David Schaafsma's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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it was amazing
bookshelves: books-loved-2012, best-books-ever, fiction-19th-century

Levin (which is what the title should be, since he is the main character, the real hero and the focus of the book!) (But who would read the book with that title, I know!)

If you don't want to know the ending, don't read this review, though I won't actually talk about what happens to Anna specifically, something I knew 40 years ago without even reading the book. I didn't read the book to find out what happens to her. I knew that. Probably many of you know or knew the ending before reading the book. And this isn't so much a review as a personal reflection. I was tempted, finally, after decades of NOT reading it, to now, approaching my 60th birthday, finish it, all 818 pages, tempted to just simply write: Pretty good! :) But I resist that impulse, sorry (because now, if you so choose to read on, you will have to read many more than those two words. . .).

This is as millions of people have observed over the past 140 years, a really great book, and those of you who are skeptical of reading "Great Books" or "classics" may still not be convinced, but this has in my opinion a deserved reputation of one of the great works of all time, and one of the reasons it IS so good is because it speaks humbly and eloquently against pomposity and perceived or received notions of "greatness." Why do I care about its place in the canon? I guess I really don't. I just think some books deserve the rep they get from the literary establishment, and some deserve the rep they get from the wider reading public. This one is a great literary accomplishment AND a great read, in my opinion, and deserves to be read and read widely by more than just the English major club. And I say this as one who prefers Dostoevsky to Tolstoy; I seem to prefer stories of anguish and doubt to stories of affirmation and faith, and the atheist/agnostic literary club I belong to is maybe always going to favor doubt and anguish over faith and hope and happiness. But to make clear: This surely is a book of faith, of family, of affirmation, of belief in the land, nature, goodness, and simple human joys over the life of "society" with all of its pretension. Yes, all that affirmation is true of the book in spite of what happens to Anna.

I write this in particular contexts, as we all do when we read and write. If I had read this book in my more cynical early twenties, when I actually started it once (and again a few times over my life time and never finished), when I had no kids, I might not have liked it much. If I had read this right after Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, or in the years I was first reading Under the Volcano, Kafka, Camus, what I think of as my existentialist years, I might have found it too. . . life-affirming. But today I have kids, and as seemed to have happened with Chris Ware, as evidenced by his more positive Building Stories, having kids changed everything for me, and in a good way. In harsh times, you need stories of hope and goodness, and Levin's story is a timeless story of hope and goodness.

Another context: I am particularly shaken as I write this by the 20 kids dead in a Connecticut elementary school in Sandy Hook yesterday, with, too, a good teacher, principal, and school psychologist and others who have given their lives to doing good for children, senselessly slaughtered. This is a murderous country, the most murderous in the world, killings devastating my Chicago on a daily basis maybe especially this year, but every damned year. And despair/suicide is possibly more prevalent than ever. Maybe it is time for a bit of reordering priorities toward goodness, and finishing this book as my news feeds gave me updates on the tragedy provides an interesting contrast in experiences, rendering different but altogether persuasive truths about the nature of the world.

Tolstoy was himself, the translator Richard Pevear writes in his fine, brief introduction, in some sense writing a response to the nihilists who were as he saw it in fashion in late nineteenth century Russia, in Moscow, in Europe, in the world. Tolstoy was himself searching for meaning in life and struggling with faith and beliefs in a way he didn't ever struggle about again (or as much) after this book, and the struggle makes for the greatness, in my opinion. His late book Resurrection, by contrast, has none of the struggle about faith that this book has in it. It's mostly a binary world, all Good and Evil, a didactic allegory. Pevear says one of the two main characters, Levin, the country farmer struggling to also write his ideas about farming, is the most fully realized self-portrait that Tolstoy created, and he is on the main pretty delightful. Grumpy at times, stubborn, moody and not witty, a kind of no-nonsense traditionalist I certainly would have been annoyed at regularly if I knew him, Levin is often a kind of comical character, self-deprecatingly clueless as he approaches the Big Events of his life: His brother's death, his proposal to Kitty, the birth of his first child. These are also moments of real angst/anguish and passion and comedy/tragedy, written with great flourish and amazing detail, great sections of the book, pretty thrilling to read, in my opinion.

