Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Anna, the Romanovs, Madness and Me

I’ve heard it said that one definition of madness is the repetition of the same action while expecting different results. Lately, I’ve been wondering if that applies to reading a novel. This last week, I read both The Kitchen Boy, by Robert Alexander, and What Happened to Anna K., by Irina Reyn. Since the time I saw the film Nicholas and Alexandra when I was a kid, I’ve been in love with the Romanovs and Imperial Russia. Granted, I never had to live there, and if I’d had to, I would likely be more on the serf end of things than the white-gown-and-sash end of things. But one can fantasize, right? Why, yes, Count Handsomovsky, I would adore to dance the Mazurka with you. Sigh. My father had this book called Treasures of the Kremlin, a gigantic, coffee-table kind of book with pictures and pictures of the most wonderfully beautiful things. I used to look at it for hours at a time. To me, Leningrad was blight on the luster of St Petersburg and I never used that name.

In college, I discovered Rachmaninov and Tolstoy. I remember one time playing a new recording of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at home, and my mother said “The man who wrote that was in love.” Not the last time she said something like that about music, but she could not have expressed any better how that beautiful piece felt. Of the Tolstoy I read, none reached in and grabbed my secretly romantic heart like Anna Karenina. How I loved her, and wept with her and raged at her not to be such an idiot, all the while understanding what could make a woman be just such an idiot.

I devoured everything I could read on the Romanovs and Imperial Russia, from the scholarly to the, shall we say, more speculative. The story made me sad, but so fascinated me at the same time. Like Anna, fatally flawed with some really silly tendencies when you got right down to it, Nicholas and Alexandra as well as the children captured my imagination for years. There are great parts of it they still hold dominion over.

So, to the question about the madness of a repeated act. When I was reading the novels I mentioned this past week, I realized something. I kept hoping, with a desperate hope, that somehow, the Romanovs would be saved, that they would not meet their end in that dreadful basement of the Ipatiev house. (Despite differing conclusions, of course, there are still some who maintain that not all of them did perish in the middle of that July night in 1918). Watching Anna K. walk every step towards her appointment with the train just as Tolstoy’s Anna did was heartbreaking and wrenching. Something in me kept hoping that maybe, this time, this time, Anna would come out the other side of things. But I couldn’t turn away, couldn’t not be her witness. I still wanted to save her. But, it was not to be. Nyet.

This happens every time I read a book about the Romanovs, every time I see a film version of Anna Karenina. I know what will happen, but I just can’t help myself. Is it a sign of diminished capacity on my part? A sign that my secretly romantic heart is not so secret? Maybe it’s that part of human nature that is drawn to the misfortune of others, simultaneously empathetic and grateful to not be in that position. Something grand and beautiful fallen into tragedy and destruction. Something within us that resonates with that joy and that pain. That particular feeling called “alive”.

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