It began, it germinated in a bout of teasing. Good natured, as I remember; but there is always some underlying spikiness with teasing, no?
And, I seem to remember, I was a bit miffed about being teased, as she was the one who was hung over, and couldn’t really put her words together in the confident, regular manner that you would want and expect from a woman a) partly trained as a lawyer and b) who used logic like a surfboard in the majority of her daily interactions.
I should just point out here that me arguing in this way, making use of numbered paragraphs, is not meant to be an homage to her, a tribute to her influence or an attempt to pay obeisance to any member of the legal profession anywhere.
Anyway, she had been drinking, I had not, and she was clutching her pashmina around her as if it was a giant, single-stranded bandage, a luxury version that came with a superfluously unnecessary gold tassels. It just about held her together. She just about held it together. The sushi started to work (and if anyone can actually confirm that sushi does usefully function as a hangover salve, that would settle a few arguments and bets that I have outstanding, thank you.)
And as the protein within the fish and the rice started to do whatever the biochemical nutritionists have found they do when their various constituents interact with the human body’s blood, digestive and nervous systems that themselves came under the attack of intoxicants not twelve hours earlier, she began to tease me.
No, not like that. Have you seen a hungover person try to use chopsticks?
No, K — — — was teasing me about the unread Anna Karenina on my shelves.
This was quite a big thing for her, no, a big thing for her.
“In Berlin, you see,” she told me, “you are nothing unless you have read most, if not all, of the Big Russians.” Maki roll. Was that a chew? “There is nothing that is more important. Showing that you have given consideration to the Big Questions. How To Live. All Capitalised.” Pickled ginger. “The grand themes. The sweeping gestures. The narratives as wide as the skies, but yet all painted on the most intimate of canvases. The pointillism of life. Yes, that’s it! Is that even a thing?”
Funny how that indeterminate hungover state, where you hover between recovery and further sleep, can lead to impressive bouts of loquaciousness.
And yes, before you ask, she did mostly speak like this anyway. Mostly.
“Sure, Turgenev, and Pushkin, and Bulgakov and Pasternak and Dostoyevsky and Gogol and Herzen if you really want to show off. But mostly Tolstoy. It has to be Tolstoy. Why settle for anything less?”
I thought that here there might have been space for a crack about the good people of Berlin reading the literature of their conquerors in the hope of getting into their good books (double reflexiveness!), but ultimately I couldn’t land it, or rather I couldn’t make it take off and zing.
And so instead I volunteered the tidbit about the virgin Anna, kempt, white, unfoxed pages, unbroken spine and all.
I was striving for a magisterial indifference. I don’t think I achieved that.
Anyway, she left me, that afternoon; and she left me, more broadly speaking. And what remained of the many intangible things that could have remained to become the memories you cling to at four in the morning, when all you can do, if you are awake, is cling on to something, was that admonition. Not the Morse code interplay of her fingers in mine, not the taste and feel of her lips, all wasabi and silk — however much I can bring them back now, I have not obsessed over them the way I have over the feeling that I had let her — let myself — down by never reading any Tolstoy.
Apparently, admonitions don’t work on me. It was well over a year later that the message started to surface and pop up more frequently in the random access/working part of my memory. And then it took a further six months or so to translate the sensation that I should be doing something to satisfy the conditions of, or dismiss, the admonition, by actually dealing with it, springing into action.
I took Anna Karenina down from the shelf. I started reading it.
I did OK with it.
That is to say, I read it how I might read any other book: travelling to work, before going to bed, any other spare moments that I had, when my eyes were hurting during a lunchtime, and I needed a screen break.
I did that for, I think, about three weeks, and got up to page 188, before the start of chapter XXIII in part 2, the bit where Vronksy says, bold as you like, “Leave your husband and unite our lives.”
Which, in my view, was a pretty creditable effort for my first attempt at a Tolstoy.
Because, then, of course, I got distracted by something far more pressing and far less important to read. The Economist’s Christmas edition, I think. Power and vice and all that jazz. Not too far off Lev, in fact, when you think about it.
