Millions of struggling Britons don’t need these failed Royal circuses distracting them from holding their dysfunctional government to account.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So famously begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the world’s greatest fictional works which is a much better read than Spare, Prince Harry’s best selling moan fest.
In that one sentence, Tolstoy echoes the old French proverb that happy people have no history, les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire and the more famous Chinese curse — may you live in interesting times — suggesting that the spicier one’s life is, the worse it is.
Happy the nun who is happy with her cloistered life and happy the coked up Prince, who does not get his rocks off by flying to Afghanistan to murder, from a helicopter far above, dozens of the locals but who is, instead, happy with his own lot and the simple love and acceptance of those around him.
This is at the core of Tolstoy’s great work, just as it is totally absent from Harry’s. When we first meet Anna Karenina, she is reading a book (not Harry’s moan fest) in a train and living vicariously, imagining she is in the midst of the many adventures the book portrays. But Tolstoy’s main point and one he tried to live his own life by, is the life really worth living is the life of silent, untrumpeted love, no matter whether that life is the muffled one of a cloistered convent or of middle class Russian, English or American suburbia where people paddle shin deep through the ripples of life’s ebbs and flows.
Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, instead regards Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of the romanticized love that devours her. Oprah mistakes Anna Karenina’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, so also does Oprah’s fan club imagine themselves as Anna Karenina or as Vronsky. her adulterous lover They can’t see that the values they unthinkingly accept are precisely the ones Tolstoy meticulously discredits and rejects.
Oprah’s audience is the audience Prince Harry and his chick are tailored for, those who watch daytime TV and who want to imagine that their lives are not punctuated by series of harmless ripples but by thunderous adventures that Tolstoy, Shakespeare or Virgil himself might have written about. They are to be pitied.
Tolstoy’s celebration of bourgeois banality is but a part of what makes Tolstoy so great and why he should be required reading in Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and whatever tacky Californian mansion Prince Harry and his chick are hanging out in.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina shows, with unsurpassed psychological subtlety, the shallowness not only of Anna Karenina’s romanticized worldview but also that of all Oprah’s fan club as well as the immense dangers of such shallow, one-dimensional romantic thinking. In the novel, Anna Karenina, sadly, loses the run of herself and descends into a sort of delirium, a sort of madness which eventually costs her every blessed thing there is in this life. And so ends the novel, and poor, poor Anna Karenina.
But back, as they say, to the real world, where people should, indeed, must read the works of Tolstoy and even the lighter fare poor Anna Karenina enjoyed but where they must draw the appropriate lessons, rather than those of Oprah and daytime TV. The late Queen Elizabeth, by all accounts, enjoyed a good romantic novel, a good British soap opera and, famously, a good flutter on the horses, as well as a great love for all four legged creatures, which carried her through the ebbs and flows of her life, as she did what a Princess and then a Queen does with one’s life.
Queen Elizabeth epitomized ye old English stiff upper lip, which she usually kept diplomatically buttoned; no kiss and tell nonsense from her. The late Queen could very well have played Anna Pavlovna, who hosts cultured soirées in War and Peace and who can engage in meaningless small talk as effortlessly in French and as she can in Russian, but who never lets the vagaries of Tzar Alexander’s Great Patriotic War get the better of her. She rides it all out.
Although Calpurnia tells Caesar there are no comets seen when beggars die but that the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes, this does not seem to have been the case with the late Queen, who has left behind her the most dysfunctional of families since that of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
And, lest we forget, the most dysfunctional of countries and Commonwealths. Although the unhappy British Royal family is unhappy in its own way, there are tens of millions of Britons struggling to stay above the bread line and who don’t need these failed Royal circuses distracting them from holding their dysfunctional government to account.
But nor do the British Royal Family, who could do not only with Tolstoy but with a copy of the great Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to muse upon amongst themselves. In Chapter V of that priceless gem, we learn that Katerina Ivanovna has gone off the deep end and that she has taken up the life of an organ grinder, banging a toy drum about the streets and begging the better off passers by for money as she is descended from Royalty. Dostoevsky’s depiction of Katerina’s descent into the abyss and of Sonya’s attempts to comfort her are heart-breaking, as heart-breaking I am sure as is the dysfunctionality not only of the Royal Spare but of the entire British Royal Family for any normal or genuinely patriotic British people associated with them. Though my only hope in all of this is that more people will choose Tolstoy and Dostoevsky over Prince Harry and Oprah, there has to be some consolation in that the curtain is coming down on the British Royal Family and that the tittle tattlers amongst them will soon be shunted from Oprah’s daytime TV to the well-earned obscurity of overnight cable TV shows, from where they might to begin living a life actually worth living.