So cold, it hurt to breathe. The squeak and crunch of snow beneath my boots, a flicker of lights from across the frozen lake. I walked quickly, swinging my arms, my whole frame vibrating, struck like a crystal goblet and still ringing. The cold, I told myself. It’s only the cold that makes me shiver.
It was mid-January, the night of my thirty-second birthday, in Kingston, Ontario, and I was on my way to my legal ethics professor’s house for supper. My husband, also a student—I’ll call him Arthur—was out of town, visiting his family. He hadn’t seen them over the holiday, and I’d sent him off with my slightly grudging blessing. Later, I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t want to be alone. So when my teacher, Mark—I called him that even then—stopped by to drop off some materials, I invited him for tea. We talked, and kept on talking, and eventually he suggested we continue the conversation over an evening meal.
Mark and his wife had separated a few years earlier, and she was living in their former home. He was renting a place from a colleague on sabbatical. The main rooms of the house were fronted with glass, and, as I approached it through the darkness, it glowed.
From the street, I could see Mark setting the table. I didn’t find him handsome. Although he was tall and dark, he was thin and wore nerdy eyeglasses. But I liked the way he moved. There was something graceful in the way he held himself, something deft and alert in his attitude. I thought about my husband, who was also tall and thin, but who seemed so much heavier, somehow, with his big raw bones. All autumn and winter, he’d been sleeping ten hours a night or more, and still he was always tired.
Mark cooked salmon in stimpirata sauce with celery and capers. There was salad and a citrus tart. A crisp but oaky Chardonnay. Toward the end of the meal, his twelve-year-old daughter came home—he and his ex-wife were sharing custody—and told us about the movie she’d seen with her friends, her ringlets trembling as she laughed. Some wax from the candles dripped onto the cloth. I scraped it up and pressed it, warm, between two fingers. When I pulled them apart, the wax held the delicate imprint of their whorls.
I walked home through Breakwater Park under a bright moon, the snow glistening and my toes losing their feeling. I considered the evening. Nothing had happened. But in the night I dreamed of him, and when I woke I knew that everything had changed. Nonsense, I told myself. It’s not as if I’ve done anything. I don’t even intend to do anything. I’m not some Anna Karenina.
The story is familiar. Anna—the beautiful, lively wife of Alexei Karenin, a dry bureaucrat—falls in love with a dashing army officer named Vronsky, and the two begin an affair that becomes the talk of St. Petersburg. Anna’s husband reacts badly. In desperation, Anna and Vronsky run away, first to Europe, and then to the Russian countryside. There, Anna, barred from polite society and tormented by guilt, becomes increasingly jealous and paranoid, imagining that Vronsky no longer loves her. They quarrel, and, in drug-induced confusion and despair, Anna throws herself beneath the wheels of a train.
But the novel begins with Anna’s brother, the pathologically charming Stepan Oblonsky, and his long-suffering wife, Dolly. Throughout the novel, Oblonsky has several affairs. His behaviour wounds Dolly terribly, but she stays with him and continues to care for their children, finding small moments of joy in parenting. Meanwhile, no one thinks any the worse of her unfaithful husband. Unlike his sister—but like most other men of his time and class—Oblonsky does not pay a price.
I hated that double standard the first time I read the book. This was the seventies, during the height of second-wave feminism, and I was sixteen. The unfairness of Anna’s situation tore through me like a knife. Why should she suffer and die while her brother went on guzzling champagne? What kind of society could condone that?
The answer was obvious: a hypocritical one. And I knew all about hypocrisy. In high school, a person had to live and breathe it, along with the chalk dust—especially in my school, peopled as it was with fundamentalist Christians. A trio of them, earnest and judgemental and deliberately unworldly, sat across from me in English class. Two boys and a girl, Armeda, the daughter of a minister. Pale and buxom, with downcast eyes, she wore low-cut peasant blouses and blushed at the resulting attention.
Naturally, the fundamentalists didn’t warm to Anna. They saw her as selfish and sinful, and said as much. So it fell to me to defend her, and defend her I did, railing against her desiccated stick of a husband and the stupid social rules that constrained her choices.