These are, Tolstoy tells us, in the main what life (and literature) is and should be mainly about, love and death, and they deserve loving attention for us, as are also the striving for goodness and faith. The current art scene of the time, in especially Moscow's theater and art and literature scenes, the world of fashion, the culture of massive-debt-incurring spending on a lavish lifestyle, all this Tolstoy skewers through the comical eyes of the simple farmer Levin, who at his best is so attached to the land, to family, to love, to good talk, and good friendship. But he is not a stereotype, he is a great character, fully realized.

And what can we say of Anna, the other main character, his sort of opposite? Well, if you want to look for what is in some sense a "moral" of this huge tome of a book, this might be it:

“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.”

Or, if you want to be happy you will want to make choices that Levin makes instead of Anna's tragic choices--but Anna, in having been originally intended by Tolstoy (thanks to Pevear here for his introduction) as an immoral woman, a woman corrupted by city values, is never really only that, any more than Levin can be seen as a holy man. Tolstoy is creating literature here, not a didactic tract, and we see all along that Tolstoy falls in love with Anna as she emerges through his creation of her in his novel, and she is thus for him and us real and fascinating, a human being, and a wondrous one in many ways, one of the great women of literature, without question. You don't have to agree with her choices or like her, but she will come to life for you as few characters ever will. And many of you will fall in love with her as Tolstoy did. As I did, I'll admit.

There's one time Tolstoy has his two main characters meet, and this is a great evening, where the simple Levin actually is obviously attracted to Anna in so many ways, and not just the physical attraction all men and women seem to have for her. Levin, like Tolstoy, sees that Anna is vital, viscerally alive, she's fascinating, interesting; okay, she IS a romantic heroine, but she is a romantic heroine that anyone reading romances should read. The women of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, these are "romances" but they are all so much more, that sweep you into the world in richer and deeper ways. Anna Karenina is, like War and Peace, like The Brothers Karamazov, a rich cultural forum, a series of linked meditations on farming and politics and religion and family and relationships and war and the meaning of life, not just about sex and romance. You get so much out of it, as it is all about reflecting on and teaching you how the mundane aspects of our lives are worth paying attention to (I know the bulk of readers absolutely hate the farming and politics sections of the book, but I would contend it is all relevant to Tolstoy's webbed narrative reflection on the meaning of life).

And Anna, in the very center of this tale, as a kind of twin contrast to Levin, but not a simple one (they are both suicidal at times; they both are moody and struggle and are essentially lonely for much of the book), is one shimmering, tragic character we can't simply dismiss for submitting to and crushing her life (as she does) through lust for Vronsky. We come to understand her well, we come to understand why she does what she does and why we must pity her and even support her, love her. I know a lot of people have not come to this position about her, they dismiss her as a shallow twit who throws her life away for an also shallow, callous dashing fellow, but in the end we even come to like Vronsky and pity him, and admire his resilience. He IS also an attractive character, in many ways, in spite of his shallow aspects. And maybe we are even sympathetic for them in this forbidden, unwise love. I know I am. We care for them.

Of the other main characters, I liked Kitty, Levin's wife (who deals with the dying of her husband's brother so deftly as opposed to her clueless husband) a lot, and who becomes attracted to Vronsky too in a way as so may women seem to do. Levin's two brothers are both great, and provide the basis for rich conversations. The Dolly/Oblonsky pair are yet another view of a married relationship. I even like the portrait of the sad, stiff Karenin, the diplomat we can see is a good man, certainly not a great lover for Anna, but we see his struggles and come to feel sorry for him, I think. He's not an ideal match for the passionate Anna, maybe, but he's a good and essentially blameless man. I like all the minor characters we get to meet, too, the people Tolstoy finds more genuine than all the upper crust he mocks and derides and, you know, also cares about. This is a great book, my friends, with some great characters and great scenes.

