Are There Life Lessons In Fiction?

by Anitra Pavlico

The Anna Karenina Fix, by Viv Groskop, is subtitled “Life Lessons from Russian Literature.” It is an entertaining book, part memoir, part cultural criticism. Each chapter takes on a different work from Russian literature–mostly novels, although it also features Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. Interwoven with plot synopses are biographical details about the authors, many of which are arguably tangential to their work, such as Tolstoy’s love for eggs prepared in a multitude of different ways. Groskop is keen to humanize these writers, so this is part of the process. Layered on top of the works themselves and trivia about the people who wrote them are autobiographical snippets from Groskop, mainly drawn from time she spent in Russia during her university years. Finally, true to the book’s subtitle, there are the “lessons” that she has purportedly learned, or perhaps that we could all learn, from these works.

Groskop’s research was impressive. For each literary work featured in one of her chapters she also incorporated background material to flesh out the narrative–for example, Pavel Basinsky’s Tolstoy biography Flight from Paradise or Pasternak’s mistress’s account of their time together. Alex Beam’s The Feud, describing a protracted and heated spat between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson about translations of Pushkin, is now on my reading list. There weren’t more than one or two outside sources per chapter, so the book was not cluttered with references.

There is something funny about the phrase “life lessons.” You don’t know if someone is being ironic or not. Even after having read the book, I don’t quite know if Groskop has meant it in earnest.

It doesn’t help that her bio notes that she is a journalist, author, cultural critic, and comedian. Is she joking when she insinuates that Tolstoy meant to teach me a life lesson when he wrote War and Peace? When she has “How to Overcome Inner Conflict” as a title for a chapter about Crime and Punishment? At the same time it does seem plausible that “How to Live with the Feeling That the Grass is Always Greener” is a theme in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a play in which the characters are fixated on how everything is better in Moscow. I did not know Groskop’s work before reading this book, but she is well-known in the U.K., as she appears regularly on TV and radio and is a presenter on BBC1’s This Week. Her book reviews have appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, and the Telegraph. She is not new to writing about lofty titles for a mass audience. Tantalizing readers with promises of life lessons, whether seriously or in jest, seems to be a not-unexpected feature of this landscape.

So are there life lessons in fiction? Here is Groskop on Anna Karenina: “The lesson in the novel is that we must try to know who we really are in order to live an authentic life. Anna realizes that her life with Vronsky is authentic but unachievable, and feels she has no option but to kill herself.” But a few pages later she writes that Anna Karenina is a complicated novel that “does not deliver a clear, unambiguous message about how to live.” I read that as saying that there actually are no life lessons in Anna Karenina. That’s a good thing–I feel that novels providing “lessons” are necessarily lesser novels than ones that are agnostic as to messages, lessons, and answers.

It is hard enough to extract a life lesson from one’s own life. Say that something happened years ago that you wish to avoid happening again. It is one thing if it were an accident such as slipping off a wet log. You would clearly wish to avoid wet logs in the future. But what if you had a bad experience with an unsavory person? Would the lesson be to avoid all people? How are you to know what it was about this person that would be a lesson to your future self? Say the person was a narcissist. What are the telltale signs, based on one narcissist from the past, that a different person now is also a narcissist? Making mistakes is easy, but drawing on them to avoid them in the future is difficult. And it is difficult even when the things in the past actually happened, and they actually happened to you. Fiction, on the other hand, did not actually happen to anyone. It offers no instructions to those in the living world on how to live. That does not make it meaningless–far from it. When facing situations in our lives we can call to mind fictional characters and analogous situations they faced. We can contemplate whether we should do what they did, or something different. But there are no answers emanating from fiction. The results that befall a character are invented. If they are results that also happen in real life, then those are the results we can learn from, up to a point. There are still so many variables in reality that make it impossible to say that if someone did X and Y happened, then if I do X, Y will happen.

It is not that fiction has no purpose. David Foster Wallace said that fiction “is about what it is to be a human being.” You can find in fiction anything that you can find in life. Among other reasons, I read fiction to escape. I read before I turn out the light at night, but I find it very hard to have a nonfiction book be the last thing I read for the day. Fiction offers a release from the quotidian. I especially like reading books written in or even only based in a different era, or set in a different milieu from the one I am in (suburban home/urban workplace). When I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and of life as a shepherd in 19th century England (apparently, sheep sometimes simply run off a cliff and die, or break into a neighboring field where they eat clover, and die of indigestion). Some fiction is difficult to read because it hits too close or rings too true. I recently read The Overstory by Richard Powers and did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would: It was simply too depressing to spend 500 pages having to think of the deforestation that is actually taking place around the world. So on one hand, it was not enough of an escape. On the other hand, though, the characters did not strike me as believable. So maybe it was not realistic enough. One thing I will borrow from it, though, is Powers’ description of a stroke victim’s reliance on his wife’s reading fiction aloud to him: “He can’t remember why fiction used to make him so impatient. Nothing else has more power now to get him through the hours before lunch. . . . The heroes, villains, and walk-ons his wife gives him this morning are better than truth. Though I am fake, they say, and nothing I do makes the least difference, still, I cross all distances to sit next to you in your mechanical bed, keep you company, and change your mind.”

It has occurred to me, as Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite plays on the radio, that I am not looking for life lessons in this Debussy piece. Why should fiction be different? It is art, but with words instead of notes. I suppose we are fooled by the medium–all of our teachers have used words–and look for a message. But fiction is more like a Ouija board than a blackboard.

I would still recommend Groskop’s book. It is an enjoyable read and is full of fun details about the circumstances surrounding the creation of these great works. I can’t say I’m disappointed in a book that has entertained me and has in turn put several other books on my wish list. But at the same time, it hasn’t persuaded me that Crime and Punishment was a morality tale.