Lessons from Tolstoy

When I’m driving or walking I often think of things I’d like to talk over with you all. When the blank page is before me and I finally have the chance, I forget every last blasted thing.

On January 17th, I had a thought, which, in a rare instance of recall and follow up, I  recorded on my phone for future use. It wasn’t much of a thought. It’s sullen, immature and unkind, really, but here it is:

Has there ever been a more awkward last name to pronounce than Karenina? I have never read Anna Karenina and I probably never will because trying to wrap my tongue around that extra repetitive syllable is an exercise in lingual frustration that I just don’t need.

I’m guessing Tolstoy didn’t have a literary agent or publicist because if he had, I  imagine they would have taken him to lunch, plied him with good vodka, and gently suggested that maybe Smith would be a better last name for his heroine, or Smythe, if you will. Or even Popov. That’s Russian. What’s wrong with Anna Popov?

Where did Tolstoy come up with a name like Karenina? Was he toying with his readership? Imagining with delight the tongue-tied high school students of centuries to come?

I prefer books with names I can pronounce. Dick and Jane, for instance. Cat in the Hat, now that was a good one. Dr. Seuss didn’t need to stand behind lofty, unpronounceable names to sell his books. Simple sells. That’s my motto.

Says the woman who named her blog Chicken’s Consigliere.

Chicken out


  12 comments for “Lessons from Tolstoy

  1. jenny_o
    February 4, 2019 at 7:16 pm

    It’s so good to read a post by you, my fine feathered friend:)

    I have to admit that when I started reading your blog, I had to look up both the pronunciation AND the meaning of consigliere! And while I’m confessing my illiteracy, I will also add that I never noticed the extra syllable in Karenina until you pointed it out. In my head it was always “Kar-een-a”. The shame! One would think it wouldn’t matter what a character’s name is, but I really have a hard time with books written in other countries with unfamiliar names. They are so hard for me to keep straight. (Is that an early sign of dementia??) So I understand your issue with Karenina. Are you reading it anyhow? Are you liking it?


    • February 4, 2019 at 8:42 pm

      Hi Jenny-that’s the way I always pronounced it, too. I never noticed it until they started promoting the movie. I still can’t say it. I am not reading the book. Although, I read that Tolstoy was a vegetarian later in life. There’s a story about how his aunt, when invited to dinner, said she’d come but they had to service chicken and he agreed. When she got there, a chicken was tied to her chair and a butcher knife was with her place setting. He’s endeared himself to me a little. I might have to read it now.


  2. Doug in Oakland
    February 4, 2019 at 9:25 pm

    Yay! The Chicken posted again!
    I was assigned to read Anna Karenina for a European novel class in High School, and it was the only bad grade I ever got in an English class. I never finished the book.
    Oh, I tried to read it, but there was this one passage where they were slogging along down a muddy track and it just killed me. I came up with strategies like starting five pages before that passage to try and build up a head of steam and power through it, but nothing worked.
    I was a good English student and it really bothered me that I had trouble reading a damn book. I got an A- in Shakespeare, how could this book be too miserable for me to read?
    I told my friend Mark about it and he said that suffering was the whole point of Russian novels, but that didn’t seem to help, and I told Mr. Stone about it and he seemed to understand and gave me a no credit for the assignment instead of an F.
    I have heard Karenina pronounced ka-REN-in-a and kar-uh-ninya, but I don’t know whether either of those is correct, let alone which.


    • February 5, 2019 at 2:18 am

      Hi Doug-lately I’ve heard it the first way but I, like Jenny, always thought it was Karenna. Since none of us (You, me nor Jenny) have read it (all the way), maybe we should start a book club and make it our first project. I ain’t scared of no book. Much. I have to confess, in your place, I would have just skipped right over the slogging down the muddy track part and started in again when it got interesting. Or did you try that and it just didn’t get interesting? Here’s a question: How do you suppose people became writers back in those days? Do you think it was something that maybe only wealthy, educated people could do because you needed the backing of an institution? I’m sure the internet has the answer to that question but I wouldn’t be surprised if you had the answer, either.


      • Doug in Oakland
        February 5, 2019 at 6:00 am

        My friend Robert, who loves Dostoevsky, says that writing is like a disease, and once you have it, it sort of takes over your decision making in support of keeping itself going, but I don’t know exactly where he got that information and thus how much it can be trusted.
        Perhaps he was trying to romanticize the poverty many, or most, writers exist in while trying to break into the business.
        Daniel Quinn said that although he went to a lot of school, he didn’t know the first thing about how to write a book until he got a job at a publishing house and saw how it actually happened.
        But in Russia? I can only imagine it was difficult from the tone of the more famous works I’ve managed to read from back then, and even so, what effect did the translators have on those books? Perhaps that passage with the muddy track is more engaging in Russian?

        Liked by 1 person

      • February 5, 2019 at 8:36 pm

        I like Robert’s explanation! Being compelled to write is one thing, but actually getting a book deal out of your compulsion is another. Who determined back then that, Yes, we shall turn this muddy slogging dribble into a book and it will be good?


  3. February 7, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    Really? I read that book in high school and always loved saying Karenina. It sounds melodic to me. (I can’t say I enjoyed the book all that much, though, but I had just read War and Peace and was on a little bit of a Tolstoy kick.)


    • February 8, 2019 at 1:19 am

      Really and Nope, I just can’t say it. Maybe I haven’t practiced enough, though. Did you like War and Peace?


  4. February 7, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    I’ve not read AK, but have seen the movie. 🙂 I wonder if Karenina is a fairly ordinary name in Russia? I mean, it’s not like Dostoevsky. It’s kind of fun, I think, how literature challenges us in that way. Do you think anyone ever pronounced Don Juan as Don Ju-won? Probably. My maiden name was somewhat hard to pronounce until I mentioned it rhymed with whiskey. I had trouble getting the name Hermione in Harry Potter. Her-mee-own? Or Laoghaire in Outlander. Or Siobhan or Saorise (which I have misspelled, I think, but still can’t pronounce either way). Thank goodness for Google and YouTube. And movies, so I can finally hear how Hermione is said properly.


    • February 8, 2019 at 1:28 am

      Hi Paula-you bring up some good points-I wondered the same about the name being common in Russia and googled a list. It wasn’t on the list I saw, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fairly common. I heard a saying once…”Mispronounciation is the curse of the early reader”. I’m not sure if I was an early reader but I mispronounce things all the time. For instance, in college, I did a whole presentation about a book on the civil war and repeatedly mispronounced Colonel as Ka-lo-nul. I thought Colonel and Kearnel were two different ranks:-) And then, when I went to California, I kept saying I wanted to go see La Joy-ya. I think my friends were purposely trying to make me say it out loud. It took me 3 days to catch on. And yes, Hermione is another one I couldn’t figure out until the movies, but it is funny…I still can never remember, when I look at it, how it’s supposed to go. I’ve read The Outlander series and watch the show, but I don’t remember a Laoghaire…which character is that? And how do you pronounce it? I probably just don’t recognize it!


      • February 8, 2019 at 9:01 pm

        They pronounce it like “Leery” on the show, but in the audio books, the reader pronounces it “Leera.” She’s the young woman that liked Jamie before Claire came on the scene, so she conspired to cause her to be arrested for witchcraft. She eventually marries Jamie once Claire has gone back through the stones, but of course it doesn’t last. Yes, Colonel was a bit of a stumper when I was young, too!


      • February 9, 2019 at 12:44 am

        Oh her-she’s a bad one. Almost got Claire burned at the stake, that little witch!


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