And now to the movie? I read one blurb that said without Tolstoy's gorgeous writing, any movie version of Anna Karenina will only be a soap opera, and that is what I feared. . . and that is what I found in seeing it. The movie couldn't begin to capture Tolstoy's reflections on life and love and birth and death. It was a melodrama, a good one but not great or rich as the novel.

And what do English readers miss, as my friends who read Russian and have grown up reading his prose IN Russia say? That his use of the Russian language is unparalleled, gorgeous, breathtaking. Well, I don't know the language in which Tolstoy wrote, but this translation of his tale is pretty amazing, I think. But in any language, read it, my friends.

PS I have also recently read Madame Bovary, which I also liked in spite of the main character's (also) bad choices. I liked Anna K even more, though.
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Quotes David Liked

Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy
“I think... if it is true that
there are as many minds as there
are heads, then there are as many
kinds of love as there are hearts.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


Reading Progress

August 28, 2012 – Shelved
September 9, 2012 – Started Reading
September 24, 2012 –
page 100
11.93% "Like running a marathon.. . but you know, the first 100 are so good! I am told in the Russian it is even more beautiful... a friend said she returns to Tolstoy above all others to hear her native Russian..."
October 13, 2012 –
page 140
16.71%
November 15, 2012 –
page 200
23.87%
December 12, 2012 –
page 409
48.81%
December 13, 2012 –
page 689
82.22%
December 15, 2012 – Shelved as: books-loved-2012
December 15, 2012 – Shelved as: best-books-ever
December 15, 2012 – Finished Reading
September 30, 2014 – Shelved as: fiction-19th-century

Comments Showing 1-50 of 57 (57 new)


message 1: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Have you seen the reviews for the new film? Looks pretty good! Keira Knightley should do well with Anna...


David Schaafsma Hadn't seen this comment, but will see the film... got mixed reviews, but I bet I will like it... goal is to finish over break.


David Schaafsma Okay, am really reading it and really enjoying it... half way!


message 4: by Lauren (new)

Lauren pulled it off my bookshelf to add to the list of "next up," though I have to get through all of my others first! And now, add to it your book and others you'll be adding for class. :) Read an interesting interview with Keira Knightley this morning--more incentive to see the film too!


David Schaafsma I am more than half way, and while there are some seemingly mundane passages, all of it fits, all of contributes to a vision...and some are suddenly, deftly POW! It's a romance, it's philosophical, political, about Russia, about love and marriage... about.... more later.


message 6: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Looking likely it will go on my summer reading list, as I have 3 others to finish and then the books for your class. It is of definite interest to me, though...started it years ago (when I was much younger) and didn't quite appreciate it the way I think I will now. Looking forward to it!


David Schaafsma Almost done...


David Schaafsma Done, and a life-affirming read, on the very day 20 kids are murdered in an elementary school in Connecticut. Did it help me, emotionally? It did? Did it seem hopelessly naive in the way it affirmed goodness? I don't believe so, ever.


message 9: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Thank you for a beautifully written review! I am a lover of the classics and this has been on my list to go back to for years. I agree that our own life experiences (as well as what's happening in the world around us)greatly shape how we read and what kind of meaning we take away. It's a powerful opportunity to revisit our own perceptions about life, love, living. You've given me incentive to push this one up on the list--don't think I can wait til summer now! :)


David Schaafsma I just talked to my dear friend Julie Harrison who heard this book on tape as part of a book group experience a few years ago, and hated it... and we usually see the world very similarly.... but I get why many people would hate Anna and see her as stupid... and especially for going for Vronsky, who seems like a handsome, empty-headed guy at first.... but I didn't see it this way, really. Or maybe it was the balance of all the stories against this story... but if you hate Anna it will be hard to hang in there with this novel...


