Nabokov’s Railway Commentary on Anna Karenina, Part 1

From Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981). Page numbers from this edition appear in square brackets.

Courtesy Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

[pp. 177-8] The Red Bag

Anna’s red bag is prepared by Tolstoy in chapter 28 of part one. It is described as “toy-like” or “tiny” but it will grow. When about to leave Dolly’s house in Moscow for Petersburg, in a fit of bizarre tearfulness Anna bends her flushed face over the little bag in which she is putting a nightcap and some cambric handkerchiefs. She will open this red bag when she settles down in the railway car to take out a little pillow, an English novel and a paper-knife to cut it, and then the red bag is relinquished into the hands of her maid, who dozes beside her. This bag is the last object she sheds when she gets rid of her life four years and a half later (May 1876) by jumping under a train when this red bag, which she tries to slip off her wrist, delays her for a moment.

[pp. 225-6] No. 72 The station

The Nikolaevski or Peterburgski railway station in the north-central part of Moscow. The line was built by the government in 1843-1851. A fast train covered the distance between Petersburg and Moscow (about 400 miles) in twenty hours in 1862 and in thirteen hours in 1892. Leaving Petersburg around 8 p.m., Anna arrived in Moscow a little after 11 a.m. the following day (p. 70).1

[p. 227] No. 77 The locomotive came rolling by

In the famous photograph (1869) of the first two transcontinental trains meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah, the engine of the Central Pacific (building from San Francisco eastward) is seen to have a great flaring funnel stack, while the engine of the Union Pacific (building from Omaha westward) sports but a straight slender stack topped by a spark-arrester. Both types of chimneys were used on Russian locomotives. According to Collignon’s Chemins de Fer Russes (Paris, 1868), the seven and a half meters long locomotive, with wheels 0OO0, of the fast train connecting Petersburg and Moscow had a straight funnel two and a third meters high, i.e., exceeding by thirty centimeters the diameter of its driving wheels whose action is so vigorously described by Tolstoy (p. 72).

[p. 230] No. 95 Third bell

The three Russian station bells had already become in the seventies a national institution. The first bell, a quarter of an hour before departure, introduced the idea of a journey to the would-be passenger’s mind; the second, ten minutes later, suggested the project might be realized; immediately after the third, the train whistled and glided away (p. 118).

[p. 231] No. 96 Car

Roughly speaking, two notions of night-traveling comfort were dividing the world in the last third of the century: the Pullman system in America, which favored curtained sections and which rushed sleeping passengers feet foremost to their destination; and the Mann system in Europe, which had them speed sidewise in compartments; but in 1872, a first-class car (euphemistically called sleeping-car by Tolstoy) of the night express between Moscow and Petersburg was a very primitive affair still wavering between a vague Pullman tendency and Colonel Mann’s “boudoir” scheme. It had a lateral corridor, it had water closets, it had stoves burning wood; but it also had open-end platforms which Tolstoy calls “porches” (krylechki), the vestibule housing not having yet been invented. Hence the snow driving in through the end doors when conductors and stove-tenders passed from car to car. Night accommodations were draughty sections, semi-partitioned off from the passage, and it is evident from Tolstoy’s description that six passengers shared one section (instead of the four in sleeping compartments of a later day). The six ladies in the “sleeping” section reclined in fauteuils, three facing three, with just enough space between opposite fauteuils to permit the extension of footrests. As late as 1892, Karl Baedeker speaks of first-class cars on that particular line as having fauteuils which can be transformed into beds at night but he gives no details of the metamorphosis, and anyway, in 1872, the simulacrum of full-length repose did not include any bedding. To comprehend certain important aspects of Anna’s night journey, the reader should clearly visualize the following arrangement: Tolstoy indiscriminately calls the plush seats in the section either “little divans” or “fauteuils”; and both terms are right since, on each side of the section, the divan was divided into three armchairs. Anna sits facing north, in the right-hand (south-east) window corner, and she can see the left-hand windows, across the passage. On her left she has her maid Annushka (who this time travels with her in the same section, and not second-class, as she had on her journey to Moscow) and on the other side, further west, there is a stout lady, who being closest to the passage on the left-hand side of the section, experiences the greatest discomfort from heat and cold. Directly opposite Anna, an old invalid lady is making the best she can of the sleeping arrangements; there are two other ladies in the seats opposite to Anna, and with these she exchanges a few words (p. 118).

[p. 231] No. 97 Small traveling lantern

This was, in 1872, a very primitive gadget, with a candle inside, a reflector, and a metallic handle that could be fixed to the arm of a railway fauteuil at the reader’s elbow (p. 118).

[p.233] No. 98 The stove-heater

Here is a further set of impressions going back to the muffled-up guard who got crushed (“someone being torn part”) and going forward to Anna’s suicide (the blinding wall, the “sinking”). The wretched stove-heater seems to somnolent Anna to be gnawing at something in the wall, and this will be twisted into the groping and crushing motion of the disgusting dwarf in her later nightmare (p. 118).

[p. 233] No. 99 A stop

The station is Bologoe, midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the 1870s this was a twenty-minute stop in the small hours for some bleak refreshments (see also note 72) (p. 120).

1Here and elsewhere, Nabokov’s parenthetical page references are to his copy of Constance Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina.

Train car sketch for Anna Karenina by Vladimir Nabokov. Copyright © Vladimir Nabokov. Courtesy of the Vladimir Nabokov Archive at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Bologoe Station