Just like your trash pickup — I’m a day late because of the holiday! Hope you had a great weekend.
There were a number of books I read in high school that I was too young to understand, and I often wonder at the value of having kids read these things. The Scarlet Letter comes to mind—as a 17 year-old, modern-day honors student, I couldn’t connect to the characters’ situations. A terrible teacher didn’t help matters. A Separate Peace, was another book I didn’t get. It seemed to be picked only because the character was about our age. It was slightly more modern than Scarlet Letter and has a backdrop of WWII, but this incomprehensible story about a private school boy who ends up crippling his best friend because he’s jealous, was in some ways farther away from my experience than a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock. At least I knew a girl who’d gotten pregnant. A Separate Peace haunted and mystified me for so many years that I inflicted in on my book group, hoping maturity and other smart readers might help me make sense of it. They were fairly mystified as well.
The book my book group is reading now, Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, has given me the opposite feeling. I should have read this when I was younger. Probably not high school, but definitely college. Why? Because I can identify all too closely with the characters. If I were younger, I’d just see the characters as interesting people and not uncomfortably close to my life. Also, I’d recover a lot faster from the destruction I know is coming. We all know Russian novels don’t have happy endings — heck they don’t even have neutral endings. I have 30 pages left of this 900-page behemoth, and I had to stop because I know Tolstoy’s going to lay waste to this huge cast of characters, who he has manipulated me into caring about. Thanks a lot, jerk!
Which brings us to the second reason I should have read this when I was younger — all the unpronounceable, multiple names of all these characters. Dear, god, I don’t have the brainpower to keep that in my head now (if I ever did). I should have created an Excel spreadsheet at the beginning to keep track of the nomenclature. Everyone is referred to by at least two, three, and sometimes four names. Many of the characters have the same or similar names. There are still two characters I confuse. Worse is that the characters are referred to by different names depending on who they are with. There are familial names and pet names and nicknames. Whether you are for or against writing programs and workshopping your writing, I could make a strong case that Tolstoy’s naming structure (if you can call it that) wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a workshop. And I can say with certainty that Anna Karenina’s greatness would not have been diminished in least by simpler names.
And Karenina is a problem too. I’d always heard people pronounce it Karena and apparently I never paid close attention to how it was written, but that extra syllable kills me. I feel like I’m stumbling over the word, which I am for all the other characters like Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky and Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (say that three times fast.) To help me out, my book group member Becky graciously suggested that Karenina rhymes rhythmically with “Mehna Mehna” (for all you who grew up in the 70s, just think “The Muppet Show” and you’ll hear the song in your head. If not, you can relive it here:
So, back to the last 30 pages. Will I finish it? Of course — I have my English major reputation to protect after all. But when? Hard to know. I need to rewatch the “Mehna Mehna” video of few times, for research, you understand. And then I have to finish the James Bond novel I picked up yesterday as the antidote to grand Russian doom. Nothing like post-WWII political intrigue, Bentleys, and martinis shaken, not stirred to lift your spirits.
But wait, WWII — that’s it! I finally understand. Getting through the last 30 pages can’t possibly be any worse that reading A Separate Peace. Twice. And that’s the benefit of age. I’ll let you know how the Russians turn out.