Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The novel Anna Karenina is composed of parallel narratives: the story of Anna Arkadyevna Karenin’s dive from grace (a fall implies an accident), and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin’s search for meaning and purpose in a country that is swiftly changing around him. Both stories are played out in the highest social circles of 19th century Russia, among people who admire and condemn Anna’s passionate decision-making by turns and continually condemn Levin for failing to observe a host of social “niceties” borrowed from the French. Rounding out the tale are all the characters who travel between the Levin and Anna’s spheres: Anna’s lover Vronsky and the young girl he was toying with before he spotted Anna (Kitty Scherbatsky), Anna’s philandering brother Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and his long-suffering wife Dolly (sister of Kitty), and Anna’s cuckolded husband Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin.
Add to this milieu a host of other Russians with a pile of names each, which change depending on who is addressing them (Stepan, for example, might be referred to as Stepan, Stiva, Oblonsky, or Stepan Arkadyich), and there is a lot going on.
William Makepeace Thackeray said of his novel Vanity Fair that he had written “a novel without a hero”. If Thackeray reveled in the wickedness and self-centered nature of the characters in his epic, Tolstoy has sympathy for each and every one of his. Anna Karenina is the kind of book that teaches one a lot about oneself, as each character is presented from his (or her) own point of view and the reader is left to choose sides. Oblonsky is as charismatic and socially adept as he is irresponsible, Alexei Karenin’s dutiful and magnanimous nature is undercut by his emotional reticence. Tolstoy did a phenomenal job of presenting an extremely complex situation equally from all sides.
1. This novel is a master class in pacing. Tolstoy brings the reader to the absolute edge of blibbering despair with the impossibility of Anna’s situation, only to take up Levin’s story in the next section which is on a happier tack. The two narratives balance each other this way through the whole novel: if Anna’s up, Levin’s down and vice versa. Only once do they come together in tone if not time and space, the “long dark night of the soul” that decides the fate of each character.
2. The analogies and metaphors. It’s a classic for a reason. An example, the feelings of Anna’s husband after reaching a decision about her situation (over which he had quite literally worried himself sick):
“He felt like a man who has had a long-aching tooth pulled out. After the terrible pain and the sensation of something huge, bigger than his head, being drawn from his jaw, the patient, still not believing in his good fortune, suddenly feels that what had poisoned his life and absorbed all his attention for so long exists no more, and that he can again live, think and be interested in something other than his tooth.”
3. The complexity. This is not a novel in which the suffering wife leaves the loutish brute of a husband for her sexy new lover, riding off into the sunset on a white horse. That may be how Anna sees it for a time, but she is the only one, and the novel shows the far-reaching effects of each of her choices. Choices that have consequences not only for her, but for her son, her husband, Vronsky, her brother, her in-laws, her friends. No one associated with her escapes her affair unscathed. Equally as complex is Levin’s search for meaning and companionship, though it is a source of one of the novel’s less successful attributes.
Less Awesome Stuff
1. Things lost in translation. This is a book translated not only from a language with an alphabet fundamentally different from my native tongue, but from a culture two hundred years past. Once I got the hang of Russian naming conventions, there were still many moments in the novel at which I felt I was not quite getting the sense of something due to cultural differences. Something meaningful was happening but I didn’t have the knowledge to comprehend it.
2. Footnotes at the end. It’s a matter of taste, but I like my footnotes on the page with the relevant text, so I can inform my understanding and adjust my impressions as I read. With them at the end I end up just reading all of them once I finish the novel, rather than flipping back and forth. The translation itself was very good, great pains were taken to maintain the sense of things.
3. The axes. Levin’s story is often used to elaborate the author’s feelings on certain issues. There are lengthy passages on farming, feudalism versus socialism versus communism, Russian election practices, faith and spirituality, etc. The ax-grinding sessions came very close to swamping the narrative, like the whaling chapter in Moby Dick or the socialist manifesto that commandeered the last third of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
It’s a very good novel, and well-deserving of it’s recognition as a classic, but it’s probably not for everyone. There is a lot of heavy thinking to do, and I re-read pages many times when I felt I hadn’t absorbed the text. History buffs, introverts, and those with a sociological bent will love it as-is. If you just want the drama, skip Levin’s story and read only the parts concerning Anna and Vronsky.