“ALL HAPPY FAMILIES are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880).
This perverse rendition of the famous beginning of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which opens Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, could be seen as a warning for any writer approaching the ever-popular genre of literary fanfiction. Think of it as a minefield: one wrong step, and your work will be blown up on its own ridiculousness.
Vesna Goldsworthy’s subtle and deeply intelligent novel Monsieur Ka manages to escape that danger by rejecting the easy way of following Leo Tolstoy’s plot or approximating his style and mentality. We see this in the very first sentences of Monsieur Ka that refuse to be a riff of Anna Karenina’s famous opening, and go their own stubborn way instead: “Why do marriages end? A better question may be: why do they even begin?”
In a similar manner, Monsieur Ka refuses to be an homage to Anna Karenina. Instead, it tries to reimagine the characters of Tolstoy’s novel as real people who could have been its prototypes.
The premise is simple and intensely engaging: What if Anna Karenina were a roman à clef based on a real family that belonged to the crème de la crème of Russian society of that time? What if Tolstoy didn’t even bother to change their names? What if Anna were based on a real woman named Anna who fell madly in love, and left her husband and her little son to be with her lover? What if Anna’s long-suffering husband and bon vivant brother were real people as well? And what if her poor son Serezha had to grow up dealing with a triple tragedy of his mother’s abandonment, her subsequent death, and the huge fame (and infamy) caused by the publication of Tolstoy’s novel? What if we finally hear his side of the story, now that the year is 1947, and Serezha is 83, and living in London?
The real Karenin family did not exist, of course. As far as we know, most of Tolstoy’s characters and plots were composites. Tolstoy would create them like most writers do, taking a physical appearance from one real person, personality traits from another, a story here, a rumor there, and make up the rest using the enormous power of his artistic vision. There are several real people on whom some of the material in Anna Karenina might have been based to a certain degree, and Goldsworthy, a Serbian writer living in England, disperses delicious hints about their identities throughout the novel. One of them refers to Maria Gartung, the eldest daughter of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The rumor goes that Tolstoy was so stricken with her physical appearance that he gave it to his fictional Anna.
But Goldsworthy doesn’t really focus on the character of Anna — Anna had already had her share of attention from Tolstoy herself — her task is to bring to light Anna’s son, Sergey, a memorable but decidedly minor character, especially since he is a minor child in Tolstoy’s novel.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy doesn’t tell us that much about Serezha. He becomes a memorable character based on just one scene, in which Anna, who had already abandoned her family and had been banned from ever entering the house, sneaks into his bedroom to wish him a happy birthday. This scene is arguably the most heartbreaking in the entire novel. Serezha was told that his mother was dead, but since he loved her more than anything, he refused to believe it, and now here she is, alive, and warm and affectionate! He’s rewarded for his faith in her and in her love! It’s almost too painful to ponder what would happen to Serezha after Anna’s suicide, when he would lose his mother for real, and nothing, no amount of faith, would bring her back.
Goldsworthy focuses on this doubled grief of Sergey Karenin; she imagines his long life after Anna’s death. We see Sergey as a young student abroad, as a man in love, as a happy — but sometimes unhappy — husband, as a dutiful but sometimes failing father, as a man who had witnessed the revolution, the two wars, imprisonment, and exile.
The main idea behind Goldsworthy’s method in this novel is to take a famous fictional character created by another writer, “defictionalize” him first to imagine what he was like as a real person, and then “refictionalize” him by making him a different fictional character in her own novel. The 83-years-old Karenin of Monsieur Ka recounts his memories to his hired assistant, an intelligent and complex woman named Albertine, who manages to piece them together into a beautiful narrative of suffering and resilience, half-biography, half-novel.
Albertine is a French Jew whose own multi-tongued complicated story of losses and multiple exiles mirrors the twisted story of Europe between the two wars. Albertine meets the old Karenin when she is in her 30s living in London with her British husband, an officer she had met and married in Alexandria. The couple is unhappy, even though neither Albertine nor the reader understands why. Albertine’s husband is away most of the time, he has to travel for work, but both Albertine and the reader have the sense that something is wrong, that he’s hiding something from his wife, or that he’s plagued by something grave that he can’t reveal. Still, the true measure of the couple’s unhappiness will not be revealed until the very end of the novel, when it comes as a devastating shock.
