The Anna Karenina Fix by Viv Groskop / Harry N. Abrams / 978-1419732720 / 2018
The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature is more than your average memoir, beginning with its title. A kind of dark literary joke I still can’t help but chuckle at, Groskop uses it to set the stage for a well-balanced and thoughtful exploration of Russian classical literature from a personal angle. There is clearly a significant amount of research and thought put into the book, although Groskop does not cite sources in the traditional manner, opting instead for an in-depth recommended reading list at the end. The book also never leaves the reader in the dark or makes one go looking for answers to overarching and burdensome questions. Instead, The Anna Karenina Fix is a multi-genre work in a positive and unexpected way, touching upon themes like Russian cultural mentality, academic snobbism, family, and origins, in which personal experience is celebrated and mistakes are encouraged.
Consisting of eleven chapters, the titles of which follow the how-to format of a self-help guide, The Anna Karenina Fix looks at eleven canonical Russian literary works. Groskop uses her personal life as an entry point that the reader can use to begin to better understand, even appreciate, them, suggesting that beginning with what you know from your own life is not a bad way to start. The book focuses on Groskop’s search for her historic roots and the geographic and academic journey she goes on to do so, taking a dive into the depths of Russian culture. The personal narrative in The Anna Karenina Fix is an example of a case where it is the journey that is arguably more significant than the result. Telling the reader about her growing fascination, and later obsession, with the notion of Russian-ness, Groskop’s account is one of self-discovery and crisis, a mixture of realization and acceptance. It is difficult not to form some sort of attachment to her personal narrative, regardless of whether your opinion of it is positive or negative. Similarly, it was tempting to press judgements based on Groskop’s actions, a predicament that adds an interesting self-reflective element to the reading experience. The moment when Groskop finally finds the answer to her question was a perfect example of this, filled with emotional turmoil that some will find easier to sympathize with than others, but one which nonetheless looks to the reader for some sort of emotional acknowledgement:
Finally, the documents listed the birthplace of Gershon, the place he had left: Łódź, Poland. So, he was Polish. And, judging by all the names, clearly, we were Jewish. I had been in the ballpark. But I had been in the wrong ballpark, or at least several hundred miles out I had learned the wrong language and absorbed the wrong identity. I wasn’t Russian. I was just someone who had opened their belly to what didn’t belong to them. (p. 143-144)
Groskop’s strength is her humour, which forms the backbone of the book. Russian literature, as she reminds the reader numerous times over the course of the memoir, is seen as heavy and heart-wrenching, most of the time for justifiable reasons, therefore it is exactly humour that Groskop turns to in her attempt to turn this around. There is a self-deprecating tone to The Anna Karenina Fix that makes it very difficult not to at least smile at Groskop’s little asides and occasionally comical explanations, as well as the recurring fangirl-like voice comments about Tolstoy that occasionally pop up throughout the book. Aside from easing the tension and engaging the reader with a topic that has a lot of high-brow academic stereotypes about it, Groskop also injects the book with an almost satirical edge to it that is absolutely brilliant. My favourite in this regard was the opening to the chapter on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which begins rather seriously before quickly taking a dive into the comical:
You cannot be a student of the Russian language without encountering Pushkin at some point. And most Russian teachers will want you to learn him off by heart and weep and wail and gnash your teeth as you recite his words while mournfully waving a handkerchief soaked in the blood of your enemy whom you just shot in a duel. (p. 90)
It is these little moments that make The Anna Karenina Fix such a great read, for it is only a couple of pages later that Groskop drops a smoke bomb of honestly that pulls the curtain back on some of the whispers one might expect to hear coming from stuffy academic corners:
They like to throw you in at the deep end. And they like to make sure you remain completely intimidated by the [Russian] language for as long as possible. That way, if you pass on to the other side and actually do learn to speak it, you’ll maintain the age-old myth that it’s difficult to learn and pass that on to other people so that the Russian speakers can remain in their own special and secret club. (p. 92)
Whether you feel an affiliation with Groskop’s stance or with the more traditional outlook, what is unique about The Anna Karenina Fix is how easily and how well it caters to both casual readers, who may have no background in the subject matter, and to Russian speakers or avid Russian lit readers. The book’s goal, in fact, is to break down and unpackage statements like “I hate Russian literature because there are a thousand names!” by going to the source of the complaint and making it digestible and comprehensible for the reader. Groskop’s game of “name that patronymic” was a perfect example of this, one that made me burst out laughing on the subway a couple times while reading the book, much to the confusion of those around me. Groskop also breaks down concepts like diminutives for names and patronymics, neither of which, to my knowledge, exist in English, making sure that the reader has a solid grasp of them, therefore further scraping away the unnecessarily built-up fear some readers have of Russian literature and showing that this can be done in a way that is engaging, even fun. There were also anecdotes Groskop shares with the reader, like the incident with the Clinique makeup or the fact that jeans were a hot and impossible to find commodity at that time, that were a mixture of humorous and thought-provoking which brought the unfamiliar closer to the reader, challenging the dichotomy of ‘over there vs right here’ by using her own past as an example of the way these cultural distances can be broken down.
One of the most interesting, and perhaps one of the easiest things to overlook, in the book, is the absence of female writers, for out of the eleven chapters only one focuses on the work of a female writer: Anna Akhmatova. Groskop points this out herself in the notes at the end of the book, yet it remains an additional underlying conversation throughout the book that, on one hand, needs to happen, but on the other hand does not fit into the personal memoir approach that Groskop has taken. The Anna Karenina Fix is not, after all, a book of essays or academic research, as she reminds the reader in the beginning. Nonetheless, there is an inherent and persistent bias against female writers in the Russian classics that the reader becomes aware of, and while Groskop certainly makes her intentions clear her explanation points to an urgent need to expand the Russian canon at large, to challenge the notion of the “great male Russian author” instead of writing it off as an excuse of ‘that is how things are’, therefore contributing to its continued existence.
Whatever your relationship or preconceptions of Russian culture and literature may be, The Anna Karenina Fix is a breath of fresh air that blows more for the purposes of sharing its story than for propagating a particular view. Groskop’s cross-genre approach doesn’t just humanize words by some rather uptight and long-dead authors; it also reminds the reader not to discredit something because of the rumours and restrictions academia has spun around a subject, that commonalities can be found everywhere, and that literature is, perhaps above all else, a way of coping with life for the author and for readers alike, summarizing it best in her introduction:
The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicaments in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place: life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. (p. 3)