And, obviously, I didn’t come back to Karenina once I’d finished reading that edition of the newspaper. There was something else waiting. I can’t remember what that was now. I’m sure it was good. Or bad. Or indifferent.
Oh, by the way, I hadn’t just tossed Karenina aside. I’d put a bookmark in, and everything; a grey business card with a black heart printed on it and, redundantly, the words ‘The Black Heart’ superimposed in a rubbishy gothic script.
Oh, and OK, maybe I was reluctant to deal with some of the psychic resonances that might have been emerging, due to the combination of author, plot, characters, text, personage of the recommendee, the nature of the recommendation, eg that it was an admonition etc etc.
But only maybe.
And then, ten months later, there was all this inescapable chatter about a film. Of Karenina.
And I am one of those people who hates to see a movie based upon a book without having read the book first.
And I am also one of those people who likes to be one of those people who has read the book before seeing the film, and then lets everybody know that they have done precisely this, and tut at any misconceived (in their view) deviations from the book in the film, and do so both in the cinema while watching, and then in general (and oddly, generally short) discussion about the film in the bar / café / restaurant afterwards, and possibly the journey home too, though no adaptation is actually that interesting and worthy of such a commuting exegesis.
Except maybe Adaptation, which is pretty sui generis, when it comes to adaptations anyway.
And knowing who was going to be appearing in the film version of Karenina meant that I would have to see it, even though I knew from just the marquee names that I was going to have precisely the sorts of issues re deviation from the book outlined earlier, I also therefore knew that I had to make a new attempt at reading Karenina.
Which meant, realistically, starting it again, as over the course of nine, ten months of not reading it, I had obviously forgotten what I had read prior to that point, notwithstanding the power of that “Leave your husband and unite our lives” quote, which you would assume would become imprinted on your memory, and one of the quotes you’ll always remember.
(Alas, not in this case. I had to go and look it up.)
And plus, if I didn’t start again, from the beginning, how could I accurately assess the beginning of the film re any deviations from the novel early on?
Plus, if you don’t start a book you’ve started reading but left for a long time from the beginning again, it’s a bit like cheating, isn’t it?
The answer is yes, by the way.
So, some weeks ago — I won’t give you the precise time frame, because I do not wish you to come to any judgements on the speed at which I read or the length of time it might take me to complete reading the book — I started reading Karenina again.
I undertook to read it in the manner that I outlined before, that is to say commuting, before bed, lunch breaks / eye-strain (though, now I come to think of it, the small font and tight kerning used in my edition probably did not actually relieve any eye-strain that I might have felt), while in the bath (though I did not mention this before, as it did not happen before, and frankly the mechanics of keeping an 800 page novel dry, or at least minimising the deleterious effects of a humid bathroom on it are very tricky indeed).
Even more helpfully, as it was not Christmas, I was unlikely to be distracted by The Economist’s Christmas edition.
I cannot tell you precisely what page I had got up to when I started to notice it happening, but it was definitely before page 188 (Vronsky, “unite our lives” etc).
What I noticed was this: that I was dreaming.
I don’t mean to say that I had never dreamed previously, prior to starting this renewed attempt on this book.
Or that I was dreaming about scenes, scenarios, characters that I had directly read about while in bed, the pages that directly preceded sleep.
More that it was a very specific quality in which the dreams that I had intensified in their vividness and luminescence; and that they were far, far easier to remember.
But that their character appeared to be affected by the reading material not one jot.
So, for example, the first morning that I noticed this phenomena, I was able to remember very specifically that I had dreamed in PowerPoint.
That is to say, the scenes in this particular dream were presented in the manner of a slide show that one can create using the programme, with flow charts, boxes, arrows, headings and subheadings, custom animations to bring all of the above to life in a variety of different ways, flying in, dissolving, sharp appearances, diamond fades.
But I cannot remember the content of those slides at all.
Which yes, I know the wags amongst you are saying, is true of most PowerPoint presentations viewed in waking life.
