I have this theory about Russian literature, which is that people take you a bit more seriously as a reader if you’ve managed to plough your way through it. It’s also one of those buzz phrases that I think people like to drop into conversation to let you know how smart they are, so it can be really intimidating. I’ve always considered that these books were going to be ones to read to say that I’ve read them, not ones I was going to enjoy – they generally seem to have the reputation of being masterpieces but real struggles to get through, and I figured that for me the struggle would eclipse the masterpiece.
However, I’m a fair few books into my quest now so it was time to tick off a hefty Russian. Anna Karenina was the choice, and it lived up to the reputation – it was both a masterpiece and a struggle indeed. The good news is, Anna Karenina is a book I would definitely read again, and one that I did enjoy, which takes it out of the ‘books to read to say you’ve read them’ category and into the ‘actually good books’ box.
In order to talk about what I did and didn’t like about this novel, it’s probably best to do a quick plot summary – it means a few spoilers but I’ll try to keep them brief. Anna Karenina has two main protagonists and the story follows both of them through pivotal moments in their lives. One is the tragic story of love, loss and adultery as the married Anna Karenina falls for a handsome officer, Count Vronsky, and conducts an affair that will ultimately destroy her, and the other is the marginally more uplifting tale of self-discovery through Konstantin Levin, as he struggles to find the meaning and purpose of his life. I say marginally because, although the ending of Levin’s story is happier, the preceding narrative is not without troubles. The characters and their stories are quite separate yet inextricably linked, since the direction of Levin’s life would probably have been quite different had Anna not existed.
It’s interesting that Tolstoy chose to name his novel Anna Karenina when it could easily have been Konstantin Levin. The book is fairly evenly divided in terms of attention paid to each protagonist’s story, and, as it is arguably bookmarked by focus on Levin’s life with his appearances at the beginning and his epiphany at its close, it wouldn’t have been remarkable for this to have been the eponymous character. However, I think the focus that Tolstoy gives Anna and her story by naming the book for her demonstrates that the tragedy of her story is the essence of the book and the most powerful thing that you take away with you.
Straight up, the best parts of this novel were those that were about Anna. I don’t know if this is because I’m a woman (probably), but I do believe that her story is so much more powerful. It’s tragic but beautiful and it’s all the more admirable when you consider that it’s written by a man. I was really struck by the way Tolstoy describes Anna’s descent into jealousy – the pain and insecurity that drive her to believe that Vronsky no longer loves her, despite all his reassurances is so delicately written, so recognisable and so believable. Without trying to be generalist to the sexes, it is pretty rare to have a man understand the subtleties of these kind of emotions, let alone to actualise them in a character through their words. I found this particularly impressive towards the end of the novel where Anna is convinced that Vronsky is no longer in love with her and her mind is in turmoil – she tries to be bright and happy for him but she can’t disguise her fear that he is loving another woman; this fear turns to resentment and then in turn to malice. She flirts with other men, not just to awaken a similar jealousy in him, but also to try to re-conjure in herself her confidence and become again that charming woman that he fell in love with. It’s desperately sad to see her insecurity drive her lover further and further away from her as she tries to fight to keep him close, and Tolstoy does such an impressive job of documenting this mental struggle in both characters.
As well as the tragedy, there’s also the old-fashioned love story element of Anna’s tale that interested me. Tolstoy captures the thrill and the excitement of infatuation so well, the passion of lust and the gravity, consequence and fear of a deeper connection. However, it’s not a fairy tale – as I’ve mentioned above, the depth of each of the characters’ feelings is so well documented. The complexity of emotion in Anna, her husband and Vronsky and, crucially, the way that these change at different stages of the affair is so realistic that, despite having never been in this situation, I felt I could relate to it. In fact, I think it’s one of the only books that has ever made me actually cry. My mum said that every time she’d read Anna Karenina in her life, different elements had resonated with her, and she’d had a different reaction and reading depending upon her own life experiences at that point. When I read it, I could really understand this comment. It’s hailed by many critics and authors as a novel that you should read every several years because of this very fact – not only is it timeless in so many ways, it’s multi-faceted in its story.
For those less interested in love stories and anguish of the heart, there is Levin and his story, which is probably a reason why this novel is so universally popular. Levin is a mouthpiece for those uncertain about their path in life, caught between two lifestyles, neither of which seems entirely satisfying, or those struggling to reconcile their ideals with their reality. I personally found his story a lot less engaging, and most of the people I spoke to about it did too, but again, that’s possibly because they were all women! I found him generally quite tedious, mostly because he was prone to having lengthy philosophical or political debates about life, death, agricultural practices and political systems that weren’t particularly accessible. I also felt that, in comparison to Anna, he often seemed to be ungrateful for many of the blessings that he had – for example, even after marrying his true love and bearing a son and having the respect of his peers both in the city and in the country, he still feels dissatisfied and unfulfilled. But, I think this is the point – that, despite all the blessings that you have, you can still feel amiss until you recognise your purpose in life. Once Levin has realised this in his epiphany at the novel’s close, he becomes far more appreciative of his lot in life.
I was warned before reading it that the bits about Levin farming or hunting all definitely required skipping – when it came to it, these weren’t actually too bad… if I were reading this when I were younger, I would definitely have skipped them but perhaps after years of translating Homer and Virgil (who really love a good old pastoral scene), I found an unexpected appreciation of the extended passages describing Levin’s scything. The parts that were trickier were, as I mentioned, the long philosophical discussions and political debates. These normally take place when Levin’s brothers are around (or any peasants) so if you’re flagging and these characters appear, skip a few pages – you won’t miss much. I hope that doesn’t sound too philistine-like; I read them but I didn’t really enjoy them, I just wanted to get back to Anna. They’re often agreed as being a way for Tolstoy to air his personal views on Russian politics or traditions and, to be honest, they come across that way.
There is so much more that could be said about this book – there are characters I haven’t touched on, who add more richness and colour to the threads and themes of this novel. Forgiveness is a pervading theme explored in the novel; whether it can truly be achieved, and whether it is the ultimate virtue – at what cost should we seek it, and if we have it, does it solve things? Anna Karenina would suggest not; Karenin’s forgiveness of Anna does not improve her situation either in society or internally; Kitty can never see Anna the same after the Vronsky affair even once she has found happiness with Levin, and Dolly’s forgiveness of Stiva seems to be empty – she just turns a blind eye to his behaviour. The whole novel is an exploration of human nature and human weakness. It doesn’t judge, it presses further and further into these aspects of humanity and society that we all recognise and lays them bare for us all to reflect on. It’s no wonder that so many people at so many different times have been able to relate to this book in some form or other.
This has been a long review, but it’s a long book so I wanted to do it justice. It is a bit of a mission to get through at times, but it really is worth it. Not only do you get rewarded with an amazing love story, you also get to drop in that smug ‘Russian literature’ buzzphrase at all dinner parties in the future*.
*This is not recommended for the sake of friendship retention and return invitations.