In this blog post, I want to argue that the classics are not just immense tomes that accrue dust on the shelf of the library or a bookshelf, but are instead living, breathing documents that reflect back to us our humanity. I’m starting with this lofty statement, because recently I have become obsessed with the 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was born in 1828 and died in 1910. Tolstoy was an outsized personality, and he was not only a great novelist but also, following a moral crisis in his forties, a Christian anarchist and pacifist.
But although I find Tolstoy’s detours into anarchism, Christianity and pacifism interesting (his advocacy of non-violent resistance was a great influence on Gandhi), I have to say that it is his novels that really excite me. Anna Karenina, for example, which I finished about a month ago, was this really amazing exploration of one woman in Russian society who bucked the norms (she was a married woman who fell in love with another man) and then had to face the tragic consequences. There were scenes in that novel that felt so true to life – it was such a remarkable and uncanny reading experience. (Isaac Babel, another famous Russian writer, once wrote that “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”)
One of the best things about the book was the way the characters changed and aged. I think characters changing is one of the hardest things to pull off in a novel, because the novelist really needs to give a fine-grained and textured evocation of the interior lives of the characters in order for us to fully believe in the changes they undergo. They also must know their characters so fully and deeply to really convey how they change. In other words, he or she must be able to see into the minds and hearts of other fictional people – to be a very deep psychologist. I thought Tolstoy was so good at doing just that, and for that reason his characters felt so utterly real, and I really cared about them. In the fate of Anna, we could see our own foibles and passions reflected.
There is a scene near the end of the novel, where Anna is riding on a train. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a very tumultuous moment and time in her life, and Tolstoy gives us Anna’s inner monologue – the kind of scattered, fragmented thoughts that populate her mind as she looks out the train window and melds her inner world with the world she sees. It is so well done – we feel like we are actually privy to another person’s thoughts, and the thoughts feel so real, so like our own thinking, that it is impossible not to empathize with Anna’s state of mind. The novel reflects back to us our own humanity – it allows us to see our own selves more capaciously – and at the same allows us to empathize deeply with Anna. It is truly a heart-wrenching moment.
And that’s the thing – Anna Karenina is a classic. But this does not mean a big book that no one reads anymore, or shouldn’t read anymore! Instead, it is this very profound, wonderful, fresh and moving story about families and individuals, set against a vast panorama of Russian society in the 19th century. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from reading Anna Karenina, and now War and Peace, which I’ve read about half of – the classics are classics because they are fabulous!!! They are timeless snapshots of fictive life, and they demand to be read. They can be challenging and fun at the same time, but they are not just boring books that no one reads anymore. Instead, they are deep explorations of what it means to be human, to be thinking and feeling beings, with crises, problems, and dreams.