From his big messy life comes this novel, which is seamless

You know that thing where you read something, love it, plan to write a piece on it, but then you watch a movie, read something else …time goes by?  And in the meantime, you’ve also discovered walking long distance; taken up boot making; or you took that train trip and now you want to write poems about what you saw from the moving window. But by now you’re making plans to write that short course; you’ve started a new game; or fallen in love; and you’ve taken up French again, as recently as last week, and today is the day you’ll actually read all those tabs you’ve had open since Sunday! If like me you get that hopeless feeling you’re too unfocused to be a real artist, maybe also like me you’ll feel inspired by the writer who is the focus of this month’s Literary Punk podcast: the 19th Century master of the psychological novel, Tolstoy.

220px-Lev_Lvovich_Tolstoy‘December 15: attends performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. […] Mixed relations with Turgenev; close to Botkin, Reads Balzac, Tocqueville (L’Ancien Régime), Goethe, and Don Quixote. […] March 25: witnesses a guillotining in Paris. July 12 – 20: loses heavily at roulette in Baden-Baden. July 24: on way home sees and admires Raphael’s painting of the Madonna in Dresden. […] 1858 March: reads Gospels, starts unfinished story […] begins passionate affair with married peasant ‘.  Tolstoy’s diary entries, in The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002, p6. 

This very big writer’s life didn’t seem to do his art any harm. If you read his diary entries alongside the incredible bibliography he pursued, such as the one presented in the ‘Chronology’ of the excellent volume cited above, Tolstoy’s life reads like his novel! And his novel reads to us of him.

The miracle of Anna Karenina (1878) is that all of Tolstoy’s multitudinous living and reading comes together onto these pages, seamlessly. From that big messy life emerges this novel, “Flawless art” in the opinion of Nabokov; a “masterpiece” if you’re Dostoyevsky (whom, by the way, T “loved”). Tolstoy scholar Barbara Lönnqvist locates the seamlessness of Anna Karenina’s buttery prose with her precise comment: “The character’s integrity and independence and the author’s view of the person are welded together so that no seams are noticeable” (2002, p80).

“I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.” Tolstoy, 1867 (2002, p80).

For the latest episode of Literary Punk, my guest in the Hookturn studio for a very Russian style conversation that includes everything – laughter, tears, joy, years, books, sex, love and death – is the delightful writer, editor and Feminist commentator, creator and host of Cherchez la Femme and director of Girls On Film Festival, Tavarisha Karen Pickering. We talk about how it’s impossible to side with anyone in this tale of adultery and family. KP: “There are no villains in this story.”

‘1857 April – May: idyllic two months in Switzerland: “I am gasping from love, both physical and ideal. […] I am taking a very great interest in myself. And I even love myself for the fact that there is so much love of others in me” (d, May 12).’ Tolstoy’s diary, in The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002, p6.

Tolstoy is Anna, full of love! And of course he is Levin.  More interestingly, Tolstoy is a rhythm between the two unforgettable characters of the novel, Anna and Levin, and the unspoken (non-Symbolic) or marginal relation between them and their interleaved stories. How curious, that the driving and memorable ‘love affair’ of the book is not the lovers, Anna and her Vronsky, but the crossed ‘boundary’ between Anna and her Levin, and the coming undone that goes on there. Randomly arranged dialogues if you like, located in each other: passionate love alongside passionate intellect; emancipation then belonging; diversity beside unity. Sex and death. Desire and Realism. Difference and inclusion. Karen commenting so beautifully in the podcast said, “Tolstoy is at the edge of his boundaries.” Philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it this way, Tolstoy longed for unity but celebrated diversity (1953).

Indeed, Tolstoy is all things, and the expression of in-between things, such as those that exist outside the spaces between the chapters, the unrepresentable because deeply unconscious things – the Lacanian Real at the edges of the Realism, if you like. Flaubert said of Tolstoy, “What an artist, and what a psychologist!” Tolstoy’s psychological novel naturally prefigured the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, and his work also carries the extant energy of another new medium for his time: that of the media, a new and radical movement of ideas out to the multitudes.

You could understand someone who hadn’t read him for questioning the punkness of his book, and its inclusion in this podcast series. Considering the trajectory of the novel, it’d be easy to refute Anna’s story, her infamous ending. But it’s an ending which is not the end, and that discursive last chapter is political! Too much so for its day: the journal editor Katkov, who published all previous instalments of the serialised novel, refused to print the finale.

Its writer was most proud to call himself – along with Lermontov – a member of the non-literati. Tolstoy was a radical and censored voice within the Russia of the Tsars. His writing was banned, seized at the presses. And one of his most radical contributions to literature was his imagination for sharing it around:

“I would very much like to put together a cycle of reading, that is a series of books and selections from them which would all speak of that one thing most needful to a person, namely, what life and the good are for him”                                                                                                                                                                                               Tolstoy (2002, p25).

