Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Second-Chance Books #5)

anna-kareninaI’d avoided reading Anna Karenina ever since a bad War and Peace experience during my college years put me off Tolstoy. But it’s one of those novels that you feel culturally impoverished if you haven’t read — well, I did anyway. I knew the plot, but felt I ought to read the actual novel, consigning it to my “book-guilt” pile for many years.

As with other classics I’ve revisited this year, I enjoyed Anna Karenina a lot more than I expected to. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the Anna-Vronsky love story took up only about half the novel, while at least as much space was given to Levin and Kitty, whose more mature and stable relationship is presented as a foil to Anna’s and Vronsky’s intense but doomed passion. Also, typical of nineteenth-century novels (and this is just as true of Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities so it’s not a Russian or French or English thing, it’s just a thing — although, interesting, it’s not true of Pride and Prejudice … hmmm…) there are endless digressions into topics that have little to do with plot or character development but are obviously fascinating to the author, and I will admit to skimming these a bit.

But when he’s getting into the heads of his characters, Tolstoy is a fascinating analyst of human psychology and although I didn’t necessarily like Anna, she felt absolutely real to me. I also felt that out of all the older novels I’ve read this year, Tolstoy is the only male writer who really “gets” his women characters and sees them as fully rounded human beings. Anna, Kitty and Dolly are real people with depth and complexity, the way Elizabeth Bennett is and the way Cosette or Lucie Manette or even (to move ahead to the twentieth century for a moment) Daisy Buchanan are not. Tolstoy really seems to get that his women characters are more than just playing pieces to be moved around the board  for the sake of the effect they might have on the real, male characters. He also seems to get that some of their unhappiness is due to the limited roles allowed them in society — Anna, for example, would surely not be as unhappy as she ultimately is with Vronsky if she did not live in a society that defined her entirely in terms of her relationship with her husband and her lover, in which she could have no other identity than that of a “fallen woman.” Tolstoy doesn’t take the next leap to say that these women’s lives might be richer and happier if they could have careers and interests of their own separate from that of their husbands and children — but then, Jane Austen doesn’t really make that leap either. At least these novelists are aware of the problem even if they don’t anticipate twentieth-century feminists in offering a solution.

Unlike my slog through War and Peace nearly thirty years ago, I did not get lost this time in a quagmire of Russian names and found it fairly easy to follow the storyline, differentiate the characters, and get drawn into the action. The edition I read was translated by Constance Garnett and very readable; a different edition which I picked up in the bookstore has the same translator but includes a lovely introduction by Mona Simpson which I wish had been in mine (the edition I read did have an introduction, just not a lovely one).

So far it’s a perfect record in that I’ve read or reread five classic novels this year and have enjoyed each one more than I did on first reading or more than I expected to. However, in May I’m tackling Hemingway and all bets are off. Check back with me later.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Second-Chance Books #5)

  1. I quite agree with you regarding Tolstoy. Reading Anna Karenina was a delight and actually, I understand Anna a bit. Although her suicide is tragic, somehow it seemed justified, something like a respite from being subjected to constant judgement. What I’ve found is that most Classic which have strong female characters, usually end with the woman dying, not necessarily by suicide of course. You would find that’s true with Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton too. There’s always degradation, if not death, which I find a little alarming. A strong heroine always has a tragic end.

    PS Hemingway’s a genius! 😀

  2. Yesterday I “visited” your blog on my cell phone (not conducive to commenting 😉 to read the review of the Hunger Games trilogy (I’ll comment there too, but I loved it) and today I’m just browsing.

    Interestingly enough, I also read this book last year, a little later than you did, though, maybe in July (I can check my blog later). Which translation did you read? You mentioned that you didn’t much like the translation of Dostoyevsky’s book and I just wanted to let you know that I have a friend who teaches Russian and Russian novelists at the university (she’s American, but fluent in Russian) and I asked her which translations of Tolstoy & Dostoyevsky to use and she said that it should be Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translations. So if you decide to read any other Russian works, I’d recommend that you read those translated by them!

    I really liked Anna Karenina and thought it very similar to other classic “adulterous wife” novels, some of which you’re probably not familiar with because they’re in Portuguese: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, O Primo [the cousin] Basílio by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz, and (to a much lesser degree), the Brazilian Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro. Anyway, I know I could say more about the novel, but I just wanted to get this comment to you so you’ll know about the best translators for Russian lit!

    • Thanks! I’d have to go back and look at the copy on my e-reader to see which translation it was. I have had Madame Bovary on my to-read list for awhile too.

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