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Love and appetite in Anna Karenina

A timely reminder to act while you still can for New Year’s Eve… A new film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightly and directed by Joe Wright, has opened worldwide, so we wanted to put it to the test. How faithful is the script to the novel? We’ve paired a scene from the film with an excerpt of the work below. One of the greatest novels ever written, Anna Karenina sets the impossible and destructive triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky against the marriage of Levin and Kitty, thus illuminating the most important questions that face humanity.

LEVIN emptied his glass and they were silent for a while.

‘There is one thing more that I must tell you,’ began Oblonsky. ‘You know Vronsky?’

‘No, I don’t. Why do you ask?’

‘Another bottle,’ said Oblonsky, turning to the Tartar, who was filling their glasses and hovering round them just when he was not wanted.

‘The reason you ought to know Vronsky is this: he is one of your rivals.’

‘What is he?’ asked Levin, the expression of childlike rapture which Oblonsky had been admiring suddenly changing into an angry and unpleasant one.

‘Vronsky is one of Count Ivanovich Vronsky’s sons, and a very fine sample of the gilded youth of Petersburg. I met him in Tver when I was in the Service there and he came on conscription duty. Awfully rich, handsome, with influential connections, an aide-decamp to the Emperor, and at the same time very good-natured — a first-rate fellow. And he’s even more than a first-rate fellow. As I have got to know him now, he turns out to be both educated and very clever — a man who will go far.’

Levin frowned and was silent.

‘Well, so he came here soon after you left, and as far as I can make out is head over ears in love with Kitty; and you understand that her mother …’

‘Pardon me, but I understand nothing,’ said Levin, dismally knitting his brows. And at once he thought of his brother Nicholas and how mean he was to forget him.

‘You just wait a bit, wait !’ said Oblonsky, smiling and touching Levin’s arm. ‘I have told you what I know, and I repeat that, as far as anyone can judge in so delicate and subtle a matter, I believe the chances are all on your side.’

Levin leant back in his chair. His face was pale.

‘But I should advise you to settle the question as soon as possible,’ Oblonsky continued, filling Levin’s glass.

‘No, thanks! I can’t drink any more,’ said Levin pushing his glass aside, ‘or I shall be tipsy…. Well, and how are you getting on?’ he continued, evidently wishing to change the subject.

‘One word more! In any case, I advise you to decide the question quickly, but I shouldn’t speak to-day,’ said Oblonsky. ‘Go to-morrow morning and propose in the classic manner, and may heaven bless you!’

‘You have so often promised to come and shoot with me — why not come this spring?’ said Levin.

He now repented with his whole heart of having begun this conversation with Oblonsky. His personal feelings had been desecrated by the mention of some Petersburg officer as his rival, and by Oblonsky’s conjectures and advice.

Oblonsky smiled. He understood what was going on in Levin’s soul.

‘I’ll come some day,’ he said. ‘Ah, old chap, women are the pivot on which everything turns! Things are in a bad way with me too, very bad and all on account of women. Tell me quite frankly …’

He took out a cigar, and with one hand on his glass he continued:

‘Give me some advice.’

‘Why? What is the matter?’

‘Well, it’s this. Supposing you were married and loved your wife, but had been fascinated by another woman …’

‘Excuse me, but really I … it’s quite incomprehensible to me. It’s as if … just as incomprehensible as if I, after eating my fill here, went into a baker’s shop and stole a roll.’

Oblonsky’s eyes glittered more than usual.

‘Why not? Rolls sometimes smell so that one can’t resist them!’

‘Himmlisch ist’s, wenn ich bezwungen
Meine irdische Begier;
Aber doch wenn’s nicht gelungen
Hatt’ ich auch recht hübsch Plaisir!’

Oblonsky repeated these lines with a subtle smile and Levin himself could not help smiling.

‘No, but joking apart,’ continued Oblonsky, ‘just consider. A woman, a dear, gentle, affectionate creature, poor and lonely, sacrifices everything. Now when the thing is done … just consider, should one forsake her? Granted that one ought to part with her so as not to destroy one’s family life, but oughtn’t one to pity her and provide for her and make things easier?’

‘As to that, you must pardon me. You know that for me there are two kinds of women … or rather, no! There are women, and there are … I have never seen any charming fallen creatures, and never shall see any; and people like that painted Frenchwoman with her curls out there by the counter, are an abomination to me, and all these fallen ones are like her.’

‘And the one in the Gospels?’

‘Oh, don’t! Christ would never have spoken those words, had he known how they would be misused! They are the only words in the Gospels that seem to be remembered. However, I am not saying what I think, but what I feel. I have a horror of fallen women. You are repelled by spiders and I by those creatures. Probably you never studied spiders and know nothing of their morals; and it’s the same in my case!’

‘It’s all very well for you to talk like that—it’s like that gentleman in Dickens who with his left hand threw all difficult questions over his right shoulder. But denying a fact is no answer. What am I to do? Tell me, what am I to do? My wife is getting old, and I am full of vitality. A man hardly has time to turn round, before he feels that he can no longer love his wife in that way, whatever his regard for her may be. And then all of a sudden love crosses your path, and you’re lost, lost,’ said Oblonsky with despair.

Levin smiled.

‘Yes, I am lost,’ continued Oblonsky. ‘But what am I to do?

‘Don’t steal rolls.’

Oblonsky burst out laughing.

‘Oh, you moralist! But just consider, here are two women: one insists only on her rights, and her rights are your love, which you cannot give her; and the other sacrifices herself and demands nothing. What are you to do? How are you to act? It is a terrible tragedy.’

‘If you want me to say what I think of it, I can only tell you that I don’t believe in the tragedy. And the reason is this: I think love, both kinds of love, which you remember Plato defines in his “Symposium” — both kinds of love serve as a touchstone for men. Some men understand only the one, some only the other. Those who understand only the non-platonic love need not speak of tragedy. For such love there can be no tragedy. “Thank you kindly for the pleasure, good-bye,” and that’s the whole tragedy. And for the platonic love there can be no tragedy either, because there everything is clear and pure, because …’ Here Levin recollecting his own sins and the inner struggle he had lived through added unexpectedly, ‘However, maybe you are right. It may very well be. But I don’t know, I really don’t know.’

‘Well, you see you are very consistent,’ said Oblonsky. ‘It is both a virtue and a fault in you. You have a consistent character yourself and you wish all the facts of life to be consistent, but they never are. For instance you despise public service because you want work always to correspond to its aims, and that never happens. You also want the activity of each separate man to have an aim, and love and family life always to coincide — and that doesn’t happen either. All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.’

Levin sighed and did not answer. He was thinking of his own affairs and not listening to Oblonsky.

And suddenly both felt that though they were friends, and had dined and drunk wine together which should have drawn them yet closer, yet each was thinking only of his own affairs and was not concerned with the other.

Oblonsky had more than once experienced this kind of acute estrangement instead of union following a dinner with a friend, and knew what to do in such a case.

‘The bill!’ he shouted and went out into the dining-hall, where he immediately saw an aide-de-camp of his acquaintance, and entered into conversation with him about an actress and her protector. And immediately in conversation with the aide-de-camp Oblonsky felt relief and rest after the talk with Levin, who always demanded of him too great a mental and spiritual strain.

When the Tartar returned with a bill for twenty-six roubles odd, Levin, quite unconcernedly paid his share, which with the tip came to fourteen roubles, a sum that usually would have horrified his rustic conscience, and went home to dress and go on to the Shcherbatskys’ where his fate was to be decided.

‘It is heavenly when I have mastered my earthly desires; but even when I have not succeeded, I have also had right good pleasure!’

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