It made for lively debate; our teacher was pleased. And so, as the year went on, I continued to support the cause of emotional and sexual freedom. In the process, I became more and more excited by novels in general, and by this one in particular. I also came to identify with Leo Tolstoy’s heroine—though I was an unlikely Anna, lacking her grace, her charm or her ability to fascinate men. But none of that bothered me. After all, I was young. I had plenty of time to grow into the role.
We first see Anna on a train platform, through Vronsky’s eyes. Rich, beautiful, elegant: he notes these qualities dispassionately, as if ticking them off a list. But what strikes him most powerfully is her restrained animation, “as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.” By the time Anna throws an arm around her brother, in a movement that surprises Vronsky with its “resoluteness and grace,” he has fallen in love with her.
At age sixteen, so had I. How could anyone not love Anna, with her firm, light step, her warmth, her humour? She bewitches everyone from irritable old ladies, like Vronsky’s mother, to irrepressible children, like her nephew Grisha; she touches everyone she meets with joy. She even saves her brother and Dolly’s marriage.
What an irony, then, that she can’t save her own. Kitty Shcherbatsky, Anna’s protégé and rival for Vronsky’s love, recognizes the danger first. Watching Anna and Vronsky at a ball, she sees that they feel themselves alone in the midst of the crowd, sees how they mirror one another’s expressions, and knows her own fate is sealed. She will never marry Vronsky.
It isn’t until the next day that Anna can acknowledge her own change of heart. Feeling guilty for spoiling Kitty’s pleasure at the party, she leaves Moscow earlier than planned. On the train, she intends to read, but she’s agitated and unable to concentrate. With nerves as tight as winding strings, she doesn’t want to follow “the reflections of other people’s lives.”
She wants to live for herself—imagine the hubris of that. Anna is apparently struck by the same thought, because the minute she owns her desire she’s overcome by shame. Yet when she thinks of Vronsky, some inner voice tells her, “warm, very warm, hot!” and, overtaken by joy, she’s forced to stifle a laugh. Minutes later, when she runs into Vronsky himself on the icy station platform, she knows without his saying so that he has followed her. Forget me, she tells him. But she cannot hide her delight.
I was terrified. There was no one nearby I could confide in. My friends were Arthur’s friends—and I certainly couldn’t tell Arthur. So, instead of talking, I wrote. In the margins of my notebooks. On loose scraps of paper. In a long computer document. In letters to a friend who lived in England. I didn’t know yet if Mark shared my feelings. I hoped he did and hoped he did not. Maybe nothing would happen; maybe it would all blow over and things could go on as before. But the dark closed in when I imagined that.
Sometimes, as I bent over my scribbler, tears would fall and smear the ink on the page. Arthur had never been able to stand seeing me unhappy or angry; if he caught me that way, he’d rush to my side, his face buckled in an uxorious frown. “What’s wrong, what’s wrong, ma chère?” he’d cry, in an unconscious echo of Karenin’s name for Anna. I shrugged him off. I’d never kept a secret from him before. But what could I possibly say? I told him I was working on my ethics assignment. My whole life had become an ethics assignment, and I was failing badly.
If you’d asked me, I’d have told you that Arthur and I were happily married. True, there were subjects we struggled to talk about. True, in the past, I’d been depressed, and lately he seemed depressed himself. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time he’d really relaxed and had fun. But domestic life was good for us. With little money and a lot of ingenuity, we’d fixed up our apartment. And even if, as one friend said, our kitchen walls were the colour of an old whore’s makeup, they still glowed in the candlelight. We talked about books and ideas and we rarely fought; how could we fight when he hated conflict? Our friends thought of us as the perfect couple. Yet here I was, overcome by feelings for someone else that I couldn’t control and couldn’t explain.
“Women tell me, ‘I was lonely, not connected,’ ‘I don’t feel close to my partner and I was taken for granted,’” a marriage therapist says in a WebMD article I discovered years later. These are the reasons women commonly give for their infidelity. Revenge for past wrongs and sexual boredom may also play a part. Yet, as a biological anthropologist explains in the same article, more than a third of unfaithful wives claim to have been happy or very happy in their marriages—at least until meeting their lovers. It’s only after she’s danced with Vronsky that Anna notices the ugliness of her husband’s ears, with their cartilages propping up the rim of his black felt hat; it was only after spending time with Mark that Arthur’s habit of quoting philosophers in the midst of our rare disagreements began to drive me crazy.
