As I read, in my mind the streets of 19th-century St Petersburg are populated by me: overweight, balding comedians are everywhere. Here I am being snubbed at the Opera by Society. There I am forgiving my wife on what I think is her deathbed after she has given birth to another Alexei's child. Here I am again being a dilettante painter in Italy.
When a great piece of classical music or a seminal pop song is used in some moronic TV commercial, it is impossible to hear it thereafter without thinking of the stupid advert and the music is forever ruined. Similarly, I hope that, from now on, you will not be able to read Anna Karenina, this towering piece of fiction, without seeing my silly, fat face beaming at you from the top of a frock coat.
As I said before, although I'm a voracious reader, it's unusual for me to tackle anything written before about 1900. I have terrible trouble with the style of pre-20th-century fiction, simply because for me, as a child of the TV age, there are simply too many bloody words. Did these guys get paid by the syllable or what? As the world speeded up in this century, authors got to the point quicker. In a modern novel, a character might just do up a button on their coat. In a Victorian novel, there would be a stream of adjectives connected with the doing up of the aforementioned buttons, a brief history of the button itself and a long, four-page digression on the nature of button-making in the "modern" machine age compared with a more lyrical button past, when the happy, artisan button-maker, seated cross-legged on a table, hand-carved one exquisite button a day from a single oak tree.
However, despite the verbosity, I'm certainly glad I'm reading Anna Karenina. But I wouldn't have embarked on it if I hadn't done a quiz in Esquire magazine. I've thrown the magazine out now, but it went something like: "How much of a man are you? Complete our 100-question quiz and find out." Then there were various questions in a light-hearted vein - "Ever been to an away game?" - designed to elicit your degree of real masculinity. I confidently started answering the questions because, although as Kenneth Tynan said, all great comedians have a hint of androgyny, I consider myself pretty much a man of the finest kind.
I cheerfully ticked away, I've fired a rifle (two points), I've had a one-night stand and regretted it (one point), I've had a one-night stand and not regretted it (two points), I've been to Australia (one point).
Happily at the end, humming to myself, I totted up my score and - disaster! Only 159 points, just over half the possible score. Hardly a man at all, according to the compilers of the quiz. My self-image was rocked to the core.
Some people might just write off this summertime questionnaire as a piece of fun - well, let's face it, any sane person would just write it off as a piece of fun - but not me boy, oh no. After all, if I'm only half a man, what's the other half? Pork luncheon meat? Chip board? Am I like the Merseyside pop group Half Man Half Biscuit?
I wasn't going to leave it there. Like somebody resitting their GCSEs, I've resolved to take the test again after I've swotted up. I'd done particularly badly on the literature section - which is why I'm reading Anna Karenina (one point) and I'm planning to get into a fight (two points) and get a black eye (two points) any day now. Actually, an easier way out has just occurred to me. I've done something similar before when I added myself in biro to a friend's copy of Premier magazine's list of Hollywood's Hottest Hundred Personalities (I put myself in at 69 - I'm fairly realistic). Yeah, what I could do is buy another copy of last month's Esquire and type in a load of masculinity-proving questions that only I could get right. "Do you have a cat called Tiger?" (six points). "Can you pull funny faces?" (five points). "Do you have a load of different-coloured pencils?" (10 points). Yes, that's a much better solution, thank God. Now I can throw this bloody Tolstoy book away.Reuse content