Chitra Ramaswamy: Throw the book at life

Anna Karenina: 'Conquering Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece is my very own marathon'
Anna Karenina: 'Conquering Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece is my very own marathon'
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I KNOW I’m but a third of the way through my life (yes, I do plan to plod on until the ripe and rude old age of 99) but there are some things I can safely say will never happen.

Life is short and bypasses one’s grubby little fingers like sand through the hourglass. Also, I’m lazy. So – deep breath – I will never climb Everest. I will probably never climb the Scott Monument either. I will never run a marathon. I will never organise my CD collection, instead continuing to open Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and then fall apart at the cruel fact that the Ultimate Dirty Dancing soundtrack is still in its place. And, as a pointless form of self-punishment, I will never buy another copy of Innervisions.

Let’s see... this is fun. Kind of like the opposite of a bucket list. A spade list, perhaps. Or, if you want to get fruity about it, a f***-it list. I will never learn Kannada, my parents’ mother tongue and, according to Wikipedia, one of the 40 most spoken languages in the world. I will never write a pop song. I will never conquer my fear of spiders. I will never trek through the Amazonian jungle. I will never wear hotpants. I will never go on a rollercoaster. I will never watch The Wire.

There are, however, a number of things I still – deluded or not – think I will do. I will learn to drive. I will meet Madonna. I will walk the West Highland Way. I will write a book. I will take up the piano again. I will learn the butterfly stroke. I will volunteer at a hospice. And I will read Anna Karenina.

Now some of these are easier to achieve than others. And one of them, as of this week, is done. Yes. It’s true. After years of banging on about it, and sometimes actually banging myself over the head with it, I have finally read Anna Karenina. Conquering Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is my very own marathon, minus the Lycra, fundraising and performance-enhancing sports drinks. I first tried to read the novel declared by Fyodor Dostoevsky to be “flawless as a work of art” and William Faulkner as “the best ever written” when I was a mere zygote. Ever since, life has basically been a battle between me and Anna: two tragic heroines, forever doomed to be apart. Until now. Slowly, over more than six months, I’ve worked my way through this stupendous book. I’ve read it in bed, in the bath, on trains and planes, up north and down south, and once, for a few blissful days, on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Finally, at 10:23pm on Monday night, I closed it for the last time.

As with all great art, everything looks and feels different now. There was life before Anna Karenina, and now? There is actual life. That’s the thing about this novel, probably the greatest I’ve ever read. It is about everything: love, marriage, jealousy, farming, aristocracy, serfs, the railways, women, men, children, theatre, opera, religion, food, sex, horses, birth and death. It is a novel that understands what it is to be alive, at any point in time, anywhere in the world, in any echelon of society. Tolstoy’s genius for entering our psyches is so acute he even, at one point, travels inside the mind of a dog. I honestly can’t think of a single experience I’ve had since reading Anna Karenina that isn’t contained somewhere in its 800-plus pages.

Now? Life goes on. The sand continues to thunder through the hourglass. There is still so much to see and do. But I have, at least, ticked one item off the list. It has, of course, been immediately replaced by another. Did I mention I’ve never read James Joyce’s Ulysses?

Twitter: @Chitgrrl