(There were no bulleted lists. Of that I am sure.)
But this was an intensity of detail and remembrance which I had not experienced before. Or at least one that I could not remember having experienced before.
And fine, you might say, this is hardly uncommon, this notion that reading much more, or at least paying attention to something much more intensely, in part because it is so intense will, by definition, in some way lead in turn to dreams that are themselves more intense in their character and the density of information they convey, by the fact that more intense and denser dreams are much more easy to recall.
But, really, I have never remembered dreams the way that I did during this period of reading Anna.
And it was their utter unconnectedness to the mise-en-scene of the novel which was perhaps — actually — acutely — the most striking thing about it.
So, for example, one dream (I did not note down which pages or chapter location I had reached, so I cannot provide you with the tools to create your own rudimentary literary dream analysis) featured the rock singer Liam Gallagher, and the broadcasters and writers Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe, assembled around a kitchen table (whose? unclear; precise location? unclear) discussing something (unclear) in almost stereotypically broad Northern accents, a sort of ‘Thr’penny Bit Opera’, if you will forgive the conceit.
Another, in a similar vein (caveats re location / progress through book as above) featured a figure I was sure / certain to be a famous satirist of some sort (though this person could not be identified) driving an open-top Mercedes (black, pre-2000 model) up a country road (again, location indeterminate). Now, I assume here that the dream was trying to hint at / provide a commentary to some degree, on some form of hypocrisy, and thus linked in some way back to a discussion of that in Karenina. Then it struck me that one thing the protagonists of Karenina absolutely are not are hypocrites, because my God, the levels of pain they go through to make sure that they are ‘true’ in some way to a self- and / or societally-imposed ideal way of behaving is so foregrounded, so much the big thing of the book, that you can’t actually see it, the proverbial water for fish.
Except maybe Levin getting married in the cathedral when he didn’t really believe in God, that could actually be the big hypocritical moment. Or had he declared himself to be believing by then? I can’t remember now.
I suspect that it actually has something to do with K — — — thinking I’m a hypocrite in the way I behaved towards her. Or maybe I think that was a way to try and maintain a connection with her in some way, a hold that isn’t actually justified or warranted at all by either the facts of what happened between us, the current levels of communications between us, and the memories that might bridge those two points.
Basically I think these dreams might be my memories lying to me.
Look, here’s another one. I’ll give you the exact note I jotted down in the pad by my bed moments after I woke up:
“Three boys are in a disused school, breaking up furniture into chunks with glee. I am observing them using a typewriter to collect my feelings. One of the boys observes me, and asks me to come up with something involving the words ‘lip salve’. I can’t, and get up to leave. As I am going, I pass a female teacher wearing boots, a Matrix coat and glasses coming in. The school’s name is also revealed: ‘Mephisto Industrial Academy’.”
If you can see a link between that and Karenina, frankly, you are some sort of lit crit magician.
Another: I am buying items of stationery over the counter in a bar. Marker pens, other pens, an A1 flip-chart pad complete with easel, multi-coloured blocks of Post-It notes. And two pints of lager.
And you’re not going to tell me Tolstoy put any reference to stationery retailing in the novel.
(Of course, on the off-chance that any business school students, MBAs or entrepreneurs are reading this, I will happily work with you to develop the business idea outlined in point 64 if you feel that there is some sort of viable market for it. Perhaps for those writers who do their best work in places which sell alcohol, and want to formalise their thoughts and jottings at that point. I might have talked myself into this being a more than viable idea, in fact.)
Which reminds me, I have another note in front of me. It says: “There have been 185 predictions of the end of the world in the last 200 years. This is written on the back of a drinks receipt. For obvious reasons.” And it really is. I apparently went somewhere I don’t remember, I ordered four drinks I don’t remember drinking, or was accompanied by three people I don’t remember being accompanied by.
Yes, OK, you are free to make your own connection between my drinking and my dreaming after that.
