Watching the latest version of Anna Karenina on the big screen lately took me back to – of all places – the kibbutz where I was born. How could it be, you may ask. Well, here’s how: At the end of summer a couple of years ago, while a last heat wave was sweeping the Sacramento Valley, my yearlong love affair with Anna Karenina had come to a sudden end as well. I had spent almost a year huddled with her on my lap, and when she jumped down to her tragic end, she had left me behind sad and lonely, yet so much richer and complete. I knew her ending from the beginning, of course, but I had no way of knowing that my journey with her would lead me back to my birthplace, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and to the discovery of a completely unexpected treasure.
It took a while, though, because that’s how I love to read: slow and easy. And because I could never understand why book-reviewers, especially here in America, always gave the biggest compliment to a new novel by saying it was a real “page-turner.” Not my cup of tea. With that in mind, I grabbed a copy of a newly translated edition of Leo Tolstoy’s novel from my bookshelf, determined to finally give the eight-hundred-plus-page classic its due. I hesitated to take this plunge, among other reasons, because I’m a Dostoyevsky fanatic. It was his novels, with their gripping plots and possessed characters, that had accompanied and guided me when I left my kibbutz and moved to the city of Tel Aviv. I tried Tolstoy once or twice, but it never affected me the same way.
But with Anna Karenina so many years later, slow reading became the name of the game. I would read just a few pages sometimes, but most often a chapter or two. On occasions, I would go back to a previous scene and reread it, just as I did with the one where Anna is being torn apart from her beloved son, knowing very well that she would never see him again; the horrible shadow of her tragic end hovering above her, waiting patiently to carry her to her last station.
And talking about last stations, halfway through the book I took a break from reading one rainy Sunday and went to see the movie by that same name: The Last Station, about Tolstoy and his wife Sophia in their later years. I was struck by Sophia’s words when, on a most beautiful horse-drawn carriage ride, she tells Tolstoy’s young secretary that the most ardent followers of her husband don’t understand his writing: “He writes about love and family, not about the Russian People and their social and political system.”
Humbly, I beg to differ. And by doing so, I return also to the hidden treasure I alluded to at the beginning. Sophia was only partly right: the horses in front of her were, indeed, Anna and her lover Count Vronsky. But the carriage she was riding in was carrying the story of her husband and herself, Levin and Kitty, and by and large the more important story: that of the Russian people. Kostya Levin (Leo Tolstoy himself, no doubt) was writing about changing the Russian class system, the injustice treatment of the peasants, his agricultural experiments, and last but not least, his wish to give all his wealth and land away to a working-class commune.
How amazing it was for me to discover the origin of the place where I was born and grew up in, hidden in the pages of Anna Karenina. It was Tolstoy then, who had first put the foundation to the idea that years later would create the Israeli kibbutz. That small place, which the scent of the sweet peas blooming in my balcony at spring reminded me of so much, was founded as a commune of people working the land—poets, writers and musicians among them; great dreamers all of them—where there wasn’t even money to be found as I was growing up.
Looking back, it was a place only a Russian Novel can accurately depict. And so I praise slow reading, it enables one to discover certain truths; a fit no page-turner, no Kindle device would ever be able to accomplish. It is entirely possible that because of my slow reading, because I read carefully and didn’t rush to reach the end, that I was able to discover this great secret: It was not Karl Marx, not Lenin or Trotsky who gave birth to the paradise that was the place of my childhood and youth. It was Tolstoy.
* Appeared first on The Times of Israel