I can’t recall a single work that I’ve read by a Russian author and haven’t thoroughly loved and thought a masterpiece.
I delighted in the naked sin of The Master and Margarita. I devoured the description of Satan’s ball with an unholy relish, reveling in the stories of the damning deeds that earned each guest’s invitation. A mirror of the character’s terror, I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich with a sickening fear of what I couldn’t escape; his screaming, utterly silent to my ears, was nonetheless echoing in my chest.
I was horrified and entranced by Lolita, disturbed at how I could see the child through Humbert’s eyes and how the voice of a monster’s perverted poesy could create a scene of quixotic beauty. Nabokov’s artful skill in the English language, jeweled with French, as a captivating medium, was only amplified by the nauseating content translucently veiled beneath it.
The world fell from around me while I read Anna Karenina. Every time her heart lifted in love or in hope, every time her stomach dropped in disappointment or betrayal, mine followed. I knew the exact pain she felt as she knowingly forged ahead in actions that only drove her love away; my familiarity with the sorrow that is helpless awareness of one’s sins is no less than my familiarity with her desperation for unadulterated devotion. I longed for a love with a mind like Levin’s and for a lover with a passion like Vronsky’s.
As with Anna Karenina, reading The Idiot was like falling into a river of infinite depths; I was completely surrounded, helpless to remove myself from the current. While it was a relief to be as absorbed in this novel as I had been in AK, helping numb and remove me from the nightmare that has been the last few days of reality, The Idiot seems to lack some of the elegance of AK; it is, admittedly, a high bar. Whereas at certain moments in AK I felt at least some internal part of myself reflected in every major character – Karenin, Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Oblonsky, Kitty – I felt that the prince of The Idiot was more an imperfect, detached, and somewhat unrealistic study of an impossible man. The prince is altogether too good, too Christ-like… It was the darkness, the failures, the shame that gave the characters of AK humanity.
The reactions Anna Karenina incited in men were believable, even so much so that they caused pangs of envy. Many of the actions of men in The Idiot toward Nastasya Filippovna were hyperbolic and tiresome, often implausible and frequently failing to evoke any significant emotional reaction from me (which is not at all difficult in the current moment). It was beyond my capacities to rationalize or even imagine the prince’s immediate devotion to her.
There was one particular moment, however, where I felt completely as one with prince: “For a while the prince wandered aimlessly… He was in a tormented state of tension and anxiety, and at the same time he felt an extraordinary need for solitude. He wanted to be alone and to give himself up to this agonizing tension quite passively, without seeking the slightest relief.”
A prominent inquiry in the book – the impossible path of goodness and innocence in the world – speaks more softly than I had hoped. I am unconvinced that the only place for good men is a sanatorium (indeed I am unconvinced of any such goodness existing in the world, perhaps revealing the true depth or force of the story); I see that the only home for the intelligent is insanity.
It is a beautiful work, but suffers under my reading because I have seen the perfection of Anna Karenina.
There is nothing better than a poor knight, perhaps, but Don Quixote is a fiction.
**Please for the love of all things holy, read Anna Karenina if you haven’t. (And then you can share in my indignation that Keira Knightley will be playing her.)