- Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina
Two current practices in the literary humanities irritate Alexandrov: first, the assumption that any interpretive filter ("ideology") can be applied to any text, and second, the pressure on scholars to produce readings that are "new." Not only does the new squeeze out the sensible and the full; it also tends to reflect the subjective bias of the critic rather than the web of clues embedded in the fictional world. Such clues (or semiotic patternings) Alexandrov calls "hermeneutic indices," which collectively shape the range of possible readings in a given work. These indices help the reader to avoid the twin dangers of prestructuring the novel too rigidly or (a special liability in Tolstoy studies) of celebrating its prosaic messiness. The chosen test site is the universally known and loved Anna Karenina, where the interplay and abundance of indices—Alexandrov provisionally identified 1,600—supply enough interpretive work for a lifetime. The admittedly incomplete reading provided in Part II yields wonderful insights, especially into the complexities of the Pauline epigraph and against the near-canonical judgment [End Page 145] of Tolstoy as a "monologic writer" merely because he intervenes nakedly as narrator. Narrative monologism is easy to detect, and superficial. What matters is the self-absorbed personalities of the heroes, burdened with "perspectival autonomy," radically private and wholly uninterested in others' truths, trapped in a world where their "errors are identified, criticized, and excused all at the same time." Tolstoy builds in a dark place. His Anna is grimly indexed under that train even as she struggles to be free, surrounded by alternatives she cannot see. But for all the scope of Alexandrov's "map" (he has sections on art, language, self and others, conscience, essentialism, and fate), each reader of his book will wish he had spent more time indexing her favorite heroes: in my case, Karenin and Vronsky, who merit only a few pages each and whose courage and openness to change are underappreciated. Alexandrov's earlier work on Andrei Bely and Vladimir Nabokov, both masterful patternmakers, glints through this new book, which confirms again that a disciplined reading of Tolstoy will resist all attempts to tame his art.
Caryl Emerson is the A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Princeton. She is coauthor of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics and has also written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.