Women don’t leap easily into affairs. That is certainly true for Anna, who tries, briefly, to avoid Vronsky altogether, rather than give in to her desires. It was also true of me. The change in my feelings seemed to come in an instant, and took me completely by surprise, but, like Anna, I struggled to do what was expected of me instead of what I wanted. Like Anna, I lost that struggle.
We didn’t have sex. Not while I was his student. Not while Arthur still lived with me in the same house. But we flirted. We carried on. And we became the subject of gossip every bit as wild as the gossip that follows Anna and Vronsky.
Once, we travelled to Toronto to see an art exhibition. Somehow we persuaded ourselves that the trip would constitute research. We took the train and then walked to the gallery, where we ogled the sculptures by Lipchitz and Hepworth and I got in trouble with security for venturing to touch them. I had to do something with my hands. On the ride home, our arms briefly met and an electrical current made the fine hairs stand on end.
Spring came early that year and lasted an unusually long time. Bluebells and snowdrops gave way to daffodils and narcissus, and, when the narcissus faded, the lilac bloomed. Its fragrance filled me like never before. “I am amazed at the clairvoyance of people in love,” says Vronsky’s cousin, Princess Betsy. I was reminded of her observation whenever I’d go for a walk at the lakefront, lost in reverie, and then turn to see Mark coincidentally emerge from around a corner. Even the air felt alive. Time stops running when he’s near, I wrote. Everything is here. Everything is now. And now and now and now and now.
Anna tells Karenin in the springtime. Vronsky has fallen in a horse-racing accident, she has made a public scene and she is pregnant with his child. The words come tumbling out. Likewise, I told Arthur in early April at a point of crisis. Our classes were about to end for the year. He had accepted a summer job in Toronto and I planned to stay and work in Kingston. I couldn’t bear to part with so much dishonesty between us.
Of course, he already knew. He’d heard the rumours. He’d seen me talking with Mark in the university corridors and had noticed the brilliance of my smile. “You haven’t smiled that way for years,” he said, his own mouth a crumpled ruin.
We talked and wept and talked some more, more openly, more genuinely than we had talked in years, maybe more openly than ever. Our conversations filled me with fear and regret. He was a good man, a decent man, and he really wanted our marriage to work. Was it his fault that he couldn’t deal with sadness or anger in himself or in others? Was it his fault that this urge had overcome me? When I thought of losing Arthur, my stomach lurched and sank. But when I thought of losing Mark, the light disappeared. For the next few months, I was always falling through darkness.
At sixteen, I idealized the character of Anna every bit as much as a new lover idealizes her beloved. To me, she was a romantic heroine, ruined not by any flaw in her own character but rather by the rigid conventions of her day. After all, why is she punished? For living honestly—for refusing to cloak her true feelings. Vivid, passionate Anna does not want to pretend; she wants to live.
If Anna was a figure of romance to me, she was also a sort of proto-feminist—the kind of woman who, in my own day, could have lived with any man she wanted. She wouldn’t have been stuck with the vain and shallow Vronsky—or, even if she had chosen him, she could have left him when she realized her mistake. If she’d lived in 1970s Canada instead of 1870s Russia, she wouldn’t have had to invest her whole identity in the role of mistress; instead, she could have pursued a career of her own. Intelligent, decisive, charming, she could have succeeded in any number of professions. Or so my thinking went.
I was fully persuaded that Tolstoy saw things as I did. Why else would he make Anna so attractive, with her musical laugh, her beguiling ringlets, the warmth and animation that always suffuses her face? Why else would he show Vronsky attempting to comb over his bald spot? And why else would Karenin talk with such affected irony? Never mind his unfortunate ears or his wide feet; no woman could stay married to a man so incapable of forthright speech, much less a woman as earnest and ardent as Anna.
