My copy of Anna Karenina looks a little as if it’s been hit by a train. Pages around the 500 mark are liberated entirely from the mangled spine, while others are torn at the point of turning. The title pages are yellowed and the cover is badly disfigured. Its edges bear the mark of Taylor’s Hot Lava Java. Thanks to a meeting with the Celtic sea, the book billows like a Russian concertina.
Anna Karenina took me an age. It was by my side, or stuffed into my bag, or balanced on my stomach for so long that we gave it a nickname. It’s not that I couldn’t get along with A.K., it’s that I’d regularly read pages over a few times before I turned them. Tolstoy’s observations made me giddy. They rang so true I could barely believe it.
My godmother, who actually is not my godmother but my mother’s, but whom I adopted because she is perfect, has read A.K. some 10 times. Bella is a 96-year-old Russian girl of Jewish descent who grew up in Paris and Palestine and married first an Irishman and then a cockney called Charles – a newspaper man she met in Egypt. Together, Charles and Bella lived in Kenya, where they met my young parents, before retiring, of course, to Tunbridge Wells.
I suspect that Bella, who answers few questions about herself, has read A.K. time and again because she is, a little bit, Anna Karenina. Happier and more straightforward than Anna, Bella nevertheless shares with Anna a confidence betrayed by the things she wears. It’s a quiet confidence inspired by not only physical beauty, but an accurate sense of her intrinsic exoticism.
The writer James Meek wrote a memorable article a couple of years ago in which he imagined Anna’s brother, the charming but shallow Stiva Oblonsky, “as a tanned guy called Steve in a pink open-necked shirt”. If I were to apply the same treatment to Anna, she’d come out in Bella’s uniform: a cashmere jumper. She’d read The Daily Telegraph cover to cover out of boredom and she’d talk about Facebook as if she knows what it is.
Of course, there is darkness to Anna, which is where Bella leaves the page. For all his empathy with the characters he draws, Tolstoy is suspicious of Anna’s sophistication – as if its misuse is an inevitable conclusion.
When early in the book Anna turns up at a ball in a black velvet dress, her riding roughshod over Kitty is a sure thing. Tolstoy makes much of Kitty’s prior entrance into the ballroom wearing a “complicated dress of white net over a pink slip”. With a rose-adorned high coiffure made of thick curls of fake hair, Kitty is a loo roll holder blushing in bows and laces. Anna’s simple dress, meanwhile, is set off with an unobtrusive hair-do decorated with a modest crop of pansies. The award for Belle of the Ball goes to Anna, who in seeming not to care less, totally smashes it.
Tolstoy refers regularly to Anna’s understated dress. Never overdressed, her frocks are often plain and muted, if top notch. As the sweet, guileless Kitty realises at the ball, Anna’s “charm lay precisely in the fact that her personality stood out from her dress”. Anna’s downfall lay precisely in knowing it. A woman intelligent to the point of danger, it was not her skirts but her complicated inner life that would ultimately trip her up. Or was it hubris?
Perhaps it was her choice of men. While Kitty came to her senses and married a thoughtful man in search of a simple life, Anna left her husband for a simple man in search of a thought. To vacuous Vronsky, Anna was but one of his prizewinning racehorses. If her clothes betray anything but self-assurance, it’s a desire to be taken seriously. ‘Trophy girl’ is not a role Anna set out to play. The day she sees “clearly in the piercing light” that Vronsky found in her “not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity” is the day she throws her red handbag to the wind before jumping in front of a train.
For all she brought down herself and those around her, Anna is a rich, knotty character that, like the book about her, can’t be read in a single sitting. Bella, for whom I think Anna is just the tragic, exaggerated self we all look for in books, once told me that ‘Tolstoy’ means ‘fat’. Photos suggest the man was of medium build, but his books are pleasingly rounded.
Pictured: Levin and Kitty in a copy of Anna Karenina, with thanks to A Beautiful Mess.