Bruce Ducker on Anna Karenina
From the time I read the book at age 19 I had been in love with the heroine. Caught in a loveless marriage with Karenin, bored by her life of suburban blandness, surrounded by tedium and middlebrow merchants and mendicants. Then, a train ride, a chance encounter, the dashing Vronsky. The passion, the impossibility, the dead end.
And so when the invitation came to the third annual Global Book Exchange, to be held this year at the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, I immediately booked tickets and packed my copy of the book. It had been my father’s, the staple Everyman’s edition from the Modern Library, the old Aylmer and Louise Maude translation—unremarkable but for its lineage, and for the yearning it still called from me even as I slid it from my shelves and slipped it into the leather grip, also my father’s, also worn with care.
The Dolmabahçe Palace was the last residence of the Ottoman Caliphate. It sits on the east bank overlooking the straits of Bosporus and the city of Üsküdar. The exchange organizers had cleared the usual furnishings, Bokharas and bear rugs, out of the Great Hall. Instead, long Formica-covered folding tables filled the L-shaped Medhal. About them trudged a steady stream of browsers, eyes sparkling. Were they anticipating the making of a new friend, or, like me, the breaking of an old curse? I hadn’t thought about what book I’d extract as the quid for my quo. Perhaps a second Tolstoy, something thick that would last me through the long European winter. Or perhaps an abandoned copy of one of my own, if I could find one, to protect the aftermarket. Signed copies of my novels are less rare than ones unsigned. Every one of those novels had been conceived in agony, executed in travail, and remaindered in the main. Whenever I come upon an orphaned copy, in the sale racks outside, left once too often in the rain, I recall Dylan’s words about his poems: They must stand on their own, the legless little cripples.
Why, you ask, would anyone go these miles simply to dispose of a book? Because Anna Karenina is not any book. Because that stormy, sullen, exquisite woman of the pages had spoiled my every chance at romance. Nowhere could I find the passion that she brought to her Vronsky, once she realized he was her life to be—to say nothing of the devotion and insight. She stood in my way. At first I thought it was her location on the shelf—prominent in my library’s collection of unsatisfactory love affairs, between Madame Bovary and Swann’s Way. So I moved her. First to the self-help section—isn’t that the antipode?—where I’m unlikely ever to encounter her. Stuck between the Boys’ Book of Outdoor Craft and the Reader’s Digest Guide to Home Repair. But Anna could not be so easily ignored. Though the crimson binding had so faded that one could read the title only by close inspection, it still winked at me when my eye went by.
I would trade her away, and so trade my tired fantasy for a new one. Who would pick this volume, handled and foxed by its two owners, from the treasury of what had been brought to Istanbul? Only a romantic, only one who shared some common wall with a soul she had yet to meet. Wouldn’t it be a satisfying plot twist if the new owner turned out to be my flesh-and-blood Anna?
I showed my book to the guard at the door and joined the throngs. Ah, the choice. I paused at Herman Hesse’s Demian, at the poetry of Rilke, Joyce’s stories—there I cradled the book in my hand, and, delaying an impatient German behind me, reread “Araby.” O love! On I went through a hundred years of writers and writings. I first identified Bunin’s Sunstroke as my choice, but had not left Anna in trade, when I came upon a lovely novel, long out of fashion, and very much worth a revisit: The End of the Affair.
I picked up the new acquisition, showed it to Anna, and whispered something to her, then left her in the spot vacated by Greene. Now, for the trip’s real purpose. Whom would she lure? I walked to the Crystal Staircase and climbed to the narrow mezzanine that surrounded the hall. I could see the entire leg of the hall. The parade of customers, moving with the caution of a pasha in the parlor of his seraglio. Traders exchanging their stack of exhausted books for a fresh supply, scholars standing and mumbling words, to their own delight and the annoyance of those behind them. I watched the faded cover of my Anna and her possible suitors. An elderly Turk opened the cover and closed it, as if he’d known her years ago and was simply paying respects. A bedraggled student, in intentional disrepair, lowered his backpack, hefted the book, then opted for the nearby Charterhouse of Parma instead.
I glanced at the book in my own hand and opened it idly. No marking on the flyleaf, none inside. Two hours later I picked up my head. The estranged lovers had just met again, for tea. Sarah had broken it off, as she had vowed to do, but explained to Bendrix that love does not die just because you stop seeing each other.
Telepathically I looked to the floor below. A delicate woman paused by the book I’d left. She carried several other volumes, each with its crimson cardboard protruding. She wore black tights and a silver ski jacket trimmed with what might have been fox fur. Her hair was cut closely and I recognized her coloring as that pale and even complexion of the Caucasus. She reached for my book, thin wrists exposed from the cuffs.
I held my breath. The cover was now open, the book balanced in one hand. She was reading my father’s name, then my own. Her fingers traced the text of the first page. She might have been reading by Braille, touching as one does the face of a lover.
Then she was gone. On the table I saw a different book, a recent novel with a garish cover. My eye went in both directions. Where had she gone?
There. She was almost to the exit.
Should I follow? Catch up, introduce myself, explain our connection?
It was too late. Love does not die simply because you stop seeing each other.