Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Categories: Classic, Translated Fiction
First Publication Date: 1877
Synopsis: Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenina provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature – with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author’s own views and convictions.
Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, ‘He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.
It’s hard for me to review this book for a few reasons, mainly because I feel so removed from the time and context in which this book is set that my contemporary lenses (and my lack of educational background in Russian literature) will do this book an injustice with this review. Still, I have read this for a few weeks and it left such a strong impression on me that I couldn’t but talk about it in my blog.
Anna Karenina is told in eight parts, each one containing several short chapters, making it surprisingly accessible for what I expected to be a dry, dense Russian classic. Not at all – all the characters are such interesting and flawed people, there is so much drama, a lot of this novel feels very gossip-y and it’s easy to take breaks and come back to it later. If you only have five minutes to read, you can still go through an entire chapter!
Leo Tolstoy’s writing style is truly incredible. It feels a little bit distanced, in the sense that you are watching the characters and you are allowed a view into their thoughts and feelings but still kept at a distance from them, more a spectator kind of reader, which I think suited this novel very well – you never get so close to one character that you are judging the others unjustly – for example, when seeing Anna Karenina through the eyes of her husband and him through her eyes, I felt pity for both of them and their situation, even when I wholeheartedly disagreed with Anna and her actions, and in fact disliked her for a big part of the book. Still, I was enchanted and anxiously waiting to read the chapters through her point of view again.
My main complaints about this novel (and the reason why it’s not a 5-star read for me) are the interminable chapters about agriculture, shooting and religion, all of them on Levin’s chapters, who is a Leo Tolstoy self-insert and whose main purpose in the story was to provide Tolstoy’s views, questionings and changes of heart in several matters political, religious and so on. He talks a lot about Society, fantasizes about a simple peasant life, idolizes marriage and love, struggles to interact with other characters in a smooth way, always being a bit too anti-social and lacking the ability to do small talk and engage others in Society. He’s a bit odd, but in a “lovable” kind of way, and in my opinion he gets way too many chapters. I did frown a bit at Tolstoy’s portrayal of some of the women characters (especially Kitty, Levin’s love interest) who seemed to me a bit too perfect, but generally I was pleased that he allowed almost all of them to be as complex as the men (although I did wish they had more chapters!).
I was completely taken by surprise by how much this novel charmed me. I loved being thrown into this complex story which is not only about Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky’s affair but also touches on so many interesting topics: Russian politics (there is so much change in this time of history in Russia, a few years after the reform in 1861 going all the way to the conflicts with Turkey in 1877 and political views are changing, technology is advancing etc – I thought this was incredibly engrossing to read about), double standards on women’s and men’s infidelities, hypocrisy, religion, family, forgiveness and so on.
My favorite aspect of this novel is its ability to make the reader care, understand and truly sympathize with characters that one otherwise would despise. I adored the Anna Karenina chapters, even though I could not stand her as a person. I detested Oblonsky but also loved reading his chapters. Only Levin bored me a bit, and that’s mostly because of all on-the-nose preaching I mentioned before. With less rumination on these topics, the novel would easily have been 100 pages shorter.
I am deeply impressed by Tolstoy’s ability to bring the characters to life, to connect them with one another, to weave such a complex story and touch so deeply into their feelings and into their humanness. I am very happy to have read it and it is certainly one of the best classics I’ve ever read!