“And Levin remembered a scene he had lately witnessed between Dolly and her children. The children, left to themselves, had begun cooking raspberries over the candles and squirting milk into each other’s mouths with a syringe. Their mother, catching them at these pranks, began reminding them in Levin’s presence of the trouble their mischief gave to the grown-up people, and that this trouble was all for their sake, and that if they smashed the cups they would have nothing to drink their tea out of, and that if they wasted the milk, they would have nothing to eat, and die of hunger.”
In 2004, I was working at one of those huge box bookstores when Oprah’s Book Club chose Anna Karenina as their next reading selection. I was the clerk who rang up over 300 copies of the book on the day the book was “released” (with a shiny new “Oprah Seal of Approval”) in bookstores nationwide. I was also there when, a week later, dozens of sheepish readers brought the book back to the store for a refund. I doubt many readers would dispute the quality of Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s novel is truly a masterpiece, evident even in the English translation, which I’m told pales in comparison to the original Russian prose. So, what, you might wonder, was the problem?
I think that the length of Anna Karenina daunted Oprah’s readers. In an age when people read the news through twitter posts and Amazon’s best sellers are “Kindle Singles,” the long novel stands little chance of holding a contemporary reader’s attention. However, as 19th century literature fans know, novels from this period tend to be very long (American writer and critic Henry James once referred to Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s novels as “loose, baggy monsters”). This, in many cases, can be attributed to the fact that many of these works of fiction were published as serials (or “installments”) in popular magazines and journals before they were published in full form. Serializing a novel had an economic benefit for the writer: the more chapters produced, the longer the magazine published the serial, and the more money all parties earned from the publications. The first chapters of Anna Karenina were published in the Russian Herald in 1875; the full book form wasn’t published until 1878.
Originally considered scandalous because of its treatment of illicit affairs, suicide, and various social and political issues in 19th century Russia, Tolstoy’s novel also addresses many of the timeless themes of human existence: friendship, love, hate, passion, happiness, envy, compliance, liberty, gender, and religion. As the passage above demonstrates, Tolstoy’s use of real events and believable details – like children taking “shots” of milk and holding raspberries over the fire – lend credibility to the fictional events of his narrative. Levin, one of the primary characters in Anna Karenina, uses the children’s actions as metaphor for human behavior:
“And Levin had been struck by the passive, weary incredulity with which the children heard what their mother said to them. They were simply annoyed that their amusing play had been interrupted, and did not believe a word of what their mother was saying. They could not believe it indeed, for they could not take in the immensity of all they habitually enjoyed, and so could not conceive that what they were destroying was the very thing they lived by.”
We can see, then, how literary food is used not only for symbolism, but also to achieve verisimilitude, the sense that something is realistic or resembles a truth.
These cookie bars were easy to throw together and really delivered on flavor. Carmelitas are crisp, crumbly layers of oats, brown sugar, and butter bonded by a rich, chewy center made of chocolate, pecans, and dulce de leche. Popular in Latin America, dulce de leche is a thick caramel sauce made by caramelizing the sugar in sweetened milk. The spread is not difficult to make at home – many cooks just boil an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk for a few hours – but it’s also relatively easy to come across the pre-made variety at a well-stocked supermarket. The recipe I used can be found here. I halved the ingredients and still had plenty to share with a room full of cohorts at a recent back-to-school training event.
If you ever take on Anna Karenina – or any long novel for that matter – don’t be ashamed to take it slow. Read a few pages and then leave it for a few days. Take a year (or two!) to dip in and out of it. You’ll be like an original reader! As for LWbookeater, it’s a new semester at the Really Big University, and her doctoral exams are on the horizon: if she survives, something a little stronger than a shot of milk may be in order!