Matt's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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Apr 26, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: classic-novels

Ethan Hawke recommended this book in Entertainment Weekly. When the man who helped create "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" says something, I listen.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

So begins "Anna Karenina." This is a Russian novel, by Leo Tolstoy no less, so any brief summary is impossible. Instead, I will summarize the summary.

There is the Oblonsky family: Stiva, the cheating husband and Dolly the long-suffering wife (apparently Russians were really keen on American nicknames back in the day). Dolly's sister, Kitty, has two suitors: Levin, a farmer, and Vronsky, a dashing cavalryman. Kitty chooses Vronsky over Levin, breaking Levin's heart, but Vronsky soon falls for Anna, who is married to a bureaucrat named Alexei.

Vronsky and Anna's first meeting is described:

"In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile."

Eventually, Levin wins Kitty and they get married. The book then follows their relationship as it parallels that of Vronsky and Anna. Four million pages later, the story ends. The mirror-twinning is simplistic, as is the moralizing (no Dostoyevsky-like depths of psychological insight here). Clearly, Levin and Kitty represent the right way to do things, while Vronsky and Anna represent the shortest route to the eternal fires of hell. Still, you don't go to Tolstoy for his insight. You go to him for his scope and breadth of imagination. There are dozens of characters, locations, and plots, all going at once. You have to love the guy, and his books, for ambition alone. Someone once said, "If the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy." And it's true. He creates and populates a world on the page. His characters are all a bit one note (Levin = noble peasant; Kitty = purity and goodness; Alexei = boring civil servant; Anna = whore; Vronsky = pimp); however, despite additional dimensions, they are fully realized. In other words, the most complex one-note characters I've come across.

I cannot recommend the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation highly enough. I'd always been afraid of Tolstoy on the basis of density alone. But this translation in the bee's knees. It's clean and literate and - I've been told - really captures the essence of Tolstoy's work. The prose can be quite beautiful. Sometimes you forget you're reading a Russian novel (then Tolstoy reminds you by having Levin engage in a 4,000 page discussion of community property and peasant rights with his brother Sergei; apparently this meant something to 19th Century Russians). There are vivid descriptions of life on Levin's farm, train rides across the steppes, and lavish balls. I especially liked a passage in which a smitten Levin divides all the women in the world into two types: the first type constituted all those women with imperfections and shortcomings; the second type was Kitty. Really - isn't that how each of us falls in love?

The first part of the book sets up the relationships. The next three million pages are devoted to following each couple. Kitty/Levin take the high road; Stiva and Dotty attempt to reach that lofty plain; Anna and Vronsky descend into the pits of despair and guilt and utter ruin. I will not spoil their fate, but it is truly Russian. We all have to pay for our sins.

My gripes. First, there is a lot of foreign languages bandied about. Tolstoy liked to show off. The Russian has been translated to English; however, the French, German, and Klingon phrases are not translated, so you have to keep looking down at the footnotes. This isn't as big a deal as it is in "War and Peace," but it can be distracting. Also, we come to the controversial end of the book. Now, the title is "Anna Karenina," so you might expect the book to end with her storyline. WRONG. You simple fool. It does not end there. No, you have to slog through approximately 12 billion pages of Tolstoy's characters ruminating on the war with Turkey. Then there's Levin's religious rebirth, as he discovers the meaning of life (yes, his meaning is as banal as you'd expect). Some people might think this section of the book is a good reminder of all the wonderful ideas that Tolstoy had; indeed, that he was more concerned with those ideas than his story, and that the tragic love of Anna the Whore and Vronsky the Pimp was but the tree upon which to hang his ideas.

I don't agree. I think the end is a didactic, pedagogic, vaguely misogynistic load of crap. It's like a 19th C. version of "The Purpose Driven Life" has been appended, rather haphazardly, to the end of an otherwise great novel. If I wanted a lecture from a long-dead Russian author, I would've built a time machine, gone back in time, and asked for one.
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04/26 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Mojdeh (new)

Mojdeh One of my favorites. I read it a long time ago but it is still one that I recommend to all


Angie I saw how you defined some of the characters specifically Levin being the noble peasant. Did you mean noble as in social status or character? Levin while being a farmer is more of a landowning wealthy aristocrat. Levin’s life actually mirrored Tolstoy’s in many ways.

IMHO, I don't think the point of Anna was to be the 'whore' or to show the wrong way of going about love. I think Tolstoy was pointing out the ridiculousness of Russian laws surrounding divorce. Anna is supposed to be in a loveless marriage when she falls in love with Vronsky. Anna and Vronsky are each personally destroyed and so is their true love by societal and legal constraints. It is mentioned that Karenin won't give Anna a divorce. Divorce in Russia was granted if one party was proven to be unfaithful. The spouse who committed the affair would then be stripped of any rights to their children and not allowed to remarry. So in order for Anna and Vronsky to get married, Karenin would have had to stand up in court and say he was the adulterer (which some people actually did). You could see why Karenin would not do this and lose his son. Their legal conundrum is further emphasized when Anna dies and Vronsky’s son legally becomes Karenin’s. We modern readers don’t typically know what 19th century Russian divorce entailed but Tolstoy’s readers would’ve been well acquainted with these circumstances. I didn’t know either and this is just my rough understanding of the Russian laws. I looked it up after reading the book – I felt like the book was a social and political commentary and was trying to say Anna was driven mad by social constraints and went seeking more info, I didn’t realize the legal aspect. Again, this is just my impression of the book.


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