message 11: by Lauren (new)

Lauren I don't think she's stupid. I think that's part of the beauty of the novel--she's flawed just like everybody else, yet still has so much depth. Again, it has been a while, and I never finished it the first time around, so I can't say for sure...but I'm guessing, especially now, that I will like it much more. Life isn't so neatly tied up with a bow, as much as we want it to be; when an author can bring that to the surface, and yet still offer hope, that's what speaks to me. :)


David Schaafsma As I get older, I generally see things like morality a little less clearly, as not simply good-bad... I guess I have also sinned, made bad decisions, etc.


message 13: by Lauren (new)

Lauren As have I...a continuous lesson, for sure.


Erika Although I didn't love this book as much as you did, I love this review of it.


David Schaafsma Erika wrote: "Although I didn't love this book as much as you did, I love this review of it." Sweet response, thanks. Most women tend to hate Anna and Madame B more than I do. But then I am just a dumb guy, easily manipulated by such women....:) Seriously, I just loved Levin. Anna is really just a side project in this book, in a way. It should be called Levin! Doggone it, I am editing my review to reflect that!


message 16: by Morgan (new) - added it

Morgan Oddly all I know is the ending to this book. Need to read it some time. I really liked Madame Bovary too. I knew that ending ahead of time too and kind of glad. Love the book, but that ending was hard to digest.


David Schaafsma Morgan wrote: "Oddly all I know is the ending to this book. Need to read it some time. I really liked Madame Bovary too. I knew that ending ahead of time too and kind of glad. Love the book, but that ending was h..."Well, in my opinion, though you also know the end in Anna K, it is less important than in Madame Bovary. Anna K is more than a book about Anna K.


Erika What I love about your review is the way you articulate your reading of Levin. I wholeheartedly agree that he really is the main character of the text. And I guess that was what surprised me. I started out reading the book thinking that it was really a story of Anna Karenina, a charcter I just didn't feel invested in, and wound up reading a book about Levin, a character who fascinated me. And th at is the other thing I like about your review... your discussion of Anna gives me greater insight into what Tolstoy is doing with Levin.

Please forgive errors as I am typing on my phone.


message 19: by Joe (new)

Joe Kraus Thanks for this review. I haven't read Anna in almost 25 years, but it's been one of those books that simply "does it" for me. Back then, I'd declare it was my second favorite book of all time -- second only to War and Peace. (I guess that made me a Tolstoy partisan in the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky showdown.) I hope you're right that it won't be just us professors who read it. Yeah, it's long, but once you start it pulls you along as a great reading experience.


message 20: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala You've written a fine tribute to this book, David - I really enjoyed reading it.
Levin stood out for me too, and even though I knew little about Tolstoy's life when I read this book, I think I suspected that Levin was a self portrait. And you're right that Tolstoy must have fallen for Anna. I imagine that he set out to write a more moralistic tale about adultery (as he did in The Kreutzer Sonata) but somehow Anna won him over!
It was great to revisit this book with you!


David Schaafsma Erika wrote: "What I love about your review is the way you articulate your reading of Levin. I wholeheartedly agree that he really is the main character of the text. And I guess that was what surprised me. I sta..."Thanks, Erika. I was surprised, too. Keira Knightly was featured all over the place in the media for the film, and all the films are essentially about this woman. . . who is interesting, but maybe the fourth most interesting person in the book. In reading a bit about AK after reading it I heard how Tolstoy had intended Anna to be a kind of dismissible character, a kind of emblem for moral decay, but Anna kept asserting herself as fully human. He says in letters that he himself fell in love with her against his will. I love that.


David Schaafsma Fionnuala wrote: "You've written a fine tribute to this book, David - I really enjoyed reading it.
Levin stood out for me too, and even though I knew little about Tolstoy's life when I read this book, I think I sus..."
Thanks, Fionnuala! I read The Kreutzer Sonata many years ago, but need to revisit it. May even revisit War and Peace, which I read very long ago.


