Updating Tolstoy

Updating Tolstoy

Updating Tolstoy
Wages of Spin
Carl Trueman


Some years ago the BBC produced a new version of Tolstoy's romantic tragedy, Anna Karenina, with the twist was that this was to be an updated version set in the present day. I guess we are all by now familiar with updates of great pieces of literature. I remember being impressed when I saw a version of Macbeth on stage in the early nineties where the cast were all dressed in clothes and uniforms drawn from the Napoleonic era. It worked for me; my wife, however, was disappointed that Macbeth was not clad in kilt and tartan tammy as he did away with his various noble rivals. Still, tammy or no tammy, it was recognisable as Macbeth.

To understand the problem of updating Anna Karenina, however, it is necessary to have some grasp of the basic plot. To cut a very long story very short, it is this: Anna Karenina is married to one man, Karenin, and deeply in love with another, Vronsky; she has her lover's child; her husband refuses a divorce; and she eventually commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.

It should immediately be clear that the problems of updating Anna Karenina are somewhat more complex than the issues involved in the Macbeth update to which I referred above. There, the basic aesthetics were changed, kilts for regimental trousers, claymores for rapiers. The basic plot, however, worked just as well in Napoleonic France as it did in medieval Scotland: the problems of power, ambition, guilt, and retribution did not seem out of place in their new setting. The problem with Anna Karenina set in 90s London, however, would seem somewhat more profound. If Anna's married to the wrong man, why doesn't she just get a divorce? And if her husband refuses a divorce, why doesn't she just go ahead and get one anyway, in the face of his hostility? The problem is simple and obvious: the tragic dilemmas that drive the action in the novel are created by a social value scheme and a legal system which simply does not exist any more in contemporary British or American society. Updating Anna Karenina does not lead to suicide on the train tracks; it leads to lurid tabloid revelations; a messy divorce settlement; and finally an exclusive photoshoot for OK! Magazine under the headline `Anna and Vronsky's Fairytale Caribbean Wedding.' A tragedy to be sure; but of a different stripe to that intended by Tolstoy.

Now, I was born in the sixties, raised in the seventies, at university in the eighties, and married in the nineties. My world is not that of Anna, or Karenin or Vronsky. My parents have, thankfully, just celebrated their forty-fifth wedding anniversary; but many of my friends' parents - and even more of my friends - have had affairs, have been in situations like that in Anna Karenina, but have divorced and not found it necessary to throw themselves under oncoming trains. My world is emphatically not that of Anna and Vronsky; their dilemma should, in theory, be totally incomprehensible to me; for me to understand it, surely Anna Karenina should be translated into terms and categories which I can understand; and yet so central to its plot are these alien values and laws, that this cannot be done without the utter transformation of the original work of art.

And yet I read the novel and I understand the dilemma. Just as, when I read Homer's Iliad and I come to the scene where Achilles lies sulking in his tent, I know what is going on, I understand his surliness and the laziness it begets. I have never been a Greek hero, but I understand the psychology of Achilles at that point. When I read Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Knave (possibly the single greatest English novel of the 1960s), I know the pain of the young boy growing up in a broken home in a mining town in the north of England, with no future and no hope, though I had the good fortune to enjoy an idyllic childhood in a happy family amid the rolling hills and common lands of Gloucestershire. And when I see Shane put on his buckskin jacket, buckle on his gun belt, and start the long, lonely ride into town, I know that a man has to do what a man has to do, though I hope never to have to do it myself!

This combination of the impossibility of updating Anna Karenina with the novel's comprehensibility to someone brought up in a very different culture, offers some points of interest to anyone involved in reflecting upon the gospel in contemporary society.

First, the difference of the world of the novel to that in which I live does not make the plot incomprehensible to me. Of course, it is translated into English, being able to order a beer and say `goodbye' being the limits of my knowledge of the original language. But, with this obvious caveat, I can understand what is going on. More importantly, I can understand why Anna has the problem she has, even though the world of sexual and legal mores in which I grew up is so very alien to that which is essential to the success of the novel. The secret, of course, lies in large part with Tolstoy's brilliance as a writer. In the novel, he so successfully creates a world that the reader is able to enter in to an alien environment and yet learn the rules of game as played by the various characters and institutions which are found there.

Second, the very difference of this world to that in which I myself live is critical to the novel's relevance. In reading Anna Karenina, I learn many things, not least the fact that the mores of the world in which I grew up are, historically speaking, contingent: things have not always been this way in all times and all places. Confronted with the alien world of Ann and Vronsky, I come to a deeper appreciation of the unseen and apparently `natural' forces which shape the way in which I and my contemporaries look at the world. As I read, I am drawn into their world; and in being so drawn, I come to a deeper understanding of myself and the world in which I live. The novel provides me no mirror of reality; rather, it offers me a critical perspective on myself and the place in time and space which I inhabit.

Given this, there are surely two challenges which this places before us. We live at a time when there is constant chatter about `re-visioning' this or `re-envisioning' that aspect of the gospel. Such talk can be helpful if it is addressing issues of technical communication and cultural reference (never begin a youth club talk with the sentence `Kids, do you remember your excitement the first time you heard Tex Ritter yodel?'); but it can misfire if it is predicated on such notions as `people today do not understand sin.' They may not understand the language; they may not even understand the classification of certain things as sinful (e.g., greed, homosexuality, disrespect for a spouse), but this does not mean that all is lost. I have no real comprehension of the dilemma that destroys Anna Karenina, but, thanks to Tolstoy, I can be led into her world and come to grasp her problem, a problem which is utterly alien to me, at a profound and moving level. The relevance of Anna Karenina lies precisely in its irrelevance, by all ordinary notions of that word. The gospel is relevant precisely because it is so alien to all human expectations of the same, a point made with particular power by Paul in the first chapters of 2 Corinthians. Updating the world of the gospel is like updating the world of Anna Karenina: it just doesn't work anymore. To update the plot is to annihilate the message.

Secondly, those communicating the gospel need to work hard at creating the world of the gospel in their preaching and teaching, and at drawing outsiders into that world so that they can be confronted and challenged with, to borrow Karl Barth's phrase, `the strange, new world of the Bible.' We live in an increasingly unchurched society; biblical literacy is probably at an all-time low in many parts of the West; society is increasingly built along free-market lines, economically and morally, in a way that has transformed the public moral landscape over recent decades (though it is arguable that the chintz curtains of suburbia always hid a somewhat different moral code). This should not cause us to despair, nor should it be seen necessarily as a bad thing for the church. In actual fact, it makes the message of the Bible more alien, more radical in precisely the way that it was always meant to be: a head-on challenge to autonomous human attempts to reach God, whether through sex, money, power, or building great big towers in the middle of the desert. The message does not need to change but the way it is communicated may well have to: story and narrative are horribly trendy and hackneyed categories, but, for all that, works of art such as the Iliad, Anna Karenina, and A Kestrel for a Knave, indicate how successful such storytelling can be at taking the reader out of there own world, into another, and back again, at great profit. Christianity is surely the greatest story ever told; we should not abandon or, worse still, `re-envision,' that story because it is alien or irrelevant - it always has been; rather we should make sure we tell it with such persuasion, coherence, passion and conviction that outsiders come to understand the strange, new world of the Bible as a judgment on their world and as showing, indeed, manifesting in itself, the reality of divine grace.