Although the more nuanced view would be to try and assimilate the idea of why apocalyptic dreams are so common, with or without the aid of any lubricant such as alcohol.
Suffice to say, I kept reading, and dreams kept happening, or at least happening with such a vividness that they could be remembered.
Like the one that frankly was a straight carbon copy of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s film about Howard Hughes, The Aviator, and featured a plane in a greenhouse, for all the world like the latter was a hanger and the plane was meant to be there.
Or another where I am standing in a harbour, on some sort of promontory that juts out into a calm sea, with stereotypically blue skies, those which you are seeing in your mind’s eye right now as the idealised, idyllic seaside scene. And two tea-clippers glide into view, perfectly Cutty Sark-esque, sails billowing etc.
I can’t tell you how disappointed I was by this. I mean, ships in a harbour? And nothing else? It’s a bit prosaic, isn’t it? I mean, imagine the interpretive fun there to be had if it was two steam trains, bustling in over the waves, the permanent way corkscrewing to stay on top of the ever-shifting surf.
That would have been something. That would have been something worth recording.
But then there is this. I meet a woman in a café. She is already there. She stands up to give me a hug. We embrace. And as she sits down, she pulls an elephant out of from the sleeve of her cardigan — full size, fully grown, adult, a real elephant (it could have been either African or Indian, I wasn’t looking at the ears), which stands on the table for a bit (a table which, by the way, doesn’t collapse) before deciding that he’d care to join us at said table, flags down a waitress to order a pot of tea that very specifically has to be served in a yellow teapot.
OK, if you push me I will claim that the woman at the table is obviously K — — — . But I cannot be definitive about it.
Which then makes the presence of the elephant crashingly obvious.
But then, how often do you get to have tea with a metaphor?
And yet another. This time we are in what a cinematic set-dresser would say is an obvious boudoir of the eighteenth century. Reclining on the bed is a brunette odalisque. She is all display apart from her eyes, which are blacked out in the manner newspapers used to do it, when they waved a pretend figleaf towards trying to protect someone’s identity. Except the blacked out block is white, a smear of Tipp-Ex that has become a brick. Nothing happens; all, her, me, is static. Apart from a drip of the obfuscating fluid falling down the perpendicular of the canvas I’m now standing front of, rather than her face.
Well, yes. There’s not much need to worry about the who or the symbolism here. (Though I don’t think I mentioned before that K — — — is a brunette, did I?)
Which then leads to a question, a fair one I think. Had she recommended my reading of Tolstoy, knowing that this was what was going to happen, that rather than being absorbed by his writings (which, I should stress, I am, at least when I am conscious, or conscious of being conscious) she, K — — — , knew that the associative act of reading something she recommended would inevitably mean that like a hologram, she would be revivified into my life, without the need on her part to do anything at all?
And if I answer ‘yes’, does this mean I am ascribing to her a power that she does not have in reality?
And if I answer ‘no’, does that mean, for worse perhaps, I am denying the power she still has over me, and perhaps even worse than that, I am denying the power she has over the weakest part of me, my memories (which are, of course, paradoxically, the part of me where she still most strongly resonates)?
And then perhaps in the usual way of these things, just when you think you’ve got a handle on them, they find a way of upending you again. The subconscious’ revenge, perhaps. (No doubt Freud had a term for it, but really, how many canonical thinkers can one be dealing with at any given moment?)
I say this because the next dream I have a note of remembering (usual caveat of not knowing where the hell I am in Karenina at this point) has nothing to do with people, or a person, or even a murky, sub-Dalí-ian surreal-scape recognisably of us but not us.
No, instead, I would describe it as a dream of a purer form of abstraction, if such a thing is possible.
I would hazard using the word ‘synaesthetic’ even though I know that isn’t correct, but it points you towards the territory my dreaming state was now in at this point.
(And no, it didn’t occur to me at all to stop reading. [See point 29 for an explanation why, to avoid a recapitulation here.])
By using ‘synaesthetic’ in this context, I am trying to, in a very faltering and barely articulate way, describe the sensation of dreaming time.
