Possibly he might have managed to conceal his sins better from his wife if he had anticipated that the knowledge of them would have had such an effect on her. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
I love this quote from Anna Karenina. It makes me laugh with joy. Who is this Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky that he can think such a thing in complete seriousness? How did he arrive at such a conclusion? Can such a man really exist in the world? Hitler existed. Stalin existed. Donald Trump exists. That answers the question.
Arkadyevitch is ignorant like these historical figures, but harmless. If I knew a man like Stepan in real life I would be disgusted and tell him a thing or two. So why do I laugh with joy at the novel character? That’s the beauty of a book; if you are a good reader, you can come across such a character written with such mastery by an author in the zone with the muse and revel in his absurdity. I really like Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky as a character. He lives his life very badly compared to Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, he is unfaithful to his wife (even after making up with her), and is financially irresponsible, yet he dances through the world with few cares and a happy attitude. Stepan is like a happy, loyal dog that you catch eating dog poop every-once-in-a-while.
If Stepan has been written by any author of lesser skill than Tolstoy I may have never gotten past the disgusted stage—disgusted by such a stupid character or disgusted that the author wants me to think there is something good about such a stupid character. Tolstoy pulls it off. He’s not trying to teach me anything and yet I know that I don’t want to be like Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky. Tolstoy would not be surprised that I would be disgusted by such a man in real life and yet, without trying to deceive me, he writes Stepan in a manner that I take literary joy in.
It isn’t easy to find contemporary authors of this skill or nature. In my experience many contemporary authors are coming out of a lower moral baseline than that of Tolstoy. While artistic skills are high characters don’t have to rise very high to reach hero status. Often the epiphany rendered has the quality of a low resolution tube television while the author is selling it to be a high definition television. When I do run into a contemporary author that has a higher moral view of the world they often don’t have the skill to write an Oblonsky in such a delightful way.
I just finished Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and am looking for my next book to read. It is time for a contemporary author. This gives me anxiety. With classic books I can pick a worthy book with a high degree of probability. The degree of probability goes down with contemporary authors (as it always has no matter the age). Anyone have suggestions?