David Schaafsma Joe wrote: "Thanks for this review. I haven't read Anna in almost 25 years, but it's been one of those books that simply "does it" for me. Back then, I'd declare it was my second favorite book of all time -- s..." Right, just fabulous. But I do prefer the angst and despair and grime of Dostoevsky. This Tolstoy is my favorite of his, though.


Eilonwy Levin (what the title should be, since he is the real hero and focus of the book!)
My thoughts exactly. When I finally read this, I was pleasantly surprised to have the happy Levin/Kitty story juxtaposed with the Anna/Vronsky tragedy.
That is some cover on this version! The one I read was a very plain library binding.
Great review, David! I should reread this book sometime.


David Schaafsma Eilonwy wrote: "Levin (what the title should be, since he is the real hero and focus of the book!)
My thoughts exactly. When I finally read this, I was pleasantly surprised to have the happy Levin/Kitty story jux..."
I love that cover.


message 26: by Robert (new)

Robert "But Ana Karenina sounds cooler."

-Lev Tolstoy to his editor


message 27: by David (last edited Aug 25, 2017 04:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Schaafsma It does. Who knows whether the book would have even been read much at all if it would have been entitled Levin. Anna Karenina is a sweeping romantic name (maybe) of a (maybe) wild woman. . . Levin as a title just doesn't have, uh, legs, pun intended. . .


message 28: by Roger (new)

Roger Brunyate It is wonderful to read this long meditation, David, even these many years after you first wrote it. It is so personal, rich, and true. Now to reread AK myself—though that is not a casual undertaking. R.


David Schaafsma Roger wrote: "It is wonderful to read this long meditation, David, even these many years after you first wrote it. It is so personal, rich, and true. Now to reread AK myself—though that is not a casual undertaki..."I appreciate your saying this, Roger, especially knowing what a thoughtful writer you yourself are. As to reposting it, someone had liked the review yesterday, giving me the occasion to edit it a bit for mistakes, which I always want to do especially with these long reviews on books I am enthusiastic about. But I also want to re-encourage people to put it on their tbr lists, of course! Yes, re-read it and you will not regret it!


message 30: by Roger (new)

Roger Brunyate I find that a fascinating feature of Goodreads, that the slightest alteration to an old review puts it right back into circulation again. I try not to overuse it (other than to correct mistakes), but it can be a good way to keep really good books (or reviews) an active part of the conversation.

I have recently begun a reread of Vanity Fair, a rather lesser work, of course, but now revealing all kinds of things that I quite missed at the tender age of 19! R.


message 31: by David (last edited Aug 26, 2017 08:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Schaafsma Roger wrote: "I find that a fascinating feature of Goodreads, that the slightest alteration to an old review puts it right back into circulation again. I try not to overuse it (other than to correct mistakes), b..." I don't like it that I can't just revise/edit my reviews without reposting them (though there may be a way to do it I have never found).

On the Thackeray, a "small world" connection: For my class this fall I am rereading Jane Eyre, which is dedicated to the author of her favorite book at that time, Vanity Fair, which was published earlier that same year, I believe. Seeing that dedication, I took out my dusty copy of the now pretty obscure Vanity Fair, which was of course a sensation at the time. I doubt I read it, given how busy I'll be this fall, however.


message 32: by Roger (new)

Roger Brunyate Now you mention the possibility, David, I think the on/off switch may be the box that says "Add to my Update Feed." Presumably if you uncheck it, your minor alterations will not make a ripple.

Interesting that you call Vanity Fair "pretty obscure." Even though I have not looked at it for 57 years, until now, it has always held a considerable significance in my mind, as somewhere between Austen and Trollope in social criticism, and a precursor of Dickens. Thackeray's fascination with Becky Sharp is a wonderful return to the rogue anti-heroes of 18th-century fiction, and a splendid antidote to the Good Girls of most of the 19th century. Sure, the Brontes had heroines who were bold and independent, but where else do you get a character who is so blatantly out for Number One? R.


