DIY MFA Reading List (Double Header): “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” and “Anna Karenina”

I’ll admit that I wanted more from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And since reading the novel earlier this summer, I’ve found myself unwilling to express just how much of a slog it seemed at the time. The tortured inner lives of the landed, well-mannered, uptight Russian aristocracy didn’t float my boat like I’d hoped.

In my defense, I was pressed for time last summer: trying to cram a rigorous regimen of “real” work, “creative” writing, reading, exercise, laundry, and childcare responsibilities into a short, ten-hour window each sweltering day. And so, as the clock ticked away and my kids frolicked in the pool nearby, I struggled to keep up with the various names, nicknames, middle names, and familial relationships in Tolstoy’s work … flipping back and forth between pages, trying to make sure I was “getting” it all, the minutes slowly winding down to dinner, after which I was usually a few pages shy of my daily page quota, and would curl up on the couch, eyelids sagging, kicking myself for not having achieved yet another goal in life.

Occasionally, though, I would read myself into “the zone”: for a few moments, all of the nagging daily chores would fall away and I would find myself transported into Tolstoy’s Russia. One particularly memorable passage (which I was fortunate enough to read “in the zone”) still haunts me:

So they mowed the first row. And this long row seemed particularly hard work to Levin; but when the end was reached and Tit, shouldering his scythe, began with deliberate stride returning on the tracks left by his heels in the cut grass, and Levin walked back in the same way over the space he had cut, in spite of the sweat that ran in streams over his face and fell in drops down his nose, and drenched his back as though he had been soaked in water, he felt very happy. What delighted him particularly was that now he knew he would be able to hold out.

His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. “I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body,” he thought, comparing Tit’s row, which looked as if it had been cut with a line, with his own unevenly and irregularly lying grass.

The first row, as Levin noticed, Tit had mowed specially quickly, probably wishing to put his master to the test, and the row happened to be a long one. The next rows were easier, but still Levin had to strain every nerve not to drop behind the peasants.

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.

Suddenly, in the midst of his toil, without understanding what it was or whence it came, he felt a pleasant sensation of chill on his hot, moist shoulders. He glanced at the sky in the interval for whetting the scythes. A heavy, lowering storm-cloud had blown up, and big raindrops were falling. Some of the peasants went to their coats and put them on; others – just like Levin himself – merely shrugged their shoulders, enjoying the pleasant coolness of it.

Another row, and yet another row, followed – long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.

Tolstoy is a masterfully observant writer, with a preternatural ability to observe and report on the most nuanced of human emotions. I found Levin’s communion with the land, the peasants, and his thoughtful consideration of the problems inherent in Russian society to be engaging and interesting; while the doomed “love” story between Anna and Vronsky tended to induce yawns.

If Tolstoy thrives in the tiniest of details, Muriel Barbery’s strength is in making big ideas accessible. In Barbery’s brief treatise on modern thought, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Tolstoy plays a major role. The scene I’ve quoted above is explicitly referenced by one of the novel’s two narrators, a middle-aged French concierge named Renée who feigns dullness rather than risk the attentions her obviously brilliant mind might invite from her tenants. Renée is acutely conscious of the class structure within the building, and feels imprisoned by her lowly station in life, a “mere” concierge. The novel opens with a lesson on Marx:

To understand Marx … one must read The German Ideology. It is the anthropological cornerstone on which all his exhortations for a new world would be built, and on which a sovereign certainty is established: mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire, would do better to confine itself to its own needs. In a world where the hubris of desire has been vanquished, a new social organization can emerge, cleansed of struggle, oppression and deleterious hierarchies.

“Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression,” I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.

Not your typical light summer reading: Barbery’s ambitious thesis is no less than desire, mankind, and the path to enlightenment. Renée’s cat, by the way, is named Leo (after Tolstoy).

I was initially annoyed with Renée, and with her twin narrator Paloma. Each character begins the novel as bright, but flawed: both desire too much from the world, from others, from themselves. They are content merely to observe and critique, too scared of life to engage it head-on. And what purpose is served by thought with no action?

But Barbery understands that by presenting us with characters just shy of enlightenment, she can illustrate the steps they must take to achieve it. Paloma, the precocious but reclusive French schoolgirl who is intent on committing suicide, lives with her parents and her shallow sister in Renée’s building. When a famous Japanese filmmaker moves in, Renée befriends the troubled little girl and the filmmaker both, and together the three of them bring Renée out of hibernation to realize that eternity cannot be contemplated while planning for a dreary and demoralizing future, or while dressing the wounds caused by the past. Enlightenment exists only within the here-and-now, while surrounded by good friends, and laughter … “eternity within the very movement of life.”

Barbery serves up this survey course in philosophy via bite-sized, two- and five-page chapters (just as Tolstoy does in his work), each scene presenting and then explicating some major philosophical topic, simultaneously building up the tension between the building’s new resident and its staid, snoopy inhabitants, all of it with a delightful and engaging touch. It’s a bit like reading literary sushi.

By the time the our narrators understand that “living in the moment” will deliver them from the gloomy inner prison of the past and the future, it’s almost too late for one of our protagonists. Barbery takes her time delivering the rapid and shocking dénouement, but the journey has been worth the wait.

Both novels posit that freedom to live will only be found in pure and thoughtless action, free from worry or fear. This final stage of the hero’s journey is perhaps best captured in the immortal words of Bobby McFerrin:

“Don’t worry, be happy.”

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.