New Books in the Arts & Sciences
—panel discussions celebrating recent work by the Columbia Faculty
Anna Karenina and Others: Tolstoy’s Labyrinth of Plots
by Liza Knapp
With its complex structure, Anna Karenina places special demands on readers who must follow multiple plotlines and discern their hidden linkages. In her well-conceived and jargon-free analysis, Liza Knapp offers a fresh approach to understanding how the novel is constructed, how it creates patterns of meaning, and why it is much more than Tolstoy’s version of an adultery story.
Knapp provides a series of readings of Anna Karenina that draw on other works that were critical to Tolstoy’s understanding of the interconnectedness of human lives. Among the texts she considers are The Scarlet Letter, a novel of adultery with a divided plot; Middlemarch, a multiplot novel with neighborly love as its ideal; and Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, which fascinated Tolstoy during his own religious crisis. She concludes with a tour-de-force reading of Mrs. Dalloway that shows Virginia Woolf constructing this novel in response to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina and others.
In the eighteenth century, as modern forms of literature began to emerge in Russia, most of the writers producing it were members of the nobility. But their literary pursuits competed with strictly enforced obligations to imperial state service. Unique to Russia was the Table of Ranks, introduced by Emperor Peter the Great in 1722. Noblesse oblige was not just a lofty principle; aristocrats were expected to serve in the military, civil service, or the court, and their status among peers depended on advancement in ranks.
Irina Reyfman illuminates the surprisingly diverse effects of the Table of Ranks on writers, their work, and literary culture in Russia. From Sumarokov and Derzhavin in the eighteenth century through Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and poets serving in the military in the nineteenth, state service affected the self-images of writers and the themes of their creative output. Reyfman also notes its effects on Russia’s atypical course in the professionalization and social status of literary work.