Dagný's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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Jun 16, 2010

it was amazing
Read from June 16 to August 25, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Im just over 50% in (Kindle for you). I'm enjoying everything to do with Levin (and Kitty), but when it comes to Anna I must confess that I have a hard time. Everything is so exaggerated about her. Fortunately, right now she's on a break from the misery (I hope) with Wronsky (he of the strong teeth) in Italy. While I read I experience perplexed fascination, such as about the novel's attitude to children, which must be expressing the mores of Tolstoy (on the one hand such exquisite and vivid descriptions of kids, on the the other total non importance ascribed to them, such as Anna's towards the baby girl just born). Then too, there are these detailed and moving descriptions of locales, people, utterances, as exemplified in the wedding of Levin and Kitty, and yet I am still wondering about basic things like do Anna and Alexi (her brother) have parents or how did they grow up, etc.
On I read, to the one thing I really know, the end.

OK, I have to eat my words, partly, because now there was a session about Anna's devotion to the son she left behind, but on the other hand I finally confirmed that the little girl is with her; no mention of what Wronski, thinks, feels, about his little baby girl.. Anna herself is shown thinking that her son is more important because he has a history and is a real person already. Poor little girl.

Interesting how everything with Anna is mercurial, of her inscrutability, gleaming eyes etc. whereas Kitty is understandable, and, while not described in the exalted Anna way, nonetheless quite lovely a character.

Funny, psychologically nuanced writing on the newlyweds, Levin and Kitty. Amazing sensitivity and brutal realism when it comes to Levin's brother's death. I have no clue as to what people have speculated over the almost century and half since the book came out, but to me it seems that Levin and Kitty might be close to the real life of Tolstoy and his wife?

More random thoughts: love the way Tolstoy finishes his chapters, crisply and elegantly.

I'm getting as moody as the characters in my attitude to them. Wonder if Tolstoy is playing tricks on me, the reader. Does he want the reader to be as vexed and uncomprehending as society towards Anna? Here is a funny problem, one gets into the fiction as were it realty and starts questioning; e.g. "why on earth does Anna not go ahead with divorce?" Sometimes it is as if Tolstoy responded to me ( and his contemporary reader) because as soon as one questions something, the answer turns up. Basically I think he needed some pretext for her to work herself up about. He's showing his main character's responses to life's "problems" whatever they happen to be.
( My favorite example of us readers getting into fiction as realty was my friend who exclaimed in exasperation about the family in Poisonwood Bible". Did they have to go to Africa!")
Then again we expect a lot of our fiction, a certain unassailability. Anna puzzles me in a way the others do not. Darya, aka Dolly, Kitty's sister, is extremely sympathetic and yet faces her own set of challenges in her unfaithful husband who squanders her assets. Anna forces me to seek parallels in my life of people I can't understand, who still have something exceptional going for them, beauty, charm, something that draws others into their orbit, but are egocentric and difficult, even pathologically so. Perhaps people have a range of these human qualities, perhaps Tolstoy did (although I identify him with Levin), perhaps I do. Do I need to bear with Anna or is the reader being set up to understand where we're going?

August 5th 2010

Finished the night before I left for Iceland, a month ago. Thought I'd read in the plane and was a little bereft ( Kindle still had 5% left but it was footnotes) Now I'm jet-lagged and have somehow forgotten my insights. Here's what I'm murkily thinking: did Tolstoy succeed in giving us Anna. Yes, if what he wanted was a contrast to Levin, and by that contrast to show two ways of living. She tackles life in a wrong way, is egocentric, vain, indulgent and wrathful (or perhaps she's inflicted with bipolar disorder and can't help herself?) I never quite got under her skin. And in contrast there is Levin, who, presented with his set of issues (and he also can see suicide as a way out, no, as a possible obligation!) handles them successfully like a real human being at the top of his/her efforts should. Such differences, such clear choice! Perhaps there is, could be, should be, a whole set of male/female author attitude problem read into the whole thing, but I might be an odd person in that from my reading time from childhood on I have seen it almost irrelevant if a character or author is male or female (not that there are not infinite and interesting distinctions.) But as regards my deepest level of thinking and feeling with a character it is irrelevant, they are either a authentic human being as presented -or not done well enough. So in this book, I'm with Levin, i.e. Tolstoy probably, and he convinces me, brilliantly.
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Comments (showing 1-8)

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Judith I am amazed that Tolstoy continues to touch us, even at such a distance---years, gender, cultures, religion, all divide us. But his work has that incredible lasting appeal. I am glad you are enjoying it.