Not about a time, or a period of time, or a passage or duration of time. But the actual epiphenomena of time itself.
And what I saw was that time moved as if it were an energy, globs of energy, pulsing along staves of neon, endlessly forming and re-forming, akin to the viscous material you used to find in lava lamps. Time, a highly plastic-y, mucus-like substance, that would be soft, squishy and warm in your fingers. Time as plasticine, mostly.
Plasticine that was coloured purple by the way.
And I have no idea how to interpret any of that.
Of course, there is the smallest, infinitesimally tiny chance that I am reading far too much into the reading of a book that someone I once knew recommended to me.
But accepting the premise that I am not, it occurs to me that one thing I have been oblivious to until now is, of course, the way that Tolstoy uses dreams in Karenina as a foreshadowing of the inevitable doom, despair, devastation and so forth that Anna and Vronsky are going to have to go through so as not to be hypocrites.
(And since when did hypocrisy extract such a high price?)
Anyway, the dream is the one about the bearded muhzik that Anna and Vronksy both have, although at different times, but clearly designed to indicate that yes, while the two are spiritually conjoined, no good will come of it, not least because this conjoining also features the leering of a bearded peasant.
Here’s the description of the dream from page 752 of my edition:
“In the morning a dreadful nightmare, which had to come to her repeatedly even before her liaison with Vronsky, came to her again, and woke her up. A little old muhzik with a dishevelled beard was doing something, bent over some iron, muttering meaningless French words, and, as always in this nightmare (here lay its terror), she felt that this little muhzik paid no attention to her, but was doing something dreadful over her. And she awoke in a cold sweat.”
A related, but perhaps fruitless thought: are dreams infectious? Can they actually, really make you ill?
I mean, there is the phenomenon of lucid dreaming where you can become an active participant in your dreams, and can be said to be controlling them to some extent, though it is unclear to me the extent to which these could be classified as being significantly different from, say, daydreams. Suffice to say that for lucid dreaming to be even possible you have to be in non-REM phase sleep; and I believe (I haven’t fact-checked this, clearly) that lucid dreams are more likely to happen in the later, immediate pre-waking phases of sleep. Or it might be the early phases of sleep; because how are you going to wake up enough to be able to control your dreams, and yet still be asleep enough to dream?
Dreams are confusing.
Or perhaps it is better to say that dreams leave you confused.
Or better still, dreams leave me confused.
And I guess with what appears to be a storyteller’s inevitability, though I swear that this is not the case, that this did actually happen; I read the words on page 752 and dreamt about them.
Or rather that I dreamt about ripping that page, that one page, out from the book.
For the record, I didn’t. I haven’t.
But yet I feel the need to reserve the right to say that I still might.
And of course, living in this world of dreams (not literally of course, I haven’t been asleep all this time) does then lead to the somewhat inevitable questions about dreams themselves, things which I think it’s fair to say go beyond the mere fortune telling that Tolstoy paints it as. Some things I’d like to know include (but not exhaustively):
Do dreams take or follow a musical form? What is their ‘structure’, for want of a better term? Could one be a sonata, for example?
Is it any accident that I first thought ‘lucid’ dreaming was actually ‘ludic’ dreaming?
Are dreams as essential a part of our nightly renewal as sleep is?
Are dreams the subconscious brain’s version of waking up daily from hibernation, declaring it spring once more, and that we, that is you, should now be ready to face the day?
Could you take a pill and suppress your dreams?
If nostalgia is a disease, is dreaming too?
If you don’t dream, do you die?
Are dreams actually a form of confession, and actually the only form of confession that actually counts, as it relies on you to piece together and acknowledge the sin, rather than the outside intercession of someone who’s just as fallible as you are?
And then there was another question about whether there’s a hotline you can call and record your dreams, and have them interpreted, and it turns out there is, but it’s only open one weekend a year, and it’s staffed by metaphysicians (or is that ‘metaphysicists’?), which I feared to be vaguely disappointing, as I would have preferred it to be staffed by chambers upon chambers of Mechanical Turks for some reason.
