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Toltoy’s timing in Anna Karenin


By Vladimir Nabokov

The chronology of Anna Karenin is based on a sense of artistic timing unique in the annals of literature. Upon perusing part one of the book (thirty-four small chapters making in all 135 pages), the reader is left with the impression that a number of mornings, afternoons, and evenings, at least a week in the lives of several people, have been described in vigorous detail. We shall presently look at the actual time data, but before discussing them, it may be advisable to get the question of meals out of the way.

This, then, was their sequence in the course of a well-to-do Muscovite’s or Petersburgian’s day in the seventies of the last century. Breakfast, around 9 a.m., consisted of tea or coffee, with bread and butter: the former might be—as it was at Oblonski’s table—some kind of fancy roll (e.g., kalacb, a flour-powdered, crusty outside and soft inside, glorified doughnut, served hot in a napkin). A light lunch between 2 and 3 p.m. would be followed by a large dinner around 5:30 p.m. with Russian liquor and French wines. Evening tea with cakes, jams, and various tasty Russian tidbits would be served between 9 and 10 p.m., after which the family would retire; but its more frivolous members might crown the day with supper in town at 11 p.m. or later.

The action of the novel starts at 8 a.m., Friday, February the 11th (old calendar), 1872. This date is not mentioned anywhere in the text but it is easily arrived at by the following computation:

1. The political events on the eve of the Turkish War, as alluded to in the last part of the novel, set its end at July 1876. Vronski becomes Anna’s lover in December 1872. The steeplechase episode occurs in August 1873. Vronski and Anna spend the summer and winter of 1874 in Italy, and the summer of 1875 on Vronski’s estate; then, in November, they go to Moscow, where Anna commits suicide on a Sunday evening in May 1876.

2. We are told in chapter 6 of part one that Lyovin had spent the two first months of the winter (i.e., from mid-October to the second week of December 1871) in Moscow, then had retired to his country estate for two months, and now, i.e., in February, is back in Moscow. About three months later, a late spring is mentioned as breaking into exuberant life (chapter 12, part two).

3. Oblonski reads in his morning paper about Count Beust, Austrian Ambassador to London, traveling through Wiesbaden on his way back to England. (See note 18 below.) This would be just before the thanksgiving service for the recovery of the Prince of Wales, which took place The cover of Nabokov’s folder of notes for his projected Tuesday, February 15/27, 1872; and the only possible textbook edition of Anna Karenin. Friday is Friday 11/23 of February, 1872. Of the thirty-four small chapters, of which part one consists, the first five are devoted to an unbroken account of Oblonski’s doings. He awakes at 8 a.m., breakfasts between 9 and 9:30, and around 11 a.m. arrives at his office. Shortly before 2 p.m. Lyovin unexpectedly turns up there. Beginning with chapter 6 and to the end of chapter 9, Oblonski is set aside and Lyovin is taken up. Tolstoy’s device of going back chronologically to handle the Lyovin theme here comes into play for the first time in the book. We go back four months in a brief recapitulation, and then (chapters 7-9) follow Lyovin from the moment of his arrival in Moscow Friday morning through his talk with his half-brother at whose house he is staying, to his (recapitulated) visit to Oblonski’s office, and thence to the skating rink, at 4 p.m., where he skates with Kitty. Oblonski reappears at the end of chapter 9: he comes around 5 to fetch Lyovin for dinner; their meal at the Hotel d’Angleterre occupies chapters 10 and 11. Then Oblonski is dismissed again. We know Lyovin has gone to change into evening clothes and is heading for the soiree at the Shcherbatskis, and there we go to wait for him (chapter 12). He appears there (chapter 13), at 7:30 p.m., and in the next chapter Lyovin’s meeting with Vronski is described. We have now been with Lyovin and Kitty for a dozen pages (chapters 12-14); Lyovin leaves around 9 p.m. Vronski stays on for another hour or so. The Shcherbatskis before retiring discuss the situation (chapter 15), and the rest of Vronski’s evening, till, say, midnight, is described in chapter 16. The reader will note at this point that Lyovin’s evening, after he leaves the Shcherbatskis, is to be described later. In the meantime this first day of the novel, Friday, February 11, after a series of sixteen chapters, has been brought to a close for Vronski, who is sound asleep after supper in his hotel room, and for Oblonski, who is winding up his dramatic and cheerful day at a night restaurant.

The next day, Saturday, February 12, starts at 11 a.m. with Vronski and Oblonski arriving separately at the railway station to meet the Petersburg express bringing Vronski’s mother and Oblonski’s sister (chapters 17-18). After dropping Anna at his house, Oblonski goes to his office around noon, and we follow Anna through her first day in Moscow, till 9:30 p.m. These chapters (17-18), dealing with Saturday events, occupy a score of pages.

Chapters 22-23 (about ten pages) are devoted to the ball which takes place three or four days later, say, Wednesday, February 16, 1872.

In the next chapter (24) Tolstoy uses a device which was adumbrated in chapters 6-8 and which will figure prominently throughout the book, namely that of going back in time where Lyovin’s doings are concerned. We go back to Friday night, February 11, to follow Lyovin from the Shcherbatskis to his brother’s where he arrives at 9:30 and stays for supper with him (chapters 24-25). Next morning, from another station (the Nizhegorodski) than the one (Peterburgski) at which that same Saturday Anna arrives, Lyovin travels back to his estate in Central Russia, presumably near Tula, some three hundred miles south of Moscow, and his evening there is depicted in chapters 26-27.

Then we leap forward to Thursday, February 17, 1872, in order to follow Anna, who on the next day after the ball leaves for Petersburg where she arrives after a night journey (chapters 29-31), around 11 a.m., Friday, the 18th of February. (This Friday is fully described in chapters 31-33), and here precise timing is deliberately used by Tolstoy to characterize, with ironic overtones, Karenin’s scrupulously ordered existence that will be shattered before long. Immediately after meeting Anna at the station, he drives away to preside at a Committee, comes home at 4 p.m., they have guests to dinner at 5, he drives off around 7 p.m. to attend a Cabinet meeting, returns at 9:30 p.m., has evening tea with his wife, then retires to his study, and punctually at midnight proceeds to the conjugal bedroom. The last chapter (34) takes care of Vronski’s homecoming that same Friday.

It will be seen from this brief account of the time pattern in part one that Tolstoy uses time as an artist’s tool in various ways and for different purposes. The regular course of Oblonski’s time through the first five chapters is instrumental in stressing the easy-going routine of his week day, from eight in the morning to dinner time around half-past five in the evening, a flowing course of animal existence which his wife’s misfortune cannot mar. With this routine part one begins and is symmetrically closed by the more stately and rigid order of another day, the day of Karenin, Oblonski’s brother-inlaw. No apprehension of Anna’s complete inner change affects the timetable of her husband as through a series of committee meetings and other administrative chores he quietly and steadily makes his way toward bedtime and its lawful joys. Lyovin’s “time” erratically interrupts the smooth history of Oblonski’s day, and the quality of Lyovin’s highstrung and moody nature is reflected in the curious jerks given here to the threads of the chronological web Tolstoy is weaving. Finally we note the striking harmony in which two special scenes in part one fall: the night of the ball with Kitty’s dreamlike, exaggerated awareness of Anna’s enchantments; and the night of the train journey to Petersburg with its strange fancies passing through the chiarascuro of Anna’s mind. These two scenes form as it were the two inner pillars of the edifice of which Oblonski’s “time” and Karenin’s “time” are the wings.