Throw Anna Under the Train

20 Jun

Слово – не воробей, выпустишь – не поймаешь.

If you were born in Russia, or if you perversely spent your youth in a delirium of russophilia, then you know what I mean.  For the rest of you, here is my clumsy translation:

A word is not a sparrow: once you let it go, you can’t recapture it.

In other words, be careful what you say (or write) because once a word is uttered, it cannot be withdrawn.

But I think you can still get out your shotgun and shoot the sparrow down.

Or you might take a page out of Lev Tolstoy’s book (he has a few to spare).

Tolstoy lovingly (and at great length!) writes the story of the adulterous romance between Anna Karenina and Vronsky; and then, as if disgusted by what he has wrought, he does the 19th century equivalent of throwing it all under the bus:

He throws Anna under the train.

 Elif Batuman, in her book The Possessed, characterizes this as a kind of literary debit and credit, originating in the confession narrative.  St. Augustine fills the first half of his Confessions with descriptions of his youthful worldly adventures (racking up a debit), and then denounces those adventures in the second half, earning a credit.  In the end, the books are balanced.

Tolstoy does away with Anna as a kind of showy hitting of the delete button.  (It’s the figurative delete button for the guy who doesn’t really want to lose a few hundred pages of prose.)  With Anna dead, the score is now even.


I’m certainly no Tolstoy (and boy am I no St. Augustine!), but I’m feeling in the red about a piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune last month.  (Ok, so I didn’t exactly write it for the Tribune, I wrote it for myself, and to my astonishment, the Trib published it.)  You can also find it here.

It was a kind of mood piece, really.  I was driving through our Illinois wind farms a few days after news broke about the oil spill and I was feeling (briefly) optimistic.  The windmills represented hope and daring to  me.  As I drove through the idyllic Illinois countryside, I felt that everything might turn out OK.  And so I wrote an essay that made many of my friends feel that things might be OK.

I did not imagine that several weeks later oil would still be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  I did not know that I would begin to feel about the Gulf the way I feel about a large swath of Ukraine that surrounds Chernobyl: CAN’T EVER GO THERE AGAIN.

And now I feel angry with myself for (as one of my friends generously described it) “spinning a chrysalis of hope” in a time of despair.

A do-nothing, feel-good chrysalis of hope.  A debit.  Throw it under the train.

Go ahead and despair a little, rant a little.  It’s not just going to be OK.  We all need to get to work.


7 Responses to “Throw Anna Under the Train”

  1. Thomas Stazyk June 21, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    Fascinating post–although I thought that the train was WAY overdue when it finally rolled over AK, I think you are being too hasty in wanting to chuck your Tribune piece. Yes, the spill is a fiasco and yes it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But the beauty of your piece was that there may be a silver lining–this may be what it takes to get public opinion firmly behind alternative fuels. It may finally focus attention on how totally big money and lobbyists have controlled Congress to the detriment of the US and its people. And it will also, I hope shatter the myth of the CEO as leader/superman who is entitled to the salary as people start wondering what he’s been doing and whether he is an asset or liability (debit or credit in your terms).

    • jenny June 21, 2010 at 1:18 am #

      Oh! Thomas Stasyk, Clevelander turned Kiwi! You have made my day by commenting. Could I have a more felicitous first commenter? I hope you are right about all that you say. Optimism and I are touch-and-go these days. Do you know the joke about the Russian pessimist and the Russian optimist?

      The Russian pessimist says: Things can’t get any worse!
      The Russian optimist replies: OH, YES THEY CAN!

      We’ll hope for Russian pessimism. In the meantime, please have a Lemon & Paeroa for me. Is it still “world famous, throughout New Zealand”?

  2. Phil June 21, 2010 at 4:34 am #

    If Tolstoy hadn’t thrown Anna under a train, he would have had to think up another way for her to die because she was a “fallen woman”, and “fallen women” in 19th century literature had to die (think also Emma Bovary).

    Hence, the death of a contemporary real-life “fallen woman”, Britain’s Princess Diana, had, notwithstanding its tragedy, a quaint literary quality about it.

    • jenny June 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

      Thanks for reading. And commenting. (I have to wipe the big grin off my face before I turn my attentions to Anna and Emma.)

      You are right about those 19th Century gals. And Diana must have suffered the same fate because she was sort of out of a fairy tale in the first place. Live by the fairy tale, die by the fairy tale, I guess.

      I am so grateful to Chekhov for shaking things up (Lady with a Lapdog, Masha from Three Sisters) and just letting the “fallen woman” live a pathetic, unhappy little life. If only Diana had been more Chekovian…

      Thanks, again!

  3. Cheri June 27, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    Hi Jenny,
    I’d never thought of debit and credit in plot line.
    Makes me wonder about other plays and novels, now.


    Hope is good. Stay with hope. It’s all we have left, often.

    • jenny June 28, 2010 at 2:13 am #

      Hi Cheri! The debit/credit notion, of course, belongs to Elif Batuman, and she is fun to read. She won my heart by cajoling grant money out of a bunch of academics to travel to Yasnaya Polyana (the Tolstoy estate) to investigate the possibility that he was murdered.

      I am busily trying to imagine other possibly lucrative unsolved homicides.

      • Thomas Stazyk June 28, 2010 at 2:29 am #

        Ha ha–now you’ve got me thinking. You could certainly devote a career to “proving” that Rasputin committed suicide. But you’d have to first develop a plausible scenario to go to the grant committees with and I’m drawing a blank. But it probably would be an interesting way to spend a summer in St. Petersburg!

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