David Schaafsma Roger wrote: "Now you mention the possibility, David, I think the on/off switch may be the box that says "Add to my Update Feed." Presumably if you uncheck it, your minor alterations will not make a ripple.

Int..."
I'm probably wrong, but whereas Jane Austen and the Brontes are going strong, seems like Vanity Fair is not read so much anymore. I recall being thrilled by it when I read it many years ago. One of the great books, surely, also in my mind. So I could be wrong about it's prominence in the world of literary fiction.


message 34: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Books Are Magic You're right about Tolstoy falling in love with Anna, I think he said so himself in one of his letters. I do love the way he wrote her. Lovely review!


David Schaafsma I think the letter may be quoted in Pevear's great intro to their translation, which shaped my reading of it, of course. But he's right, he wants to make fun of her and then falls in love with her, the old stoic religious farmer. Thanks.


message 36: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Books Are Magic I don't remember where I read about that letter of his but I remember I included in in a essay I wrote way back in my student days, so I must have had some reference.

It is always nice to see someone fall in love and when it comes to old religious farmers perhaps especially so:):)


David Schaafsma Well, there's something romantic about the connection between farmer Lev/Leo and fashion celebrity beauty Anna. Opposites attract? But he found a way to humanize her, sympathize with her. That's sweet.


message 38: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg David, you're so right. I'm only 200 pages in but wish the train would jump track and run Anna down so we can get to Levin's story only.


David Schaafsma Well, I don't want to go so far as to say that I am not in love with Anna, in some way; I just love Levin more. He's the heart and soul and conscience of the book. And not so holy that he doesn't see something in her to attract him, as well. But you're not that far yet.


David Schaafsma That is NOT a major spoiler. I think they meet briefly once or twice in the book!


message 41: by [deleted user] (new)

Great review. I wish I could write a review like that. And Tolstoy! What a giant!


message 42: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka I really enjoy your reviews.


David Schaafsma Jessaka wrote: "I really enjoy your reviews." Thanks so much for saying so. Some books inspire to write more or better, when you really engage with them. I am taking my time writing a review of The Rainbow right now, which I finished and love.


message 44: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka Some books inspire me to write better reviews toi.


Elyse (semi hiatus) Walters Thank you for this fabulous review David.
I’ve never seen the movie - but this book took me 2 months to finish ....
Loved your thoughts!!!!


David Schaafsma Elyse! Good morning! Nice to hear from you again, and glad you read it! I don't think any movie version has ever done in justice. It just gets reduced to the affair. The other one like this where most women come to hate the main female protagonist as stupid is Made Bovary.


Elyse (semi hiatus) Walters Thank you David. It ‘is’ soooo nice to connect with again. It’s been awhile. And I’ve so much respect for you.
Thanks for your feedback.
Boy- your kids must be growing like a weed now -
I mean I sure feel like I’m getting old and older each year here on Goodreads myself.
Wishing life is going well for you and your family- David!
And I’ll check in here with you more often. I miss you


David Schaafsma I know we are about the same age, so we have that it common, but also a certain amount of joy and energy that we bring to reading and life. My kids are growing like weeds, and it is fun, a privilege, to have them in my life.


message 49: by Tom (new)

Tom Your most compelling, even riveting, review I’ve read, David. This one has been on my shelf for years, whispering, “hey, over here,”now and then, but I always ignore it for more Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, even short stuff Leo. No longer. Time to take the plunge (well, maybe after some more Gogol, first, but soon, I promise, or hope ...


message 50: by David (last edited Feb 26, 2019 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Schaafsma LOL. Yes, it is a mountain to climb, but I'm sympathetic to your delay: I waited decades to read it. Now, skimming the review,I know I will read it again. But War and Peace first. . .. And thanks for the good words, Tom. The best books deserve good reviews. But there are two I haven't yet been able to review, though I have read them. .. will reread them first!


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