My fundamentalist classmates saw things differently. For them, Anna was a harlot. Vronsky was not only arrogant and selfish, but a pig. Karenin was a decent man, mistaken in some of his decisions, perhaps, but deserving of respect and honour. And the true hero of the story was Tolstoy’s stand-in, the landowner Levin, who, with his tendency to lecture others, his social awkwardness, his religiosity and his humourlessness, seemed to me remarkably like the Christians themselves. No wonder they took his part.
“If Levin’s not the protagonist, why does the book end with him?” my classmates demanded. Anna doesn’t even appear until Chapter XVIII, and she is dead for the whole last section of the novel. “Why did Tolstoy kill her off if he approved of her?”
“Then why it is called Anna Karenina?” I countered.
When Anna and Vronsky finally run away, Anna feels “unpardonably happy” for a time. The memory of her husband’s unhappiness does not poison her pleasure. On the one hand, this memory is “too terrible to think of.” On the other, it is also the cause of her own joy, so she can’t repent: “The memory of the evil done to her husband called up in her a feeling akin to revulsion and similar to that experienced by a drowning man who has torn away another man clinging to him. That man drowned. Of course it was bad, but it was the only salvation, and it was better not to remember those dreadful details.”
So I tried to ignore Arthur’s pain in the flush of my own first freedom. I dreamed I was standing on a ladder, working on a large painting. I painted a tree, which on its own grew branches and golden leaves. I painted mysterious sea creatures that took off in flight against the blue-grey sky. As I worked, it seemed to me that the piece lost its symmetry but gained significance, and I woke up smiling.
Walking through Breakwater Park from my place to Mark’s, in sandals now instead of boots, I felt the wind tickling my knees, the sun warming my face and ruffling my hair. Mark had a silliness that Arthur lacked. In the long evening light, we’d turn up the music and dance; we’d spin out puns and ridiculous pet names and then laugh so hard it hurt. We stuffed ourselves with strawberries and homemade gelato. We drank a lot of wine. And then, of course, there was the sex. If I thought of Arthur, I pushed the thought away. To flourish is to become dangerous, I wrote in my journal, quoting Robert Frost. And then I quoted Melville: The only real infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead.
In the fevered excitement of a new, illicit relationship, a woman re-reads her marriage from a different perspective. Belatedly recognizing that Anna has closed her heart against him, Karenin tries to adopt the unfamiliar language of love. “If he hadn’t heard there was such a thing as love, he would never have used the word,” she thinks. “He doesn’t even know what love is.” Until this moment, though, she has not seemed to doubt his affection for her, and outwardly, at least, they appear to be a devoted couple. Similarly, I parsed Arthur’s sentences, finding only evidence of our incompatibility, despite a history that included at least as much contentment as dissatisfaction.
When an adulterous woman re-reads her marriage, she also re-reads herself. Having prided herself on her virtue, Anna is shocked by her feelings for Vronsky and no longer knows who she is. “Am I myself, or someone else?” she asks. A hundred years later, faced with the same unexpected emotions, I found myself struggling with the same unanswerable question.
I hadn’t considered Anna Karenina for many years, but suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about the book. Even its size and heft seemed to echo the mess I was in. And everywhere I went I caught glimpses of Anna. On train platforms, of course, but also at the bank, at the grocery store, even in the mirror. It bothered me to think that my life had become a nineteenth-century melodrama. Wasn’t I supposed to be creating my own story? Wasn’t I supposed to be unique? Still, I couldn’t stop the comparisons. As the weeks went on, they only seemed more fitting.
The break-up of the Karenins’ marriage is as wrenching as the break-up of Baltic ice. Anna nearly dies in childbirth, Vronsky shoots himself and Karenin alternates between rage and forgiveness. My own break-up led to similar heartache. Arthur, though he was in Toronto for the summer, didn’t intend to give me up, so he tried, with increasing desperation, to woo me back. We talked on the phone late at night; we visited one another. But these visits were painful, and, between our strained conversations, we stumbled around like air-raid survivors. In a photo taken at a friend’s wedding that summer, we raise champagne flutes for the camera. My eyes are red and swollen, and Arthur’s smile looks like the rictus of a corpse.
