated here by Tolstoy, vodka and all. (Now I very much look forward to reading some shorter novels set in our times, when women have more rights.) Yes, there will always be many novels portraying love gone wrong, for that is an eternally fascinating plotline. From now on, Tolstoy's novel will always be one I measure other novels to.
 
And in closing, I must say I did see a similarity between Tolstoy and McMurtry, largely in both author's portrayals of women. Both these male writers have an uncanny sensitivity towards women. How do they know us so well? That will always be a mystery to me. I once told a friend how highly I though of McMurtry's female characterizations. He was floored because he once had quite an argument with his ex-wife about that very same thing. My friend thought McMurtry did well with women. His wife did not. In any case, I am glad to have ferreted out what is perhaps some of Tolstoy's influence on McMurtry. I believe I have read just about every book McMurtry ever wrote during these last 40-plus years. Now I'm wondering if I should dip into more Tolstoy. Perhaps War and Peace? But not right away! "So many books and so little time!" (... so said,of all people -- Frank Zappa.)

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