Archive for the ‘W. H. Auden’ Category

Tolstoy and Auden

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy-paperback-cover-artI have been reading–well, listening to–Anna Karenina for some time now, for which I must thank that vacuous but ravishingly beautiful movie (see my review, here), the most recent Anna contender in a very long list. Tolstoy is a marvel, over and over again astonishing me at his complete understanding of human behavior, of how silly we can be, how we fool ourselves, and how at the same time, how decent, how good people can be. It starts off with such a bang–“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” –with Dolly discovering her husband’s idiotic intrigue with their CHILDREN’S governess–the wife’s despair, and Oblonsky’s perplexity at her state–which however doesn’t in any way affect his appetite or habits. A selfish, feckless, and foolish man–but completely and totally likeable. No one can dislike him, not even us, the readers. And then onto the introduction of Anna and Vronsky, and the parallel couple, Levin and Kitty–and, all the multiple people and relationships that are so carefully woven around them, from which blossoms forth the living spirit of Russia society in 1870’s, the frolicsome counts and princes and their lovely women. Alas, I am fast approaching Anna’s terrible death, so carefully foreshadowed in the very first scene, and I dread it.
But before the death of Anna comes the birth of Levin and Kitty’s son, a very powerful scene:
‘Meanwhile, at the foot of the bed, in the midwife’s expert hands, like the flame of a lamp, flickered the life of a human being who had never existed before, and who, with the same rights and importance to itself, would live, and beget others like himself.
” Alive, alive ! And it is a boy ! Nothing to be worried about,” Levin heard the midwife’s voice saying, as she slapped the baby’s back with a trembling hand,
” Mamma, is it true ? ” asked Kitty.
The old princess’s quiet sobbing was the only reply she got.
And amid the silence, as an unmistakable answer to his mother’s question, there came a voice, quite unlike the other subdued voices in the room. It was a bold insolent cry of a human being, that had no consideration for anything and that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.”
Which reminded me of Auden’s wonderful poem, Mundus et Infans:
Kicking his mother until she let go of his soul
Has given him a healthy appetite: clearly, her role
in the New Order must be
To supply and deliver his raw materials free;
Should there be any shortage,
She will be held responsible; she also promises
To show him all such attentions as befit his age.
Having dictated peace,With one fist clenched behind his head, heel drawn up to thigh,
The cocky little ogre dozes off, ready
Though, to take on the rest
Of the world at the drop of a hat or the mildest
Nudge of the impossible,
Resolved, cost what it may, to seize supreme power and
Sworn to resist tyranny to the death with all
Forces at his command. A pantheist not a solipsist, he co-operates
With a universe of large and noisy feeling-states
Without troubling to place
Them anywhere special, for, to his eyes, Funnyface
Or Elephant as yet
Mean nothing. His distinction between Me and Us
Is a matter of taste; his seasons are Dry and Wet;
He thinks as his mouth does.
EXCELLENT poem, excellent book. To Auden and to Tolstoy, I lift my glass!

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