In August, I made my decision. Like Karenin, Arthur refused to accept it. He brought me flowers identical to our wedding bouquet and begged me to take him back. He called me a slut and a coward. He paced our apartment and wept and then he began to rage.
He ripped a lamp out of the wall; wires dangled from the outlet like entrails. So much for the man who couldn’t express anger. He threw a chair. He cowered on our bed like a child. Then he threatened Mark’s children. It must have been past midnight when he opened Anatomy of the Human Body to the venous system of the arm and started rooting through our kitchen drawers for a sharp knife. A knife.
Somehow, I got him to the hospital. “I need a rest,” he told the doctors in a rare moment of understatement. While they questioned him, an intern wearing a cross on her neck fussed around me. “Are you sure you’ve tried everything to save your marriage?” she asked. “Couldn’t you try again?” What could I do except shake my head? The doctors weren’t happy with Arthur’s condition, but the hospital had no spare beds. They sent him back to the apartment with me.
The worst of it was that I still loved him. And, although it scared me to admit it, I wasn’t so sure I loved Mark. By now, I’d learned that he wasn’t always the exquisitely perceptive and responsive person he had first seemed. He fell asleep too early. He obsessed about insignificant details. His teasing had an edge that could leave me close to tears. Not to mention the fact that it took him twenty minutes to comb his hair—longer than it took me to put on my make-up. Waiting for some space at the mirror one day, I couldn’t help but think of Vronsky. And not in a good way.
By then, Mark was renting a different sabbatical house, a gloomy, low-ceilinged ranch, its cupboards stuffed with the pack-rat owner’s possessions. Once, I counted: Twenty sets of dishes. Forty jars of marmalade. Thirty cans of clams. Four tubes of truffle paste. Truffle paste! And that was just in the kitchen. In the bedroom I found drawers full of Arrow shirts still in their cellophane wrappers, dozens of unworn McGregor socks, thirty packages of jockey shorts. Where was the space for us in all of that? Where was the space for me?
I had dropped out of school. I couldn’t find work. Because I was the guilty party, most of my friends had taken Arthur’s side. Meanwhile, Mark had a job, an ex-wife and kids to keep him occupied. I spent a great deal of time alone. As winter came on and the giddy rush of new love evaporated, I began to mourn my marriage. It was easier then. We were comfortable together, I wrote in my journal. Our breaks for tea, the gossip about friends ... Here, I always feel jolted, on edge. I miss Arthur and miss my life with him. I miss feeling part of a community. Now I’m a pariah. Why did I do this? Why? Tangled in a rust-coloured blanket on the long couch of that cavernous living room, I listened to the creaking and humming of a house that wasn’t home. He is good, incredibly good. Who am I, to wound such gentleness?
Outside, October’s leaves gave way to November’s frost and then to the snow. Shielding my eyes from winter’s glare, I wrote, and kept on writing, filling forty, fifty, sixty pages a week or more, until my journals bulged as full as the cupboards of that place. Cramps, headache, itchy joints, and a feeling of irritation and anger. So isolated in this horrible house. I don’t feel mistress of myself here. Mark has his job, his life—and I have nothing. He has his life plus me, and I have only myself.
Now I dreamed of facing a Russian firing squad, wearing a dress of red. The authorities gave me a scythe, no bigger than a paring knife, but sharp, and commanded me to slice myself under the left breast and put myself to death.
At some point during that long winter, I picked up Anna Karenina. A nice fat novel to distract me from my woes, a book that Oprah’s website would later call the Harlequin Romance of its day—it seemed like just what the doctor might have ordered. Besides, given how often I thought about it in those days, it would have been silly not to read it.
I dove into it headlong, neglecting my other duties, breaking only to fix snacks for myself or for Mark’s daughter when she came home from school. Standing at the kitchen counter, squinting at the too-bright snow, I’d half-listen to Zipporah’s tales of teachers and cliques while another part of me perched on the edge of my seat at the Krasnoe-Selo races.
I loved the book, loved it even more than when I’d read it the first time. Coming to it as an adulterous adult, I read it with an almost predatory zeal. I was searching for ways to exculpate myself. I didn’t find them. Instead, I located a knot of disquiet that no amount of wine could dispel. Tolstoy, with his incomparable ability to dramatize the feelings of his characters, could awaken empathy for anyone—even the reptilian Karenin. Karenin’s false, mincing tone still annoyed me on my second reading, but now I saw what in my teens I could not allow myself to see: the hurt beneath his clipped and supercilious manners. The recognition stung me.