Albertine is lonely and lost, and unsurprisingly develops an intimate friendship with Sergey Karenin, who has certainly had his share of grief and guilt in his life. Their growing connection is the main generator of the novel’s narrative, bringing all the other characters in the spotlight, tying the two families together, acting as a catalyst for striking revelations about hidden moments in each of their lives, and even leading to a poignant and unexpected romance — unexpected not only for the readers, but for the lovers as well.
To complicate this doubly fictional universe still further, Goldsworthy adds one more layer of factual-yet-fictional reality. Some of Monsieur Ka’s fictional characters are involved in production of the real 1948 British film based on Anna Karenina, starring Vivien Leigh.
Sergey Karenin acts as a period consultant for a movie, and his nine-year-old grandson plays young Serezha, a child version of himself. The actual little boy who played Serezha in the film hints at yet another layer of the impossibly complicated European history of the first half of the 20th century. His mother was an exiled Russian princess, a member of Russian nobility (just like the fictional Karenin), who worked to help European Jews (just like the fictional Albertine).
The film becomes yet another link in the “defictionalization/refictionalization” chain of the narrative, so that now it looks like this:
- Tolstoy was inspired by some real people he knew.
- Tolstoy created the fictional characters and plot in Anna Karenina, basing both vaguely on real people and events and imagining the rest.
- Goldsworthy imagined that the real people behind the novel were exactly like the characters in the novel, and the circumstances of their lives were exactly like the plot.
- Goldsworthy gave them fictional lives of their own.
- Goldsworthy’s fictional character Albertine created her own narrative of their lives.
- The real figures involved in filming of the 1948 version of Anna Karenina (like Vivien Leigh and the producer Alexander Korda) mingle with fictional characters created by Goldsworthy but based on fictional characters created by Tolstoy who in their turn might be based on real figures.
If that outline doesn’t strike you as the most delightful literary tangle, Goldsworthy presents the true lovers of Tolstoy’s novel with another one: a scavenger hunt for references to Anna Karenina. The clues are sprinkled throughout Monsieur Ka with such care that finding yet another reference never fails to be rewarding.
We learn, for example, that the vague hint that Anna was using birth control was Tolstoy’s “lie,” that the “real” Anna would have never used it. We discover that Anna’s attempts at writing actually bore fruit, that she had completed a beautiful and accomplished story about her lover’s horse. We find out what happened to one of the most unfortunate Tolstoy’s characters, Anna and Vronsky’s illegitimate daughter.
Of course, there is also a persistent motif of railroads and trains running through Monsieur Ka to its shocking conclusion as steadfastly as … well, a train. My favorite train reference was this one though, subtle, precise, yet completely unexpected: “The steady sound of the machine — the punch of the needle piercing fabric, and the beat of the cast-iron base — was not unlike the sound of a railway engine.”
Still, the richest and the most wonderful aspect of Monsieur Ka is not its literary gaming but rather its incessant attempts to make the reader question reality. All these fictional, factual, defictionalized, refictionalized layers allow Monsieur Ka to capture that elusive feeling every serious reader has experienced at some point: what if our lives are less real and not more real than the lives of literary characters? “I sometimes feel that the life I lead is not real,” Albertine confesses at one point, plagued by the feeling “that real Albertine lives on somewhere else”: “The fictional lives we read about — your Anna, your Emma Bovary here — are so much more authentic than ours, and not just in the sense that they have a deeper, more permanent mark on the world, while we, so-called real people, vanish without a trace.” This question stays with you long after you put down Monsieur Ka.
What does it mean to be real, to have authentic experiences? Isn’t it true that, when something dramatic happens to us in real life, we inevitably turn to works of great literature to make sense of the situation, to work out the disorder of feelings and thoughts? In those moments, it is easier and more comforting to see our lives as literary novels and ourselves as characters. Easier, because doing so allows us to step aside and see our lives from a distance. More comforting, because doing so creates the illusion of control, which is probably the main thing that distinguishes living our lives from creating the fictional narratives in which fictional characters live theirs. While we are desperately powerless and helpless, the writer is always in control.
Lara Vapnyar is the author of three novels and two story collections. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, and Vogue. Her most recent novel is Still Here.