“Sometimes she did not know what she feared, what she desired: whether she feared or desired what had been or what would be, and precisely what she desired, she did not know.” ~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Considered one of the greatest novels of all time by many literary deities (Dostoievsky, Faulkner, Nabokov et all), Anna Karenina is resurrected almost every year from the cold 1870s Russian winter by different creators.
Like many Russian literature addicts, Tolstoy admirers and Anna Karenina-type hopeless romantics, I find an incomparable joy in being taken back through the timeless pages that, a decade ago, first unleashed my early twenties restlessness.
My most inebriating taste of realist fiction wasn’t all that realistic to me. But, like all books (and films) I’ve ever loved, I was in it. I haven’t really read or watched anything in my life. They’ve all been reading and watching me.
So I remember my Yesterday Self by a chimney in some kind of self-built palace in a literary Saint Petersburg, sipping cup after cup of rooibos tea; the body—a homeless prisoner of short winter days; the senses, numbed by the snow, but the mind—that thing with feathers—always available for romance, adventure and above all, time travel.
I wanted Russian names for all my future children.
It’s Tolstoy’s fault, anyway. A non-conformist and a rebel, he puts a literary end to the predominating (then and now) belief that men cannot understand, read or portray women as magically and accurately as women—just like his contemporary, Flaubert, had done with Madame Bovary.
But less about Tolstoy and more about Anna.
It’s a love story. Or, a story about love, in love, through love; by, beyond and above love. It’s mostly about people who love too much, who don’t know how or why or when or where, but only who.
Being one of these people, I simply couldn’t put it down. And I have this thing for novels that shake my world. I memorize different passages with special emphasis on the last lines and then use them in conversations without quoting. If someone guesses, I marry them.
Yet I won’t tell you about Anna’s ending. In case you’ve missed it until now, I wouldn’t want to spoil the pain and the beauty, in all her pain and all her beauty. But please, think of me (of yourself) when it happens.
And here is why—beyond time and space and culture, and deep into the matters of the heart—I think you might be her:
1.You are a sensitive, emotional creature. Everything affects you in 3D. As a direct result of your extreme, porous sensitivity, you love too much and let go too little.
What’s even more terrible, you’re aware that you do. You beat and beat and beat at life until there’s nothing left of you to hold the hammer. But then one day, just when you think you can’t, you realize that:
“Something magical has happened to me: like a dream when one feels frightened and creepy, and suddenly wakes up to the knowledge that no such terrors exist. I have woken up.”
2. You’d rather die trying, than live a life not signed by you, in your own shaky handwriting. You understand and finally accept that nothing is permanent. Although being all right with the idea that this—that you too, shall pass, makes you do crazy things, while you still have time.
‘Cause see, you don’t really have time, you are time. Your Now is all that belongs to you. Every breath is a second chance. And you take it. Because the alternative to living your own dream is waking up more tired than ever, in somebody else’s.
You act like life is a terminal illness. Your only morphine is living it to its fullest because you just never know when they’ll take it away.
3. You’re a drama queen. You’re more afraid of the lack of feeling than an overdose of it. Every thing is the end of the world, and every other thing, a new beginning.
Some days you think you’re going to die from an outburst of passion and an excess of imagination. You can’t contain all the extra life in your chest. There are a hundred of you in there and they want out badly.
And tell me, Dear Inquisition, since when has drama become an unwanted guest at the dinner table? Since when eating was just about eating? You disagree and play with your food.
Productivity has kicked feeling out of the heart’s bedroom. So you try to remedy castrated creativity with literary orgasms. After all, all life is made of stories. As a result, adults don’t trust you but children love you.
4. You’re not embarrassed by your own beauty. “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”
Because you understand that your beauty—although it starts inside—it can only survive and grow outside of you. It’s like a seed. You must push it out in order for it to become a plant.
Like water, beauty can’t be contained. And like love, it is contagious. True authentic beauty sets others free. You’re not helping anyone by keeping it veiled.
Beauty is dangerous mostly when it is misunderstood. When you dare to live up to your beauty, to be unapologetically beautiful—with your highs and lows, your perfect imperfections, your pretty-ugly days, your lack and your excesses—you automatically empower others to do the same.
There’s plenty for everyone. We don’t need to cut back. You stop hiding, you hear me?
5. You are wild and non-conformist. The only downside to this is that you often speak before you think. You dig your own graves and then you push yourself in them. So hush a little, won’t you?
You don’t need to offer your own neck to be hanged. There’s no higher cause in being a daredevil. Non-attached wilderness in a world enslaved by materialism and non-conformist shepherd-ism in a time of sheep, are already difficult enough.
6. You are not fond of rules. You rule the breaks. As soon as you understand and memorize the rules, you immediately start thinking of possible exceptions—fire escapes that will save your life when the hands of complacency and pulse of comfort start choking on you.
You don’t like promises, because they’re the easiest thing to break. You just do what you must do. You understand that freedom is also freedom to make mistakes. So you’d rather fall on your own knees and pray for mercy than stand on somebody’s safe shoulders.
Dogma isn’t safe, it’s boring.
7. You’re afraid… but you will do it anyway. Your knees shake. You understand that fear is not an enemy to be defeated but an ally to be used to propel you forward. You chew on your fear like energy bars. Your teeth shake.
But if you dare to eat it, fear is the most digestible food. It comes out on the other end transformed into the greatest, most amazing accomplishments of your life. Talk about recycling.
8. You have a tendency of falling in love with people who can’t love you well. It could be because part of you thinks you don’t deserve any better. It could also be because deep down you really believe you can save them from their irreversible sadness and they can save you, in return, from your madness, and you’re so fond of redemption, you think you might be…Jesus?
But what you should do instead is wake the hell up and realize that you’re nobody’s saviour, that in the end, no one survives and no one can be saved any more than they can save or spend themselves.
You are the master of your soul, the captain of your fate. So is everyone else. And “energy rests upon love; and come as it will, there’s no forcing it.”
But your stubbornness is greater than you, so you won’t listen, but jump on to the next point.
9. You lose and love and lose and love and lose and love again, because what else is there to do? (Good god, woman!)
“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
I think so too. Lest I should die decapitated by my own multiplicity.
But just as our cells are constantly renewed, so are our hearts. We change. Why should our old, young heart be left behind? Change and love are our only constants.
So you keep on changing and loving as long as you live. And the older you get, you stop asking Why. “You can’t ask Why about love.”
And now, you think you’ve heard enough. Turn off the lights and get the popcorn.
*All quoted text from Anna Karenina.