This was a long story. With a lot of characters with long Russian names. Most would take me too long to pronounce while reading them, so mostly I would stick with reading just the character’s first name. Sometimes I’d try my hand at it and say the names out loud, to get a better feel of how it should sound, because there were good reasons why Tolstoy would sometimes refer to a character using different names, which is explained in the List of Principal Characters in the book.
So this was a long story. With long paragraphs of long details about farming in Russia in the 19th century, and long explanations of the workings of government during the Tsar’s reign. But Tolstoy cleverly entices you into the story with the family dramas before hitting you with his thought patterns and opinions on what was being debated in his day. He was putting forth his controversial ideas, ideals and idealisms camouflaged within this great novel, which is quite an accomplishment given the world he lived in at the time he wrote it (1870s). After having read this book, I see how it would make a great novel to study, as there are so many aspects to this book that can be delved into: 19th century politics, Russian mores, class distinctions, family relationships, love, Christianity, revenge, building a better society. But for the purposes of this review, I’ll stick to my impressions of the human drama of this novel, all the while looking forward to expanding my knowledge of Russian history and of Tolstoy’s life in particular.
So let me start this off by saying that I didn’t like Anna. I kept trying to warm up to her, to feel sorry for her, to give her my support. But I couldn’t. She almost had me when Tolstoy mentioned that she was writing during her exile from society, and I thought “A-ha! She might be a kindred spirit after all!” But that was short-lived. When she jumped in front of the train, I didn’t feel horror or sadness or pity.
I thought “Oh well, you made this choice, Anna. You left your son, YOUR CHILD, and your husband who was a good man but you couldn’t stand the sight of him and therefore hated him, so you left them both to have a fling. And it wasn’t long before you were into that fling that you began to hate the man you were flinging with, too. You’re a little flaky, Anna, and alot selfish. I tried to understand that you lived in another century, and that things back then were different for women, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that you deliberately chose to have a few passions with a Russian hottie over sharing a lifetime with your child. So maybe your husband wasn’t all you thought he should be, and knowing that your options were very limited, had I been in your shoes with the high gracefully-curved French heels, I would’ve said to myself: Suck it up, Buttercup.
In fact, that’s what I found myself saying to you throughout the story. You were in the grips of jealous turmoil at the thought that your lover was having an affair with another woman (which he wasn’t), yet you found it perfectly and socially acceptable to shamelessly flirt with the man who married your lover’s rejected fiancée. (Are you confused yet?) So when you launched into yet another drama-queen binge and thought you’d seek revenge on your disenchanted yet faithful lover by jumping in front of a train, I heard a voice say “Yessss! The drama queen is dead!” And that voice was mine.
After all was said and done, I couldn’t have cared less about Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky. And from what I gathered after her death, neither did any of the other characters, except maybe for Vronsky himself. However, Tolstoy didn’t really go into the impact her death had on everybody else, which was kind of surprising being as the novel is centered on the choices she makes. But it seems that the characters wanted to carry on with their lives, that this was just an event that most people wanted to forget. Maybe that was Tolstoy’s message.
In many ways, this book was alot of firsts for me: first book with so many pages, first real classical book, first book read by Tolstoy, first book read that was written in the 1800s. And I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing. Tolstoy has a wry sense of humour, and I was so pleased with myself when I would laugh at a passage and realize that Tolstoy meant it to be funny! He’s also pretty in tune with a woman’s deep feelings about motherhood, with women’s right to education, things that I have a hard time picturing him thinking about, for some reason. When I look at pictures of Tolstoy, I see a very stern and serious long-bearded man, and I can’t reconcile that man with the positive ideals of womanhood that he puts forth in Anna Karenina. I’m expecting an oppressive and patriarchal stance, especially considering the issues of divorce, faith, and woman’s place. But no. From the glimpses I’ve had of his life, besides being a national Russian treasure, he was a family man, deeply passionate, who’s own story rivals any novel that he’s written. Maybe because so much of himself finds its way into his writing.
Many scholars study this novel for years, much has been written about it and about its author, and so I feel a little humbled and small in writing a review of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is not your average author, and I was intimidated reading anything that he wrote. He’s a national hero in his country, and has lived a life that is unquestionably very diverse.
I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. I loved the storyline with Levin and Kitty, and to me that’s who the main characters were. Their courtship, the skating scene, their coming together, their heartaches, the pageantry of their wedding, their life together as a couple, as partners (because one gets the sense that Kitty and Levin are partners in love and life, that this is not a marriage of convenience), their fears and doubts, their becoming parents, all of this made reading about selfish Anna bearable. I found myself very drawn to Kitty and Levin, to Anna’s forgotten husband, Alexei, to Sergei and Varenka and their marriage-proposal scene (after reading that scene, I literally slammed the book down – which made alot of noise because it weighs 10 pounds, I’m sure – and I said out loud: “Arrgghhh!!”).
Some opinions and ideals in the book sometimes went over my head, due to my narrow understanding of Russian politics, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything because of it. I figure I’ll leave those bits to scholars and those more erudite than myself to debate.
Tolstoy is not afraid to delve into a character’s thoughts and inner being, and tells us the entire thought process that he or she goes through. Horse racing actually becomes interesting when you walk with Count Vronsky during the day of the race. You feel for Alexei as he paces his room, pondering Anna’s betrayal, and how he must deal with it. You enter Anna’s madness as she overthinks her lover’s perceived infidelities and her own insecurities. Levin’s musings on farming life and on being a husband and father, and his big thoughts on the meaning of Life are entered into by Tolstoy with no restraints. Kitty’s coming of age, Anna’s justifications of her adultery, all this is given much space and time to unfold. You feel like there is no hurry, all will be revealed in good time. For me, this is Tolstoy’s mark with this book: it’s as if he wrote it in a deliberate way, wanting to project his many opinions and thoughts that he felt were important through a variety of likeable characters, who were not doing anything extraordinary, just living their daily lives, doing daily mundane things. But as the opening line suggests, the extraordinary is sometimes found in the mundane:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I’m certain that there are many reviews of Anna Karenina out there that are much more focused on the societal aspects and on its literary merits, and can give a much broader and deeper perspective than I can. It would be an interesting book to study and pick apart, for certain. Just the historical context alone is fodder enough to last a long time. Did I say it was a long book?
I look forward to seeing the screen adaptations (one from 1935 starring Greta Garbo, and one from 1997 with Sophie Marceau), if only to embellish my imagination a little. Although I find Tolstoy’s writing very descriptive in many ways, I couldn’t always imagine what the scenery looked like, or what people were wearing. I would sometimes sneak over to watch trailers of the films, or find pictures of that period, just to get a better sense of the times. Gotta love the Internet!
It was curious to see that newspapers back then were thought of much in the same way that newspapers today are viewed: run by elite opinionated self-servers.
Although I’m not giving Anna Karenina The Golden Beech Tree Award, it’s a book worth reading (and maybe re-reading if ever I’ve got another 3 weeks where I’m not busy). It’s one of those books that opens you up to another time that had many significant events that ended up shaping the world we live in now.
Anna Karenina by Count Leo Tolstoy
2000 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky published by the Penguin Group 838 pages