Nigie's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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Jan 03, 2011

it was amazing
Read from January 03 to 23, 2011

Where do you start on a book that's been called the greatest novel ever written? In awe of Dickens and revered himself by the formidable Dostoevski (both his contemporaries), Tolstoy has a calm, profoundly honest voice in the lower register, a bit like God's, expressing the visions he sees through a pair of clear, shrewd and idealistic eyes tinged with an engaging innocence. Yet as a farming landowner, the author's moral foundations are as practical as his ideals are spiritual. This makes for enrapturing storytelling, because his characters are shared with you on the most intimate level (in one scene he even enters the mind of a dog), and you're given a theatrical, sometimes even cinematic experience populated by constellations of the most charismatic stars, all of whom become your friends, even the unpleasant ones, such that you don't want your connection with this world to end. His is an orderly pace, yet always forward-moving, and though his prose may not be the most elegant ever committed to paper, his empathy and insight charge the pages with a magnetism that comes from the most genuine, the most earnest, the most faithful honesty.

OK, that said, what's it about? The only thing it doesn't explore is murder (which, not having read it, I assume cropped up in War & Peace?). Everything else about Russian life in 1865 is comprehensively lavished between its covers. There are two interweaving voyages, one through the carnal, the other through the spiritual, with a swathe of characters common to both which keep you cleverly hooked in. It's a contemporary novel set in privileged Russian society, and presents us with such a detailed portrait of its world we feel we're there. Anna is a beauty who married in a context of social expectation, struck as the story opens, with overwhelming force, by the first true love she's ever felt, made even more irresistible by its sexual power: and it's not her husband. Her name as the book's title comes from the consequences of her being swept up in the desires of her heart and body against social values far more constricting than our own, and it's in requiring our acceptance of the intransigence of these values that the book may perhaps most tax the modern reader. Originally writing the story in serialised chapters, Tolstoy follows almost every step of Anna's path, giving the book an authentic, real-time quality, and making the emotional twists and turns of her relationships, and the results of her decisions, very real.

Counterpointing Anna's glamour is the more earthy tale of Constantin Levin, a middle brother running a farming estate far from the city, though he was schooled in Moscow, who belongs to Anna's class and is in fact in love with her brother's sister-in-law. He's an eccentric in the sense that he's a deeper thinker than most, just able to hold his own in terms of self-confidence, but otherwise socially gauche, loved by his friends and sometimes only tolerated by strangers. He's pretty obviously modelled on the author, and Tolstoy's self-portrait is of a moody but sweetly goodnatured man earnestly concerned with his conscience and life among his fellow beings. Levin's journey allows us to share our most spiritually intimate conjectures as Tolstoy navigates the questions of his soul without embarrassment, sometimes showing his foolishness and sometimes moving us to tears with his lessons. Like Anna's his is a quest for true love and whatever, for him, may lie beyond it.

Our two leads meet only once, towards the end of the book, in a wonderful scene. One of their stories resolves in the happiest conceivable state of earthly life, the other in the polar opposite. But it's the journey we're taken on that compels and delights. There's nothing sensational in the book: Tolstoy doesn't seem capable of untruth in any form, be it caricature, exaggeration or melodrama, and this makes him distinct from the other two writers mentioned above. None of Dickens's pantomime, elaborately avoiding any hint of the sexual, nor of Dostoevski's gripping, cliffhanging, life-and-death suspense, nor any other device of fictional enhancement are to be found here. Instead you have rich, utterly believable drama, which, yes, does take us to many of the most extreme possible emotions, but never less than honestly, and spaced out so authentically that you can forget about them sometimes. But if you cut a movie trailer of the book, it'd be high drama.

We're treated to the most glamorous balls, priceless costumes, jewellery, hairstyles, scenes of gambling, lust, revelry, horseracing, deathbeds, epiphanies, European spa holidays, pigeon shooting, soirees, drunken suicide attempts, Italian painters' studios, political elections, law offices, seedy hotels -- birth, death, marriage -- and all intricately interconnected with the narrative precision of a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle; we're presented with an array of vivid characters that includes womanising family men, cynical grandfathers, effeminate fops, Bible-bashed spinsters, prostitutes, widows, army officers, illiterate peasants, and straight-talking bitches -- even, in one scene, as a wipe-through-frame extra, royalty: the book scintillates. This in spite of the verging-on-baleful clarity of the author's vision, which -- somehow -- by no means precludes social satire or occasional comedy. After all the title role is the 19th century equivalent of, say, an Angelina Jolie: someone at the height of her beauty and in full control of her charms, and Tolstoy the farmer rises to his own challenge, goes fully there, and you believe it. I'd say Vivien Leigh was perfectly cast in the 1949 movie (though sadly no one else in that film was -- there has yet to be a decent film adaptation in my opinion).

In the end you find yourself overwhelmed by the author's almighty command of his universe, and have no choice but to succumb, willingly, to his meditations. What is this book? I kept asking myself. Is it soap opera (painted on the vastest canvas you can imagine)? Or is it some kind of fable? Is great literature simply the most truthful and accurate depiction of human behaviour, or must it offer something more? I do confess I haven't been able to work out what Anna Karenina means, because as much as anything else it's about Russia, and one thing a translation can never give you is a story's original voice. I longed to speak Russian, because I feel that in its original language some of the mystery of this work would vanish into a heart and a passion and a connection to the earth accessible only through language.

But then in the mild press interest that accompanied the release of the excellent film The Last Station (about the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife at the time of his death) I learned that Anna Karenina had been written at his wife's request, the subject matter suggested by her. In essence then, the work thus becomes a novel from a brief, which makes it indeed a labour of love, a gift. Much of the plot is therefore, amid everything else, a recollection of their courtship, with the author injecting all the themes that possessed him and applying all his creative soul to the task. So on reflection it seems to me that what's at play here is less what is being told than the way it's being told. Such devotion in recreating and confiding to us as faithfully, as clearly, as truthfully as he can the world as he sees it, just as does any other born artist, is a demonstration by Tolstoy of a love for humanity as deep as any can be, which of course includes us, his readers. That love will last through time, and reiterates the tender belief that all souls are, then and now, one. What more can we want from an author? I loved this book. I read it as a teenager and now again as a man, and bow in respect before its towering wisdom.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Sean Wonderful, and epic, review Nige. Though I'm fond of Dostoyevsky and have managed a bit of Dickens, something has always held me back from plunging into Tolstoy. On the face of it, reinforced by your observations, this is material that speaks strongly to me. I guess I'm just going to have to "screw my courage to the sticking-place" and embark on a Tolstoyan voyage. Is it really so cinematic, or is that just your own proclivities coming out?


Nigie Yeah the length and apparent density can be daunting. The last scene in the whole book kind of reminded me of you actually! Not quite as cinematic as described (I did 'trailerise' it), but often theatrical in that when characters interact in emotionally tense situations the drama's really good. When he gets to moments that are far from everyday experience he takes you deeper inside the character in order to explain the internal processes, so it's often subjective. Not much physical description, but to me one of the strange phenomena of writing is that your imagination extrapolates quite automatically and you get the visuals somehow, and I did see some grand images I must say.


Sean With that comment about the last scene you can colour me intrigued. Oh well, I guess I'll have to add Anna to my ever-growing list.


Lewis Weinstein Your review makes me want to try again.


Nigie Thanks Lewis - with your reading stamina it should be a breeze!


Lewis Weinstein It's not anywhere near the top of my list.


Nigie Ha ha!


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