Dagný You're sweet to "like" my review, I would be marking yours the same way if I were a little more thoughtful.
And yes is it not amazing how current he feels. I think it is because he is so perceptive and able a writer; what he puts forth remains true, probably forever. He writes of the human condition. I just read Kitty's sister's (Darya?) thoughts when she goes on her wagon ride to visit Anna, and has time to reflect on her life. Wow, is that a man who writes that! (And again I have to eat my words on Tolstoy and children) The understanding of her private pain which are yet of all mothers of all time. And some passages on people and relatives are also so funny, the little power struggles, the petty jealousies, the shifting moods.

message 6: by Teri (new)

Teri I haven't read this in decades, but I loved it. I loved War and Peace more, but the translation can make a huge difference when you're reading a Russian novel. Which translation did you read? (Avoid Constance Garnett as a translator for any Russian novel!)

Dagný Really? You loved War and Peace more? Do I have to go for it?

I am reading the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. they are, I've read, a husband and wife team. She translates the raw Russian and he, a poet, polishes and corrects for English, finally they go over everything again together. I like the language (although I will never know the original) it feels perfect somehow, very clear and precise.

What's with Constance Garnett? Interesting, the other day I looked at an original (Icelandic) Laxness and the English translation. I was startled at the liberties the translator had taken.

message 4: by Teri (new)

Teri Constance Garnett was this little old lady in Londonin the 19th century; evidently, she was the only person in the country who knew Russian so her translations are still everywhere. (no need to pay her for the royalties, I guess) She turned every Russian's style into uptight Queen's English, even Dostoyevsky's -- and he's known for having an energetic style, sort of rough and unpolished deliberately. (I don't know Russian, so this is just what I've read or been told.) So Garnett takes major liberties in changing the flavor of the work.

If you read W&P, get an edition that has family trees and maps. Those helped me a lot. And once I understood how the whole Russian naming thing worked, that helped me too. Because it's during the Napoleonic Wars, knowing a little history won't hurt. The other thing that threw me off sometimes was the changing military ranks, so I had to keep a few elements clear in my mind. But I read a bunch of Russian novels, one after the other, one summer when all my friends were working. I sat by the pool and read pretty much all day every day :-) It was HEAVEN!!

Dagný Love that image of you and your Russian novels by the pool! (Reminds me of a summer I read Middlemarch by the pool)

I appreciate the advise and will follow it when time comes. In AK the changing use of names for the same person has occasionally thrown me. Also, I don't understand Russian aristocracy; I started the book thinking a princess was basically next in line to the throne. Not so.

Funny about Garnett and interesting about Dostoyevsky's style! The other day I saw in NYT someone decrying a "bad" translation of a Swedish work, shaming the translator. They gave the English sentence. But when I looked at it I realized that it would have been written word for word like that in Swedish, slightly inelegant and almost repetitive, but just so. I felt bad for the translator; was she to have rewritten the text!

message 2: by Teri (last edited Jun 23, 2010 08:32PM) (new)

Teri Translators are always treading that fine line between making the text sound "right" in the new language while being "true" to the original language. That's why I buy translated poetry books with the originals on the opposite page -- to try to keep the sound as it should be while I get what I know is only the gist of the meaning. All this just goes to show how important it is to know more than one language!

Did you ever get information about the Russian aristocracy? I can find out more if you want. I have some former students who are Russian and now studying Russian lit in college. (So handy to have taught so many wonderful people!)

message 1: by Dagný (last edited Jun 23, 2010 09:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dagný Yes I'd like to find some brief comprehensive source on the Russian aristocracy at Tolstoy's time. All I found on line are sites where our contemporaries are trying to claim/trace their aristocratic lineage, with a century gap. So, if you could tap some former student for such a source I'd grateful.

Amazing to think how sophisticated that class of people was that Tolstoy belonged to and described. The lifestyle was very fashionable and "continentally" European (they even spoke French, German, some English!) How stunned they would have been to be given a glimpse into the way all that changed within a few decades.

Yes you are right on the translators. BTW I saw recently that a translator from Dutch, David Colmer, was co-awarded the world biggest literary cash prize (IMPAC total 100,000 euros) for his translation of "The Twin", by Gerbrand Bakker (to whom the main share of the prize went). Purportedly the author was first impressed with himself when he read the translation and felt it was a real book. Translation worked there!

A note on the AK translation: what I take to be Tolstoy's subtle humor comes very well through; wonder how other translations manage, that is one of the hardest hurdles.

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