As for Anna herself, all her charm and pathos remained. Her attraction to Vronsky was an expression of her desire to become her most authentic self. How could I fail to respond to that? At the same time, I found her unsettling. The way she gloried in Vronsky’s submissiveness, “like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty.” The way she seemed to exult whenever she was the centre of attention. The way she’d wilt or brood or wax paranoid at the least suggestion that Vronsky might take interest in anything else. Was this the kind of woman I’d want for a friend? Was this the kind of woman I wanted to be?
Not only did I wonder whether Tolstoy really approved of Anna, I wasn’t so sure that I approved of her. Worse yet, I felt implicated. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” goes the novel’s epigraph. Did I seriously believe that I deserved to die for what I had done? Of course not. But I couldn’t prevent the terrible dreams that followed me into sleep each night, and I couldn’t erase the image of Anna bowing her head on those merciless iron tracks.
Since the 1970s, two interpretations have dominated scholarship about Anna Karenina. Outnumbered in the classroom, I considered myself a maverick. But in fact I had adopted the majority reading of the book, which sees Anna as a force for life, a victim of her time and place. Meanwhile, my fundamentalist classmates represented the minority who are critical of Anna, often on religious grounds.
Perhaps this tension can be traced to Tolstoy’s own ambivalence. As early as 1870, seven years before he published Anna Karenina, he confided to his wife that he wanted to portray a high-society woman who ruins herself yet remains sympathetic, deserving pity rather than scorn. But in his early versions of the manuscript, Anna was fat, ugly and vulgar, her lover was sweetly poetic and her husband was something of a saint. It’s only as the novel developed that the husband became colder and more concerned with his social position, the lover lost his interest in poetry and Anna became charming and complex. By the time he finished the book, Tolstoy famously wrote that he had fallen in love with her.
Most commentators have taken this to mean that he would like readers to do the same. But Gary Saul Morson, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, doesn’t think so. He claims that Anna’s tragedy results not from the clash between her natural vitality and the unyielding dictates of her milieu, but from her excessive self-regard and her refusal to empathize with others.
The tip-off is Anna’s preoccupation with her looks. “It would be tedious to list all the references to Anna’s energetic care of her appearance,” Morson writes. “We repeatedly detect her before the mirror. She titillates men, even Levin, with the amazing portrait she places strategically so that they see it before she appears. Her servant is Annushka, her daughter is Annie, and when she takes an English girl under her protection, we learn that the girl’s name is—Hannah; everywhere around Anna we find Anna. Tolstoy could hardly signal her narcissism more clearly.”
After she runs away with Vronsky, Anna devotes her entire existence to seduction. Even the book’s title telegraphs her personality disorder. After all, her story occupies less than a third of the novel. It could have borne any number of more representative names. But only Anna, of all the characters, would like to be the heroine of a novel. It is called after her, Morson argues, because that is what she would call it.
Years passed. The scandal died. Arthur moved forward into his own life; Mark and I stayed together. I worked, travelled, wrote. And I carted those old journals around with me through six or seven moves, eventually piling them in a plastic container under our bed.
I’d deliberately kept and stored them. But I didn’t like to think of them, with their battered covers, twisted coil bindings, torn pages, fading ink. And I couldn’t bear to read them. They were the record of a tumultuous time, and I didn’t want to go back there. I didn’t want to face the person I might have been.
So when the time came to reexamine this chapter of my life, I took it slowly. I dug the notebooks from under the bed and brought them to my study. Then I let them sit there for a few weeks, gathering dust, while I screwed up my courage. Finally, armed with a bottle of red wine and some dark chocolate, I got to work.
As I had feared, the journals were boring and repetitive. At first, I wrote of my confusion. What am I feeling? What is going on? Then, when I’d finally acknowledged it to myself, the entries betrayed a note of terror—What am I doing?—and denial—I’m not doing anything!
