Book Review: Anna Karenina

ANNA KARENINA BOOKAnna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, the translation by Joel Carmichael published by Bantam Books in 1981. The original was published in 1877.

This is a solid book. It’s one of those real classics that fully deserves to be a classic. And, amazingly, it’s pretty great reading for the modern reader, as well. You do get bored with Russian politics and agrarian theory, but there is much besides the story to be gleaned–and enjoyed–here.

First comment: Anna Karenina, as a title, is a misnomer. Besides how the title, movies, all the book covers (and maybe the critics?) treat her, the novel is really the story of three main marriages (and a couple minor ones, besides) careening through Russian high society in the late 1800s. I mean, Anna doesn’t even make an appearance for more than 50 pages, and she is completely absent from the last section (of eight). The book leaves her storyline constantly, spending hundreds of pages with the life and loves of Kitty and Levin, let alone the ongoing tragedy of Dolly and Oblonsky. For contrast, we have the Prince and Princess Scherbatsky, Nikolay and Marya, and another relationship that never even blossoms. (And really, Anna herself could be counted twice for marriage, so, four main marriages?)

What the book undoubtedly is, is insightful. It is insightful into Russians (I think we can safely surmise), but it is also startlingly insightful into the human experience. Tolstoy is so deft at handling such a range of experience and emotion, that I often paused to wonder how he could write Karenina without having lived all of these contrary lives. For example, there is this amazing passage about Levin on the brink of fatherhood and what that is like, and then, in no time at all, the tables are turned and there are these astounding insights into what it is like to be a new mother. I almost blushed, never realizing before how intimately a man could intimate on this almost spiritual experience. In all, Tolstoy must have been smart, had a great memory, and more than anything, been a keen observer of the human species, of life itself.

On the other hand, there are many times when the universality of the characters are weighted down by the sheer 1800s Russianness of it all. It was hard for me to keep attentive when the peasant question or the Balkan conflict went on for page after page after page. This peek into Russian society was interesting (helped me understand this whole Slavic night life thing), but only to a point. And my only other sticking point: the characters were largely negative. I never liked Anna at all (does anyone?), and I wanted to like Karenin and Levin and Dolly, and even Kitty… but Tolstoy makes it so hard. Of course, plenty of people would argue you don’t need likeable characters to make a great story, as long as they are interesting. Ehn… a couple characters I can really root for always pushes a book higher up on my to-do list for the day, as well as gives me a better memory of the book, later.

I’m not going to complain about the number of characters. This translation makes identifying them easy (without Russian nomenclature) and I was able to recall most of the important people when they came back around. I am also not going to complain about longwindedness. Old books take longer to say something we whip off in less, even plot-wise. Oh well.

And to top it all off–to turn an engaging story and incredible insightfulness into a true classic–is the writing itself. The best writing, in my opinion, slips in unnoticed and then takes the reader’s breath away at intervals. Of course, we are dealing with a translation here, but Tolstoy’s writing is both clear and beautiful, a desirous combination, to be sure. It’s a long book, weighing in at a hefty 860 pages, but it is one you want to keep reading, not just for the characters, but for the sheer joy of reading and a daily romp in a world composed of exquisite language.

ANNA KARENINAFor my review of the 2o12 movie starring Keira Knightley, see here.

“…he knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two kinds: one kind was–all the girls in the world except her, and those girls had every human frailty and were very commonplace girls; the other kind was–she alone…” (p39).

“‘Yes, my boy, women are the pivot everything turns on'” (p42).

“‘Yes, lost,’ Oblonsky continued. ‘But what is there to do now?’ / ‘Don’t steal rolls'” (p43).

“‘All the diversity, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shade'” (p44).

“‘What did I do, and what could I have done? It was you who found enough love in your heart to forgive–‘” (p103).

“…as if some inner voice were saying to her, just as Vronsky came to mind, ‘Warm, very warm, hot!” (p106).

“‘I think that–if there are just as many minds as there are heads, then there are also just as many kinds of love as there are hearts'” (p145).

“‘We can never be friends, you know that yourself. But whether we shall be the happiest or the unhappiest people in the world–all that depends on you'” (p147).

“…the memory of these bad actions of his did not torment him nearly so much as those trivial, but shameful memories. Such wounds never close up” (p159).

“Anna–would retreat somewhere into herself and some other strange, alien woman would emerge, whom he did not love and was afraid of…” (p199).

“When Vronsky had looked at his watch on the Karenin’s balcony he had been so agitated and preoccupied by his own thoughts that all he had seen was hands on a dial, without realizing what time it was” (p202)

“‘Since “fables won’t feed nightingales,” he said'” (p218).

“…she realized that she had been deceiving herself in thinking she could be what she wanted to be” (p250).

“‘The principal task of philosophy throughout the ages has been to discover the necessary connection between personal and social interests'” (p263).

“‘I need some physical exercise or else my character will definitely go bad'” (p264).

“The main thing was that it was a golden bridge for her to return by” (p303).

“In order to fall asleep you have to work, and to feel gay you have to work, too'” (p322).

“All these rules might be irrational and bad, but they were beyond question” (p326).

“‘…when you know only your wife, as someone once wrote, and love her, you know more about all women than if you had known them by the thousands'” (p333).

“Levin saw that what his brother found unbearable was simply life itself” p376).

“‘Love them that hate you, but to love them that you hate yourself is impossible” (p422).

“‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad'” (p437).

“…he clung to his pseudosalvation as though it were salvation” (p547).

“And the most passionate and impossible romances rose up in Dolly’s imagination” (p650).

“‘What does it mean–blame? Could it have been any different?'” (p678).

“‘I can’t unite them, and that’s the only thing I want'” (p683).

“‘Is it possible to tell anyone else what you feel?'” (p807).

“No, as far as he’s concerned, my flavor’s gone wrong'” (p810).

“And the candle by which she had been reading that book that is filled with anxiety, deceit, sorrow, and evil flared up with a brighter flame than ever before, lighted up everything for her that had previously been in darkness, flickered, dimmed, and went out forever” (p816).

“But knowing by experience that with the present public mood it was dangerous to express any opinion contrary to what was generally thought, and especially to condemn the Volunteers, he also just looked at Katavasov” (p825).

“He was in the position of looking for food in a toyshop or a gunshop” (p835).

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