The terrible little peasant who haunts the dreams and visions of Anna Karenina receives full attention in Nabokov’s loving account of her story (see his Lectures on Russian Literature), which everyone should read—after the novel itself, of course: even the greatest commentators should hold their peace until a work has spoken. Then it goes without saying that this brief post is for those who know both of the books indicated by the title.
What I want to suggest—I have no idea whether the proposal has been made before—is that Tolstoy’s peasant, as dreamed by Anna, is much like Balzac’s Goriot, as seen through a keyhole by Eugène de Rastignac in the middle of the night. Goriot begins as a “simple ouvrier vermicellier” (“a simple worker who made vermicelli”), and becomes rich as a result of throwing in his lot with the Revolution, the New; the peasant, in his manifestation as a worker on the railroad, has been taken up by that symbol of overwhelming modernity. Peering through his keyhole, Rastignac cannot at first tell what the old man is up to (the verb is machiner), and the full significance of his action can be grasped only later; the peasant labors obscurely, his beard is disheveled, one does not know what he is doing, only at the last moment will the light show all to Anna. Goriot presses the gilded silver, he twists it, kneads it (pétrir) like dough, rolls it, rounds it into a bar; the other mutters in French, “Il faut le battre le fer, le broyer, le pétrir…” (“Got to beat it, the iron, crush it, knead it…”). By force of love-as-utility Goriot thus destroys the beauty that represents the affection he had for his wife, who was “l’objet d’une admiration religieuse, d’un amour sans bornes” (“the object of a religious admiration, of a boundless love”), a love as all-consuming in its own way as the one Tolstoy depicts. The bar that is fashioned in the dark of night, formed like a child in the womb, is no finer than the greedy children for whom it is made; Anna tries to wake up, but wakes within her dream, and there her servant interprets what she has heard: “In childbirth, in childbirth you’ll die, in childbirth, ma’am ….” “What [the peasant’s] French words contain,” writes Nabokov, “is the idea of iron, of something battered and crushed—and this something is she.” However, he observes, “It is not in childbirth she will die. She will die in soul birth, though, in faith birth.”
I will add a telling detail from Balzac. When upon arrival at the Maison Vauquer Goriot tells the proprietress about the cherished silver, it consists of a dish and “une petite écuelle,” “a little bowl,” from which he means to drink his coffee—a pleasurable stimulant rather than a nourishing food—every morning for the rest of his life; but the bowl Eugène sees afterwards has somehow acquired the description, “une espèce de soupière en vermeil,” “a sort of vermeil soup-tureen,” big and practical. And when at last the old man, lingering on as a “machine,” has uttered his “dernier soupir,” his “last sigh,” which is “the expression of his whole life,” hardly has Eugène gone downstairs than Madame Vauquer is urging the gentlemen to take their seats, for “la soupe va refroider,” “the soup will get cold.”
If indeed Père Goriot was transmuted into Anna’s little peasant, it is as though a dinosaur turned into a bird—of ill omen, or of prey.