Understanding Karenina

11 Sep

Last night I went to see the new film of Anna Karenina, adapted by Tom Stoppard. I had read the novel, but it was a good few years ago and going into the film I was carrying around the thought that Kitty was “young” and Anna was “old” – not old old, of course, not in need of a walking frame, but middle-aged. After seeing the film, and through it remembering the book, I realise that I was wrong. Anna is not old, even though Kitty is a good decade younger. She has been married for many years, yes, but she was only 18 when she got married. What Anna is, is an Older Young Person.

I use that phrase as if it’s an official description because, at my church, I sometimes put on events for Older Young People. It’s a category that’s not well-defined, but which I fall into myself. At the lower end it includes people who really are very young, in their early twenties, but who are no longer students and have therefore outgrown the previous stage of their life and been replaced by new models rolling in for Freshers’ Week. At the top end are those who have proper jobs and houses and so on, and have had for some time, but still sometimes feel like they’re not ‘proper’ grown-ups; people who notice, with incomprehension, that there are folk ten or fifteen years younger than themselves who can drive, marry, drink alcohol, seek gainful employment (though finding it is rarer these days), and in most other ways appear to be functioning adults. We are still young, but no longer obscenely young. This is the Older Young Person.

Now that I am a few years older than I was when I read the novel, I understand Anna a lot better. She didn’t want to hurt Kitty, of course, and even felt protective of her, but the ability to turn Vronsky’s head when that part of her life was supposed to be behind her was intoxicating. It wasn’t just Vronsky’s good looks and charm that tempted her, it was being seen as an attractive woman in her own right, not someone’s wife or mother or aunt. The kind of person who might dance at a ball. The kind of person who might embark on a love affair. A young person.

I don’t have to cope with a stale marriage, nor have I ever found myself infatuated by another man since I met my husband (for which I thank God), but for all that I know a little of what Anna was going through. She was beautiful, may even have become more beautiful with age, but she had lost the dewy glow of youth that Kitty brandished so innocently, and no amount of BB cream can ever give you that back. She had made her choices, and they were good ones, but the thrill of having life choices to make is so much more exciting than the satisfaction of having made them. Kitty’s rival was another woman, but Anna’s rival was time itself, and that’s a much scarier adversary, because he always wins in the end.

I’m rather pleased (and not a little surprised) that the new film does leave in all the moral censure that gives the story of Anna Karenina its point; what Anna does is understandable, but like many understandable things it’s also very wrong. So while I may look in horror at the dates of birth of some of my younger friends (how can someone born in the 90s even tie their own shoelaces yet?), I won’t be embarking on a torrid affair with a young cavalry officer. Instead, I will invite my Older Young friends round for dinner and laughs. And refuse to tell anybody under 25 my age.


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