For this reason I nominate the very radical Count, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, as a patron honorary of Literary Punk. For his socialist ideals about sharing around the profound human potential of Literature, and for his ecocritical understanding of the cultivation of joy:

‘1894  June 14: “As I was approaching Ovsiannikovo, I looked at the lovely sunset. A shaft of light in the piled up clouds, and there, like a red irregular coal, the sun. All of this above the forest, the rye. Joyful. And I thought to myself: No, this world is not a joke, not a vale of ordeal only and a passage to a better, eternal world, but one of the eternal worlds, which is good, joyful, and which we not only can, but must make finer and more joyful for those living with us, and for those who will live in it after us” (d). Tolstoy (2002, p32).’

To the beauty of coming undone: Joyful! 

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, (1878), Translated by Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin, 1954.

The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002.

The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Isaiah Berlin, 1953.

Image: Tolstoy,

Before Sweden made their gender-neutral pronoun, there was Le Guin.

In season 2 episode 3 of Literary Punk we’re discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s SF Fantasy experiment in post-gender politics, The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969. I’m joined in the podcast studio by the much admired previous Literary Punk guest: outstanding Melbourne writer and SF scholar, Chris Palmer. True to form, Palmer’s luminous reading of this text will delight both fans of Le Guin’s work, as well as those of you who’ve never encountered either feminist Science Fiction or Fantasy literature.

In the 1987 Modern Critical Interpretations collection of essays featuring The Left Hand of Darkness, literary critic Harold Bloom argues, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.”

scan0015 (2)Le Guin’s novel is much awarded, and also controversial for its use of language concerning the gendered honorific and pronoun. The colonising ‘module’, Genly Ai, refers to all Gethenians as ‘Mr’, and this despite their gender-neutral orientation. It’s a stylistic device that the author has revisited in the introductions to successive reprints of the text.

Chris Palmer and I discuss how this apparent gendering conflict within the novel, along with other ambiguities and fallibilities, enact Genly Ai’s Terranly discomfort at letting go of ideological structures surrounding his own dominant sexual power; as Palmer puts it in his brilliant reading: “The narrative is insatiable. Nothing is irrelevant. It wants to include and imagine everything.”

In tension with Genly Ai’s more obvious project to modernise Winter by friendship-as-stealth, we consider how his unconscious resistance to non-gendered intersubjectivity displays the darker side of his goal: the default othering that comes embedded in the violence of his (and our own) phallocentric-sexed (“Pervert”) language system.

“The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition

This is a work of fiction that gives you philosophy as story: “Truth is a matter of the imagination” (1994, p9). In the novel the outlawed hero of the tale, Lord Estraven, says of the compelling need for all Gethenians to get with the times and incorporate difference: “What does it matter what country wakens first? So long as we waken.” Chris and I discuss what Le Guin’s truth as story has woken in us; the way her narrative has changed the way we think about gender and sexual politics, life and death, and storytelling, possibly in ways that are difficult to articulate.

“Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different…But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.” Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition.


 [Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, Great Britain: Orbit, 1969.]

Image: Winter, © H. Milte, Olinda, Australia, 2008.

Anthony Burgess tore it up and stuffed the pages in his socks to get it back through Heathrow.

Wildflowers for DHL

     Lady Chatterley’s Lover

       D. H. Lawrence, 1928.

For episode #7 of the podcast I’m joined again by Melbourne cultural critic and writer, the delightful Mel Campbell, to discuss D. H. Lawrence’s last novel, his story of Lady Chatterley’s erotic emancipation. Published in 1928, the book was quickly banned in England and the USA for its “obscene” language of forbidden therefore scandalous sexual love. Burgess had to go to Paris to buy his copy, then tear it up and stuff the pages into his socks to get it back through British customs.

“The oak-leaves were to her like oak-leaves seen ruffling in a mirror, she herself was a figure somebody had read about, picking primroses that were only shadows, or memories, or words” (2005, p19).

Mel and I talk about the nature of Lawrence’s language of erotic love and wild flowers. We suggest that what may have been so politically dangerous about DHL’s prose is the “tenderness” (the novel’s original title) with which he describes Connie’s reclamation of her body from the words of her husband, from the word she once was.

Whatever the blood feels”  Political, radical, outlawed writing, a lasting testament to Lawrence’s call for a return to the body and its premiere language of “the blood”, the 1928 novel forecasts the later 20th Century feminist movement of writing from the body. Via her passionate erotic affair with Mellors – the gamekeeper on her husband’s inherited estate – Connie authors her sexual emergence from the punitive history of literary representations of women’s desire.

Almost a century later, and surrounded by much talk of Fifty Shades of Grey, we ask: what is it that makes an erotic novel truly dangerous?

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, (1928), Barnes & Noble Classics, New York, 2005.

[Original image above: Process, not Position, © Helen Milte, Olinda, Australia, 2012.]