Leo Tolstoy & basic goodness



Does it make me an antediluvian nerd if I think Tolstoy kicks Jonathan Franzen’s ass? Sure, you’ve got to skip a paragraph here and there about the nuances of 19th century agricultural reform in Russia, but man can the guy write a brain! 

I just finished reading Anna Karenina -  which amounts, as far as I’m concerned, to a beautiful book about realizing basic goodness from within the mire of samsara. And also ... about failing to do so, if one considers the unfortunate woman the tome is named for.

Anna Karenina begins, quite famously:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”

which I used to understand as a romantic spin on familial disfunction.  In hindsight, I have the opposite impression - 

Happiness is fundamental;  individualism is suffering.”  We are alike in our happiness, but our unhappiness is thoroughly customized. 

Tolstoy is writing at the dawn of the industrial age - in the wake of Darwin - and the society he depicts is splintered into “believers” and “unbelievers” of many ilk. Peripherally , we are made familiar with the guardians of propriety, crackpot mystics, the pious, the hedonistic, intellectual atheists, politicians, communists, and nihilists. To name a few. At the center of the novel are a handful of especially confused human beings trying to reconcile the pursuit of happiness with the ineviitibility of suffering and death.

Never, as a fiction reader, have I better understood the power of thought and misperception. Tolstoy apparently pioneered stream-of-consciousness writing in this book and is awesome at it. He gives us the play-by-play as inner fallacy manifests as worldly reason, as lovers and friends misunderstand each other’s intentions, as individuals are unknowingly carried away by the intricacies of their personal mythologies and mistakes in judgement ... Tolstoy pits delusion against delusion in hideous death matches until the only convictions left standing are selfless love and non-aggression.

I know that Franzen must love this book too - and maybe even tried to rewrite it - but Freedom looks so tinny in comparison. Certainly, you're going to encounter cultural incongruity while reading a book about high society Russia in the 1800s, but I just don't see many contemporary novelists really "going there" when it comes to the meat and bones of death, love, doubt, and belief. Thoughts? Recommendations?

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Nice post!  I'm going to have the read this book again sometime.  I don't remember loving it so much when I read it years ago (before I knew what basic goodness meant).

Thank you!

I'm totally going to go read Anna Karenina now! :)

i love your re-interpretation of the first line:

We are alike in our happiness, but our unhappiness is thoroughly customized. 

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