There were horrible passages about the disintegration of my marriage—acutely painful to read even after so many years. Rare moments of insight (I’m tired of the self I am in that relationship more than I’m tired of him; and of course with a new person I’m still creating the self I am there ...) alternated with blame and self-justification (Oh, now he wants to listen! ... but what about all the times I caught him checking his watch when I was trying to talk?) and self-recrimination (I’ve ruined everything. I’ve failed at everything). Mixed in with these were incoherent exclamations of pleasure and joy. And then page after page of what even the most charitable person could only call complaint. It was all, and only, about me.
Armeda, the minister’s daughter, hardly ever spoke in class, and when she did she blushed. Usually she took the boys’ line, often finding better evidence than they did for their conclusions. With her demure expression, hyper-feminine wardrobe and tendency to fade into the background, she reminded me of Kitty, the ingénue. Or sometimes of the wan, overlooked and overworked Dolly.
Armeda seemed to sense this resemblance herself, but, rather than chafing against it, as I would have done, she embraced it. Dolly, after all, loved her children, and showed a Christian spirit of forgiveness; Kitty, meanwhile, gave Levin the practical ballast he required to pursue his iconoclastic dreams. These, she said, should be a woman’s aims.
At sixteen, service to a man or one’s children did not strike me as significant goals. I wanted to do something more. I wanted to write; I was learning that then, from my passion for the books we were reading. Of course, I had no idea what this meant. In real life, I’d never met a writer. I knew only what the culture taught me: Writers aren’t conventional. Writers are exciting and special. Writers are a bit like Anna.
In the years since, I’ve come to recognize that “exciting” doesn’t always mean “good.” Sometimes it just means “self-absorbed.” Once, I had dreamed of becoming Anna; now I feared I really had. On the evidence of those journals, I stood convicted.
There’s a quiz you can take on the internet: “Which Anna Karenina character are you?” Naturally, I had to try it. It presents a series of questions to which you give a yes/no/either answer. Then you rate the answer’s importance to you on a sliding scale. The direction of some of these questions seems obvious: “Would you hurt someone you care about to get what you want?” Others are more obscure, the answers applicable to several of the characters: “Is love important?” And some are simply difficult to answer: “Are you often confused?” How often is “often”? The question itself confused me.
Still, I did my best and pressed the button to get my result. It shocked me: Kitty Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky. Anna’s protégé, Dolly’s little sister. Kitty. How could this be? It didn’t make sense.
Searching my conscience and aiming for scrupulous honesty, I took the test again. The result was the same. There couldn’t be any doubt. According to the test, I most resembled the character who “goes from being a naive child who loves carelessly and flies with life, to a mature adult with a level head. She grows mentally very much, and is on the road to true wisdom.” Next closest to me was Dolly, who is “mainly concerned with her children, and is very caring and nurturing. She is close with family and is very reliable.” Then the awkward landowner Levin, “who believes in hard work…and spends much of his time pondering and on his own.” “Sensuous and rebellious” Anna, who thrives on excitement and deceives others, came a distant fourth.
I anticipated a romantic idyll when I ran away with Mark. Reality turned out different. Our relationship took work. We were trying, really trying, to be honest with one another. We were fumbling to express our real feelings. If he did or said something that displeased me, I thought it over, and then spoke with him about it. If our positions were reversed, he did the same. And we didn’t assume—as Arthur and I had—that we should always agree. Talking could be awkward. It could be painful. But I felt myself stretching to meet an unexpected challenge.
These changes were reflected in my journals. As the months went on, I wrote about Mark’s children and the delicate business of how to relate to them. More and more I seemed conscious of the gravity of my new role. And a year into our relationship—around the time that I re-read Anna Karenina—I noticed a kind of shift. Instead of dwelling on my regrets and fears and petty annoyances, I began to write about what I saw on the street or overheard in the café. I began to look out as well as in.
This didn’t happen by accident. It was deliberate. Every day, I instructed myself to look and describe. Every day, I tried to experiment with form. Gradually, poems began to take shape. Sketches and short stories. Analyses of the books that I’d been reading. I had no one to show these to, no guides or mentors. So I worked in silence and alone. Draft after draft. Beginning after botched beginning.
