I’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.