The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin

I remember promising myself that after reading The Historian, The Accursed, and The Once and Future King (all very long, dense books), I would give myself a break and read something easier on the brain and emotions. Instead, I decided to read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This book is decidedly not easy on the brain or emotions. It isn’t a tremendously long book, but it is the sort of book that you do not want to skim and, therefore, cannot read very quickly.

“The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.” Indiebound

The book is always shifting between newspaper articles, Laura’s book, and Iris’s narration of the events of her youth. What emerges, as the story of Laura and Iris progresses through Iris’s memories, is a picture of young women struggling to find their own way in a world dominated and controlled by men. As daughters of a man with a fortune, their course is essentially plotted before they are even born. It is clear from Iris’s tone and Laura’s behavior exactly what they think of this, but each woman deals with the expectations in ways that are as unique as the girls themselves are.

Several things about this book made me really enjoy it. Atwood’s style of prose is, as usual, masterful. Her language is quite unlike any other author’s, and I never regret spending time reading whatever story she creates for her readers. Iris, in the parts where she narrates, speaks from a place of great age and experience. She has lived her whole life and is nearing the end of it. Her voice is at once defiant and pleading, reminding young readers that the elderly are still living human beings with needs and feelings. She is a reminder to not write off those who have aged to the point of creaking senility–they still have stories to tell, wisdom to impart, and great value to add to the experience of someone with years left to live.

Perhaps the most interesting element of The Blind Assassin was the sprinkling of dystopian chapters of the novel that Laura wrote shortly before she died. It was published posthumously and Iris spent the remaining years of her life dealing with the reactions of both fans and foes of the work. The work itself is almost a laundry list of all the things a young woman of that time was never supposed to know about or enjoy, which was why it made such an impact. More than that, it was a poignant jab at both the world that Laura and Iris were prisoners of and, in a way, the world that we inhabit today. Both a work of subtle science-fiction and a social commentary, it said more about society than Laura ever could have said directly.

I highly recommend The Blind Assassin. Atwood always has something to say, and she always does so by telling a brilliant, engrossing story. This novel is no exception.

13.15–Anna Karenina

13.15–Anna Karenina

Sadly, I read the movie edition. It’s what the library had.

I did it!! I made it through a Russian novel! And believe me, I am definitely patting myself on the back.  I’ve never been able to make it through a Russian novel before (much too long and rambling, and too many names!), but while Anna Karenina had the same elements that make me dislike every other Russian novel, the story was enough to redeem it.

There is so much to this nearly-thousand-page novel that it is difficult to cram it all into one blog.  There are two main stories (and countless little side-shows) that occur over the course of the novel–the messy drama between Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronky; and the story of Kitty and Levin.  It is interesting that the novel is named after Anna because there are a great many characters that feature prominently, and perhaps even make more appearances than Anna does.  In fact, Anna’s story is the most interesting, and I wish that Tolstoy had spent more time on her and paid less attention to Russian politics, agriculture, and peasantry.  It’s an interesting glimpse into the time period, but seems completely unnecessary (and totally boring).

The novel tells the story of Anna’s doomed love affair with Count Vronsky.  She is married to Karenin, but falls in love with Vronsky almost the moment they meet.  I was surprised at how quickly the events moved in their story line.  I expected the subterfuge to last longer, I suppose because it was such a long novel, and I did not know that there was an entirely different story happening simultaneously.

Where one story is tragic–that of Anna and Vronsky, a family torn asunder, a woman driven to madness by jealousy and insecurity–the story of Kitty and Levin is almost fairy-tale-esque in nature and seems to suggest that by “following the rules,” so to speak, of society and religion, one may find happiness, contentment, and security.  I will say that Kitty was perhaps the most enjoyable character of the novel for me.  She is kind and sweet, though she’s often given to fits of womanly airs.  Anna, however, becomes more and more disagreeable as the novel progresses.  I’d say that the reader feels pity for her, but it is difficult to like her. And even by the end, my pity had evaporated as I became increasingly more irritated with her digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole.  And yet…

Tolstoy has a way of capturing the nuances of life that other authors seem to gloss over.  He has an eye and attention to detail that at times can be tedious but, more often than not, is quite interesting.  More than once I found myself thinking about a characters actions, I do that too!  It is fascinating to read about the subtleties of your own character in a book over a hundred years old.  In Anna, I saw a little of myself.  She often reminded me of myself in high school, when I too felt that panicky feeling in my gut at the idea of losing the person I (thought I) loved.  She seems to live in constant fear that Vronsky is falling out of love with her; is seeing other women; is mocking her in his face and tone of voice.  I recognize that fear and madness in myself, and it was quite a disturbing mirror.  I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling, but it was impressive the way that Tolstoy is able to capture the emotions of a woman so well.  And somehow, it is comforting to know that I’m not the only woman who felt this way.

I confess, only parts of the novel held my attention.  Especially in Levin’s parts, I found my eyes glazing over, and I realized I had gone through a page or two without registering anything that had been said.  And I was strangely okay with this, because it didn’t detract from the story at all.  I say, don’t feel guilty for skimming.

The story is worth reading, for sure.  It is a classic, and with Tolstoy’s eye for detail when it comes to minute human traits, it is easy to understand why.  Though the politics and technologies of the book are now long out-dated, the themes, events, and feelings are things that could very well happen today, tomorrow, or a hundred years in the future.  It’s a novel that takes several different views at what it is like the be a human in any stage of love, and it’s quite beautiful.  I definitely recommend reading this book to the very end.

I’ve heard from numerous sources that this is the translation closest to the original Russian. READ THIS TRANSLATION.