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Greene: Anna Karenina

11/15/12 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) With the new film of Anna Karenina due out in mid-November, commentator Stephanie Greene, a freelance writer who lives with her family on a farm in Windham County, makes a pitch for reading the book.

(Greene) The movie trailer is bewitchingly gorgeous, with great ballroom scenes and lavish costumes - truly amazing to watch.

But as with any book I love, I'm afraid they're going to leave out my favorite parts.

Count Leo Tolstoy was a writer who understood and loved rural life. His farm scenes still ring true today, more than a century later and half a world away.

We all know Anna Karenina as a tragic love story. But I've read it a few times, now, and my patience for Anna's bad taste in men has become strained. I want to yell at her: "No! Don't! He's a dead end and you'll regret it in a few hundred pages, trust me!" But the wheels of the plot roll on, despite my frustrated squeaking.

I'm more taken with Constantine Levin, an earnest and diffident character who moves uneasily between city and country. He's a landowner who runs a vast estate with 1500 acres under cultivation. He has a love interest in Moscow, but in society he often feels like a bumbling fool. Tolstoy contrasts the artifice and intrigue of society life in the city with the simpler and perhaps more real satisfactions to be found in life on the land.

My concern is that it's much easier, on film, to seduce the viewer with a candlelit ballroom scene, than to shoot an equally enthralling scene where a newborn calf is being rubbed down with a handful of hay in a warm barn at night.

As I read a passage about haying, I can recall the joy of reaping a generous harvest, the smell of the hay, the repetitive, exhausting work, slipping on the chaff when piling the hay, even the thirst you build up that seems unquenchable. I relate to the hurry and drama of getting hay into the barn before rain. I add the smell of a barn full of hay to the experience of reading about it.

There's also a wonderful scene in which Levin and his extended family gather by the apiary for cucumbers, bread and bowls of new honey. Bees fly to the nearby flowering lime trees, returning laden to the hive, while the humans sit shaded by a grove of aspens enjoying the sweet harvest. It's ravishing.

I'm more gatherer than hunter, but I still love Tolstoy's hunting scenes. In one, Levin hunts birds with his friends, going after snipe and duck in the early spring when there are still patches of snow in the swamp. Levin waits in a thicket and eventually fills his game bag with birds he's shot. He can't tear himself away and waits to see Venus rise above the birches.

A movie is an escalator you step onto, and enjoy a carefully programmed ride. But a book is a walk, in which you can double back, poke among the wildflowers or just stand quietly, listening to the wind in the trees.

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