I finished the book.
Well, you’re not surprised by that are you?
I mean, I know I’ve not actually talked much about Karenina here, but I figure you’re not actually all that interested in my opinion of the book; there are far more learned and august figures you can get your judgments about said novel from.
I mean, I wouldn’t trust my opinion.
And I’m not sure that I do.
And, pace point 29, no, I haven’t actually seen the film yet.
Of course, there was one more dream.
Inevitably, as tends to be the deterministic way in a story like this.
And inevitably, of course, it is about K — — — this time, indisputably, no havering, no subconscious playing tricks on me, no maybes it could be someone else. It is her.
Except that she looks like Julie Christie.
With tight black curls in her hair.
And yes, I am aware, I haven’t actually told you what K — — — looks like, just gave you one or two indistinct hints and left you to get on with it. But it isn’t this, with the hair, or the cheekbones.
And we are having dinner in a restaurant that specialises in dishes from Eastern Europe and the Baltic, and the colour scheme is all black blocks and pink accents.
She is wearing a charm bracelet, a piece of jewellery that no one has ever adequately described the function of.
And then we are joined by a man, B — — — R — -, who says ‘cut’.
And I recognise B — — — R — — as a man who is paid to do nothing but dream about light, a particular type of light, and the stories that he can tell using that light.
And B — — — R — — says, mostly to K — — — , though I’m sure I’ve been acknowledged in some small way, “The existential, spiritual and emotional questions, none of those questions have been resolved by us in the slightest — we’re still dealing in the same things.”
And in the absence of the dream hotline being open for business, and lacking the patience to wait until it opened its doors for those mere 72 hours, I did the next best thing.
I turned to Google.
But not wanting to waste my time and/or being a bit smarter about the whole thing, I thought I’d try a bit of logical jujitsu out of it.
I didn’t ask Google about any of my dreams while reading Karenina.
No, I asked it: “What does Tolstoy dream about?”
Or rather, I asked it to return results on the search ‘Tolstoy’s dreams’, as I figured that would be more fruitful.
And about 7,890,000 results were returned in 0.34 seconds.
And an ad for 50% off beds at Dreams.co.uk.
(Which is some pretty imaginative search marketing by someone, so well done to them.)
And the majority of the first ten results all related back to his Confession.
And not bothering to dig much further, I sighed, and went off to buy a copy of that, expecting to find some answers about his dream-life in there.
Instead, of course, there was not much about dreams, and lots and lots about faith, and finding it.
Which, even though I’m not religious, must have resonated, as I turned down the corners of at least fourteen pages in the book.
And written marginal comments like:
“This is obv. T talking about faith, not dreams, but it is only dreams, faith and love of the epiphenomenon that can be felt to melt, he says cryptically and rhymingly.”
“This sounds just like a dream.”
“What about the answers given by dreams?”
“Dreams think like this: their god is our brains.”
“Substitute in the word ‘dream’.”
“Tol should have met Cantor and talked about infinity.”
And yes, I’m aware that I should give you page references and the rest of the apparatus, so you can make sense of all that.
But the resolution with which I started to do this has turned out to be not as strong as I thought.
And in fact the only thoughts that I am left with are:
Dreams are actually God’s way of talking to us in our sleep.
I miss her.
Anyway, seeing as he was the prompt of all of this, her teasing, I’ll leave the last word to Lev:
“This was clear to me, and I was glad and tranquil. It was as if someone were saying to me: ‘See that you remember.’ And I woke up.”
Yeah. What he said.
 I also didn’t remember until a lot later Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens’ apt question in ‘Here Comes A City’: “Why do people who read Dostovesky always look like Dostovesky?” Of course, I wouldn’t have delivered it in the same impactful drawl of his. Still, it’s a useful reminder that Tolstoy hasn’t yet made it into the lyric of pop song. Apart from The Divine Comedy’s ‘The Booklovers’, which features everybody.