One of the problems with classic literature is that we may think we know what the book is about before we even read it. I can think of many classic books that I’ve never read but could tell you their basic plot.
This was the problem I had with Anna Karenina because my ‘knowledge’ of it was basically: Woman commits adultery and ends up throwing herself under a train. It was written by a Russian, so of course, it would have a mass of various names, patronyms, and diminutives to confuse the reader. I’d also never read anything by Tolstoy before so had no idea he was such a brilliant writer and that I could trust to his expert skill.
But, oh my! What a book this turned out to be. And what a shame to believe you know the crux of the story and to put off reading it because of this. I’m just very thankful I finally decided to read it.
I’m not going to attempt a ‘review’ but will share some thoughts, impressions, and quotations, and hopefully, if you’ve put off reading A.K. for whatever reason, you might just be persuaded to give it a go.
Tolstoy jumps into his narrative with the observation above.
Family, community, and society are central to the story as are country life and city life. Tolstoy was a master when it came to characterisation and getting into people’s heads. There are seven main characters in Anna Karenina and he succeeds in allowing the reader a certain intimacy and empathy with each of them.
Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky have three daughters. One is happily married, another unhappily, and the youngest has just refused Levin’s offer of marriage and has had her head turned by the dashing Vronsky. The Prince thought highly of Levin but his wife disliked him in ‘his sharp judgements, his awkwardness in society (caused, as she supposed, by his pride), and his, in her opinion, wild sort of life in the country.’
She thought that Vronsky was far superior but the Prince was furious with his wife for her attempts at matchmaking:
‘It’s loathsome, loathsome to look at, and you’ve succeeded, you’ve turned the silly girl’s head. Levin’s a thousand times the better man. And this little fop from Petersburg – they’re made by machine, they’re all the same sort, and all trash…I see a man who has serious intentions, that’s Levin; and I see a popinjay like this whippersnapper, who is only amusing himself.’
Vronsky had never know family life, barely remembered his father, and had no respect for his mother:
‘In his soul he did not respect her and, without being aware of it, he did not love her, though…he could not imagine to himself any other relation to his mother than one obedient and deferential in the highest degree, and the more outwardly obedient and deferential he was, the less he respected and loved her in his soul.’
‘Vronsky…despite the full realisation of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy. He soon felt that the realisation of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happpiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realisation of desires.’
Levin was an interesting person, full of self-doubt, idealistic ideas, and awkwardness. Tolstoy opens the window into his mind and his inner struggles and it was quite comical at times.
‘I need physical movement, otherwise my character definitely deteriorates.’
In Part Seven, Chapter XIV, Levin’s wife is having her first baby and Levin was convinced she was dying. He doesn’t understand how the doctor can sit in another room smoking and chatting…
‘Suddenly there was a scream unlike anything he had ever heard. The scream was so terrible that Levin did not even jump up, but, holding his breath, gave the doctor a frightened, questioning look. The doctor cocked his head to one side, listened, and smiled approvingly.’
When he went into the room his wife seized his hands and said, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave!’ and then pushed him away.
‘No it’s terrible! I’ll die, I’ll die! Go, go!’ she cried, and again came that scream that was unlike anything in the world.’
‘Doctor! What is it? What is it? My God! he said, seizing the doctor by the arm as he came in.
‘It’s nearly over,’ said the doctor. And the doctor’s face was so serious as he said it that Levin understood this ‘nearly over’ to mean she was dying.
Around the time I was reading this part of the book, our eldest son and his wife had their first baby. My daughter-in-law had a long labour and then delivered a whopping 11 pound boy. When our son rang us he said he had no idea that childbirth was going to be like what they experienced.
‘It was brutal!’ were his words. I immediately thought of Levin.
Levin had rejected his childhood beliefs and tried to reason his way through life. He undergoes some dramatic changes, struggling with his idealistic ideas that fall flat in real life.
…while his wife was giving birth an extraordinary thing had happened to him. He, the unbeliever, had begun to pray, and in the moment of praying he had believed.
Dolly, married to Anna Karenina’s philandering brother, Stepan, felt that she had lost herself in the process of being a mother. Alone in a carriage on her way to visit Anna she has time to reflect on her fifteen years of marriage,
‘pregnancy, nausea, dullness of mind, indifference to everything,,and, above all, ugliness…Labour, suffering, that last moment…then nursing, the sleepless nights, the terrible pains…’
Released from her everyday cares, she falls into a reverie where she questions the point of it all and considers that she should have left her husband and found happiness somewhere else.
As she spends time with Anna and her crowd, she has a feeling of unhappiness and that she is poorly playing a part in the theatre with actors better than her.
She decides to go home earlier than intended:
Those painful cares of motherhood that she had hated so on her way there, now, after a day spent without them, presented themselves to her in a different light and drew her to them.
Tolstoy describes Anna Karenina as she follows a course that rapidly changes everything in her life and her exclusion from the society she desperately needed to belong to.
Anna said whatever came to her tongue, and was surprised, listening to herself, at her ability to lie. How simple, how natural her words were…She felt herself clothed in an impenetrable armour of lies. She felt that some invisible force was helping her and supporting her.
Towards the latter part of the book the stream of consciousness narrative that Tolstoy uses with regards to Anna is superb and reminded me of Dostoevsky’s character, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment – psychotic and paranoid.
Death is a theme throughout and interestingly, only one chapter has an actual title and that is Ch XX – ‘Death.’
I could fill this blog with excerpts from this outstanding novel but so much needs to be read in context. It is multilayered, thought-worthy and deeply spiritual. I don’t know how Tolstoy managed to intersperse so much humour amid the pathos and tragedy, but he did. And to my surprise, I was able to keep up with the Russian names quite well, referring to the ‘List of Principal Characters’ at the front to the book – Crime & Punishment confused me no end with that side of things.
An impressive book in all respects!
Book Depository has 53% off the lovely Penguin HB pictured above at the time of writing. This edition was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and it flowed beautifully.
The free Kindle version here is translated by Constance Garnett, which I haven’t read so can’t comment on, but she is highly regarded as a translator.
Updated to add some articles on translations of Anna Karenina: