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Places to Go: Anna Karenina (extract from Chapter 31) by Leo Tolstoy

Written by Rachael Norris, 12th February 2021

West London Hub Leader at The Reader, Erin Carlstrom, takes us on today's audio adventure and reads from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The theme for our readings in February is 'Close to the Heart' and we hope the poetry, readings and recommendations we have chosen can help us stay connected over the coming weeks.

Perhaps a bit of a sombre reading for this week. Although there is a sadness that the bothers Levin and Nikolai have in the knowledge of Nikolai’s illness, the overwhelming feeling I get when reading this passage is one of love and care.  And, more specifically, how hard it can be sometimes to express care to those who we love most.

Levin, who up until this point has been caught up with his own worries of unrequited love, is at first troubled that it is his brother who has come to see him.  He was hoping for someone that might distract him from his own worries, but instead it is his brother at the door, someone ‘who understood him thoroughly, who would call up all his innermost thoughts, would make him speak his whole mind.’  I resonated with this sentiment, having recently suffered a personal loss I found myself one day sharing feelings and thoughts with my sister which I hadn’t expected, or even realized I’d felt. Just being in her (virtual) presence somehow called up my own innermost thoughts, a pain I had myself been trying to avoid. I understand the worry that Levin feels in this sentiment, not a worry about seeing his brother, but more a worry of what seeing his brother whom he loves will reveal of himself.

Once he sees Nikolai, Levin’s personal worries are diminished by his worry for his brother—

‘Now they both had one thought – Nikolai’s illness and closeness to death – which stifled all the rest. But neither of them dared to speak of it, and therefore everything else they said, without expressing the one thing that preoccupied them, was a lie.’

Of course there is a natural sense of worry and loss of Nikolai’s health to be felt, but what I really resonate with was the pain in not being real with one another in this moment. The pain Nikolai must be feeling in denying his own illness, and the pain Levin is feeling that he can’t speak of it to Nikolai reminds me in a way of magnets, drawn together yet also repelling each other. In this separation the two of them are still united in the very fact that is keeping them emotionally apart—‘they both had one thought’. Even in their unspeaking they are connected.

I was also struck by the undercurrent of care in Nikolai’s dismissal of his long-time partner Marya –‘he could not say that he had chased Marya Nikolaevna out because the tea was weak, and above all because she looked after him as if he were an invalid.’  He couldn’t accept her care for him because it would reveal that which he was trying to ignore. How hard it is to accept being cared for in moments when you need it most.

What makes us resist love and care?  Nikolai says that he had come home ‘above all, to visit his own nest, to touch the soil, in order to gather strength, as mighty heroes do for future action.’ And while I love this sentiment of touching the soil of home to find strength, I can’t help but wonder if Nikolai has also come home to gather strength to face the truth of his illness in order to be real with the people he holds most dear in his life.

Whether it’s the fear of what being near the ones you care for will reveal in yourself, the pain of unspoken things between you, the inability to accept care, or the strength needed to care for oneself—love is complicated.  I think this is why I find myself returning to this passage, it helps me grapple with the raw underside and messy complications of love.

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