Vast gray clouds roll across the sky, shielding New Haven from the morning sun. In the center of Yale’s Cross Campus a tall metal chair waits, six folding chairs arrayed in front of it. A student emerges from Calhoun College, his hair spiked, a cigarette dangling from his lips. A ponytailed runner jogs by, and dozens of under-caffeinated students plod to class. The day will bring class discussions, email breakups, and drunken dances—imperceptible struggles and unrecognized victories.
Just past nine a.m., a young man holding a thick paperback approaches the chair and sits. The reader opens the book and regards his audience of one. He begins: “Anna Karenina. By Leo Tolstoy. Chapter One: All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way. All was confusion…”
The reader is a junior named Eric Sirakian, and he is the first participant in a marathon reading of Anna Karenina that will span the next thirty-six hours. The reading project is co-sponsored by the Humanities department and the Dramat’s production of Anna in the Tropics, a play in which Cuban immigrants in a cigar factory listen to the story of Anna Karenina in 1929. The work earned a Pulitzer for its author, former Yale School of Drama professor Nilo Cruz, in 2003. Sirakian directed the play at Yale in early October, but wanted the production to extend beyond the theater.
“The play and the novel are connected,” he said. “It’s a play that really celebrates storytelling and the power of stories to take us away from the manic world and to understand ourselves more closely.”
As he reads, Sirakian wears a plain gray shirt and black pants, a far cry from the fine riding gear of Anna’s lovers. But he reads the opening passages smoothly, with muted theatrics, stumbling only occasionally over the long Russian family names and patronymics.
In time, several other students take seats opposite the reader’s chair, and accidental spectators stand nearby, drawn by the strangeness of it all. They key in to the epic story of love, family, society, and betrayal in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg. Kerry Philben, the next scheduled reader, arrives with her dog, a yellow lab, and waits for her turn to bring Tolstoy’s Tsarist Russia to life. Soon, she takes over for Sirakian, picking up where he left off with an impressive Russian accent. Another undergrad named Javier Cienfuegos, outfitted in a bow tie and blazer, taps his foot beneath his chair as he anticipates his turn. When he takes the stand, he starts describing Oblonsky’s goal to take all the pleasure he can out of life; meanwhile, some tourists and their microphone-clad leader come by and threaten to overwhelm Tolstoy with their oblivious chatter.
People mostly pass by in a rush, too busy to listen as Anna falls for the dashing Count Vronski, imperils her marriage to Count Karenin, and abandons her young son for the sake of a doomed love affair. Was Yale shunning Anna as surely as St. Petersburg society had?
Yale’s campus is a poignant place for Anna to be brought to life; mere blocks from the reading, Tolstoy’s son Ilya lies buried in the Grove Street Cemetery under a black slate headstone that depicts the crucifix of the Russian Orthodox Church. The younger Tolstoy moved to Connecticut just before the Russian revolution. He established an artists’ colony a few miles from campus and spent the rest of his life there. Although many of the world’s most eminent writers, including Nabokov and Dostoyevsky, have called Anna Karenina the greatest novel ever written, Ilya maintained that his father hated the work and wished it had been burned.
For thirty-six hours, a devoted group of readers immerse themselves in its language and setting, and in the passion of its protagonists. Virgil Blanc, a junior who has never read the book, spends more hours than any of the other volunteer readers narrating Anna’s tribulations. Wrapped in a fleece blanket to ward off the cold, Blanc reads for five straight hours, from two to seven a.m. “I wanted to see the transformation of reading aloud after five hours of doing it,” said Blanc, who isn’t a stranger to testing his endurance, but usually does so with marathon runs and bike rides. “I couldn’t see what happened to the listeners, but I could see what happened to me.”
For much of the night, Blanc is alone. He grows closer to the work. As the characters suffer, so does he. As they weep, his tears flow, too. Close to four a.m., a student returning from a night of revelry stumbles across the scene and listens for a few moments. “Right on, man,” he says, nodding his head.
The sun rises. Another night falls. The sky is dark and clear. With no classes beckoning, students amble across campus. It is Yale’s family weekend, and many have parents in tow. Anna’s life shatters as she moves from Russia to Italy and back, as she morphs from bored wife to reckless lover to social outcast.
What matters is not how many people listen. Tolstoy’s words, read aloud, bring Anna’s anguish, foolishness, and mistakes to the center of campus. Even as our heroine, falling from grace, hurls herself under the wheels of a train, she lives.