You created me in the abyss of nonexistence

Dear Carmen,

The Book of Anna (2020, tr. Samantha Schnee. Original: El libro de Ana, 2016) takes off a couple of years after Tolstoy had left us – but, rather than with a suicide under a passing train, it opens with a working-class anarchist wearing Anna Karenina’s dress and trying to plant a bomb to destroy a tram.

It’s 1905 and we are in St. Petersburg. Anna’s dress had been donated by Vronsky’s mother to a charity for “fallen women”, from where our anarchist, the young seamstress Clementine, had salvaged it. This time, the bomb will not explode, but, in a couple of days, a group of unarmed workers led by a priest called Father Gapon will march to the czar’s palace to petition for better working conditions, and will be massacred by the soldiers, in an event that will come to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Meanwhile, the czar is taking a bubble bath, and Anna Karenina’s son, Sergei Karenin, now middle-aged, has just received a request from him: the czar wants to acquire a legendary portrait of Anna, painted by Tolstoy’s Mikhailov, and described by Levin in Anna Karenina (1877) as “not a painting but a lovely living woman with dark, curly hair, bare shoulders and arms, and a pensive half smile on her lips, covered with tender down, looking at him triumphantly and tenderly with troubling eyes (…) she was more beautiful than a living woman can be.” (P&V translation, 2000)

Sergei knows that he cannot refuse the czar’s request, but he also cannot bear the thought of the portrait being displayed in the Hermitage – not so much because this could unearth the scandal of his mother’s infidelity and suicide, but rather because Sergei is deliciously neurotic: he is plagued by the fact that he is a figment of Tolstoy’s imagination. “Is there anyone here who sees me not as a character, but as a person? Even I think of myself as a character.” Strangers approach him as if he were a local celebrity: ‘I’ve read Tolstoy’s novel so many times that you could even say I’ve memorized it. I’m overcome by the incredible opportunity to speak with one of its characters…’

His sister Anya, the forbidden fruit of Anna’s affair with Vronsky, faces the opposite problem: she is disappointed at the fact that she passes unnoticed and fails to attract people’s attention. “Another one who forgot I was ever born”, she muses when her brother is accosted by a Tolstoy fan. She “barely appears in the novel in which she was born, and that gives her personality more breadth.”

Tolstoy himself haunts Sergei and his wife Claudia. He appears to both in dreams, and argues with them over their decision to sell Anna Karenina’s portrait. “In Claudia’s dream, she exchanges glances with Sergei. In Sergei’s dream, they don’t. But in both dreams Sergei reflects: ‘But I am not completely human. And you know that better than anyone: I am a fictional creation, part of an imaginary drama”.

Not only a number of fictional characters step out from Anna Karenina into your Book of Anna, but also a group of “real” figures start to inhabit your fiction: Gorky is mentioned, Alexandra Kollontai makes an appearance, as well as the sailors on board the battleship Potemkin, and Father Gapon makes a speech.

To make matters more complicated, two manuscripts written by Anna Karenina are unearthed by Claudia from a box in the attic. One of them is referenced in Tolstoy’s novel as the children’s book Anna was writing; the other, the eponymous Book of Anna, is the same story rewritten under the influence of opium. We get to read this story along with Claudia, and it’s a wild ride: a mix of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Bluebeard with an erotic tinge. Is it a play on Anna’s story, as told by Tolstoy? Or an allegory for masturbation? Is it the record of an opium-induced delirium? Or is it a joke on your part? Maybe a transgression of what the readers would normally expect from a sequel to Anna Karenina? Claudia muses whether Anna’s book could be read as an act of disobedience: “But this isn’t part of Tolstoy’s novel, she disobeyed him, just like we have. I wonder if Tolstoy knew?

As I went through your novel, I sometimes felt that I was reading a draft full of possibilities that were yet to be fully developed. Maybe my expectations were all wrong. Maybe your book intended to do just that: not only to stubbornly refuse to meet, but also to relentlessly mock my expectations: “that’s another thing Tolstoy forgot: Karenina loved to laugh”.

Your Book of Anna is no Wide Sargasso Sea, after all. It never intended to be such a thing. And, perhaps, a book like Anna Karenina is its own Wide Sargasso Sea all by itself. Perhaps, I am talking nonsense here.

Your book is a Matryoshka doll of stories within histories within dreams within fairy tales. Sergei and Anya are always aware of (and tormented by) their condition as fictional characters. They live alongside “real people” who, in turn, are also fictional. As Clementine plots to bring down the czar, Sergei struggles to break away from Tolstoy’s pen and to exist in the world “outside”, on the other side of the page: “a being that has a fixed past, a written past, is by definition inert, indecisive, like a figure frozen in musical statues, the children’s game.”

Anna Karenina, as a book and as his mother, is Sergei’s cradle and cage. The Book of Anna is just another cage within a cage, a book within a book within a book, written by a fictional character. Your Anna is like a hot potato passing from Tolstoy’s hands to yours, then to the reader, and back. Like Clementine, you will plant a bomb somewhere in the page. To give Anna a life of her own, one would have first to implode her framework.

Readers looking for a book that would do something as benign as to ‘give Anna her own voice’ will find a slight distortion here: not Anna’s room of her own, but rather her caging frame. Tolstoy’s Anna is trapped in a life ruled by others; trapped by false expectations and, later, by addiction; trapped between husband and lover. Those are her cages, but also her indelible frame. A benign feminist reading may nudge us to set our Anna free, but Tolstoy’s Anna cannot break away from her frame without undergoing some sort of grotesque disfigurement.

There is a scene where young Sergei comes face to face with a servant carrying Mikhailov’s portrait of Anna: it is the “perfect image” of his mother, “looking more like herself than she did in real life”, as if she were walking along “without touching the ground; she didn’t float through the air, because from her waist to the ground, she appeared to wear a pair of trousers belonging to the dark suit of the man who was carrying her.

For a brief moment, in Sergei’s eyes, Anna is turned into “a creature formed by the framed painting”, an image stuck within a male gaze and mistaken for the real thing. This is the moment where young Sergei was made aware of death, aware of the fact that Anna was no longer alive: the vision pierced his heart. It also pierces ours: the framed Anna is dazzling, floating above the street. We just need to look a little beyond her frame to notice that she is a larger-than-life woman from the waist up, but one walking on a pair of male legs.

Yours truly,

J.


Dean Cornwell, Options, 1917,

“Most people live as if they’re walking backward toward a cliff. They know that behind them there’s an abyss they could fall into any moment, but they pretend to ignore it and keep looking at the scenery. But I don’t walk. You created me in the abyss of nonexistence.” – Carmen Boullosa, The Book of Anna


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