Perhaps that test was right after all. Perhaps I most resembled Kitty. Her marriage to Levin is a little bit like my relationship to Mark. At age sixteen, I’d barely noticed their story. I skimmed the Levin sections, with their endless detail about farming, eager to get to the juicy stuff about Anna and Vronsky. I should have paid more attention. Kitty and Levin quarrel frequently in their early months together—not because they are fundamentally unsuited but because, as Tolstoy puts it, they don’t yet know what matters most to the other. They need to learn that through open conversation. Their painful honesty sparks some conflagrations, but it also pays off; the longer they stay together, the closer they become. Day by day, they grow and mature and begin to feel confident—increasingly themselves and increasingly alive. In this, they are the opposite of Anna and Vronsky, who begin in passionate delight but eventually feel constrained by one another, and whose relationship ends in a misunderstanding so deep that it leads to death.
Re-reading my journals, I saw this: when Mark and I started out, I may have acted and felt like Anna. But, as winter melted into spring, I cast off the mantle of her furs.
“Just as you’ll never fall in love again the way you did the first time, you’ll never read a great novel at 49 in the wholehearted way you would have read it at 20,” novelist James Hynes writes in Salon, “if only because so much life, and so many books, have happened in the meantime.” The same is true for the books of our own lives.
At sixteen, I saw Anna as a martyr to the cause of honesty and self-expression. She refuses to live for duty, refuses to deny her sensuality, refuses to maintain an image of propriety simply for the sake of convenience. Instead, she insists on taking a grand risk for a grand love. What self-respecting teenager wouldn’t fall for that?
But, returning to the book as an adult, I noticed something different, or something more: Anna is not as honest as she wants to believe. In order to justify her affair, she must first convince herself that her marriage is a loveless sham. And this takes an effort of will. Her famous observation about her husband’s ugly ears seems spontaneous, and perhaps it is. But we also learn that, in the past, “whenever he went to bed five minutes later than usual she noticed it and asked him the reason,” and that “every joy, every pleasure and pain that she felt she communicated to him at once.” This doesn’t sound like a terrible relationship. In fact, it sounds like a pretty good one. But, in light of her new attraction to Vronsky, Anna finds it wanting. So she re-reads her past, looking for reasons to dislike the man she once loved. As her story goes on, she expresses her revulsion for Karenin in more and more exaggerated terms. Instead of taking responsibility for inflicting pain, she makes excuses.
When I began my affair, I did much the same thing. I looked for differences. He wants this; I want that; therefore, we don’t belong together. “You were miserable in your marriage,” one friend told me, trying to assuage my guilt. “You didn’t belong together.” People want to believe in the power of one true love. People want the simple story.
Unlike Anna, I couldn’t buy it—or I couldn’t buy it for long. True, Arthur and I had our problems—but I wasn’t miserable. True, he wasn’t perfect—but he wasn’t horrible. I hurt him anyway to get what I wanted. Facing up to this uncomfortable truth about myself was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
In the end, I’m luckier than Anna. Her circumstances really did constrain her. Trapped in a society that refused to recognize women’s sexual or emotional needs, she could leave one man for another, but she couldn’t conceive of herself as an independent being. She couldn’t take responsibility for herself. She couldn’t change.
A century later, I enjoyed more freedom and more opportunity. That doesn’t mean change was easy—my journals are proof. Still, I’ve kept them. I won’t discard them. The obsession that drove my embarrassing self-analysis is the same obsession that drove those faltering poems and stories. They deserve a spot on my shelves.
“True life begins where the tiny bit begins,” Tolstoy writes, in one of his late essays, “where what seems to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place—where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another—it is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.” Art, he claims, is much the same. It begins in small alterations. Not in the flame of passion or talent, but in painstaking observation and application. In ongoing daily effort.
During that long winter of my affair, I felt humiliated and frightened, like Kitty after Vronsky spurns her; I felt awkward and riddled with self-doubt, like Levin when he makes a social faux pas. Still, I sat on the couch and wrote. At first, the work of change felt beyond me, as impossible as lifting my own weight. But I kept trying. In time, the effort felt almost effortless. In time, the effort felt like love.