Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy

7/10 (Unlikeable protagonists, boring/tedious narrative, saccharine conception of love)

When picking up one of Tolstoy’s two masterpieces, you must prepare yourself to enter a land where every eye shimmers as it reveals the soul of its owner, where most hands are pressed significantly to convey any one of dozens of emotions, and where the most mundane character can read in a single glance the complex subconscious motives of even a casual acquaintance.

For a man who has a reputation as an “anti-romanticist,” these qualities in his books seem to me the height of romanticism.  I admit that I am unclear on the true definition of the word, on what makes a novel romantic v. realistic, yet I see this realm of soul-revealing gazes and meaningfully-pressed hands and I can’t help thinking that real people don’t interact like this, at least not anymore.  So I’m left thinking that Tolstoy either exaggerated the weightiness of human interactions for dramatic effect (which seems a long way of saying he “romanticized” them), or that we modern humans have simply lost our ability to fully appreciate or attend to interpersonal relations.  My gut tells me it’s a combination of the two, with a ratio probably in the 30/70 range, maybe 40/60.

Before I get to the meat of the review, an important note on the translation:  I did the same thing with AK that I did for War and Peace, that is I began with one translation and switched partway through to the new Pevear/Volokhonsky version (in this case it was over halfway through since the desired edition wasn’t returned on time to the library).  For W&P it was accidental and for AK on purpose, but in both cases the difference in translations is not only noticeable (the first time I’ve ever thought to notice it in fact) but vast and meaningful.

To be sure, I had no problem with the Garnett translation of AK as I was reading it.  But I had barely picked up the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation to compare certain passages before the former felt sterile and old-fashioned while the latter felt alive, fluid and vibrant.  Without knowing Russian or being a Tolstoy expert, I have little doubt that Pevear and Volokhonsky do more to capture his prose style than anyone else who has yet translated his works.  If you are planning on reading either of his two masterpieces, PLEASE use the Pevear & Volokhonsky versions.  I now have a mind to obtain their version of Crime and Punishment and read it for the fourth time just so I can marvel at their work.

And now to the review. . . here are the things I loved about this book:

-The writing is beautiful with amazingly detailed descriptions and masterful metaphors. . . I love such asides as his description of the arriving spring in Ch.12 of Part 2, and even more delightful was the hunt from Luska the dog’s perspective in Ch.12 of Part 6.  The metaphors are too numerous to count, but one of the more memorable was in Ch.13 of Part 5 when the Russian painter compares Vronsky’s attempt to paint in front of a true painter with a man caressing a mannequin in front of a true couple: “ridiculous, vexing, pathetic and offensive.”

-As with W&P, the rigor with which Tolstoy portrays Russian life is amazingly informative.  You come away having learned so much about not only this particular era of Russian history but also about Russian culture in general that the novel is invaluable even apart from its artistic merits.

-Levin in all of his autobiographical conservatism, self-doubt, and spiritual despair.

-Tolstoy’s portrayal of realistic conversations, especially with more than two characters, while maintaining distinct and consistent identities among all of the conversants.

-The proto-feminism of the book, highlighted in Anna, though inconsistent (she prevaricates between simple infatuation and a complex outrage against the injustice of her standing compared to Vronsky’s)

-The mirrors that Tolstoy uses to compare his characters in parallel narratives (Anna/Vronsky v. Dolly/Stiva v. Kitty/Levin) and even comparing the trajectory of the two main protagonists Anna and Levin (I love that they only meet once!).

-The amazing psychological insight that Tolstoy offers into the evolution of his characters’ personalities (best shown in Anna, Karenin, Vronsky and Levin).  In this last aspect Tolstoy makes Dostoyevsky look like a Psych 10 student.  Here’s a good example, combining both psychological insight with a fascinating metaphor:

His wife’s words, confirming his worst doubts, produced a cruel pain in Alexei Alexandrovich’s heart.  This pain was further intensified by a strange feeling of physical pity for her, produced in him by her tears.  But, left alone in the carriage, Alexei Alexandrovich, to his own surprise and joy, felt complete deliverance both from this pity and from the doubt and suffering of jealousy that had lately tormented him.

He felt like a man who has had a long-aching tooth pulled out. After the terrible pain and the sensation of something huge, bigger than his head, being drawn from his jaw, the patient, still not believing his good fortune, suddenly feels that what had poisoned his life and absorbed his attention for so long exists no more, and that he can again live, think and be interested in something other than his tooth.  This was the feeling Alexei Alexandrovich experienced.  The pain had been strange and terrible, but now it was gone; he felt that he could again live and think about something other than his wife. Ch.13, Part 3

-The social, political and religious critiques, including the wonderful portrayal of the aristocracy’s hypocrisy (which is why I preferred the Levin to the Anna sections).  A good example of this, combining religious/social criticism with his omnipresent psychological insight, occurs in Ch.22 of Part 5, discussing Karenin’s turn toward religion:

Like Lydia Ivanovna and other people who shared their views, he was totally lacking in depth of imagination, in that inner capacity owing to which the notions evoked by the imagination become so real that they demand to be brought into correspondence with other notions and with reality.  He did not see anything impossible or incongruous in the notion that death, which existed for unbelievers, did not exist for him, and that since he possessed the fullest faith, of the measure of which he himself was the judge, there was no sin in his soul and he already experienced full salvation here on earth.

It is true that Alexei Alexandrovich vaguely sensed the levity and erroneousness of this notion of his faith, and he knew that when, without any thought that his forgiveness was the effect of a higher power, he had given himself to his spontaneous feeling, he had experienced greater happiness than when he thought every moment, as he did now, that Christ lived in his soul and that by signing papers he was fulfilling His will; but it was necessary for him to think that way, it was so necessary for him in his humiliation to possess at least an invented loftiness from which he, despised by everyone, could despise others, that he clung to his imaginary salvation as if it were salvation indeed.

Overall, however, I feel defective for not loving this book.  Though more cohesive, and despite the gorgeous prose, it certainly was not as compelling as W&P, especially if you are able to partially disengage from the historical asides of the latter.  Apart from Levin and perhaps Dolly, all three of W&P’s principal protagonists — Prince Andrei, Pierre and Natasha — are more sympathetic than any of Anna’s characters.  Even the minor character Kutuzov aroused more feeling in me than anyone in AK.

And despite being more cohesive than W&P, I still feel that AK’s narrative was weak. I have to confess, again probably demonstrating my own defects, that until about 2/3 through the book I was even confused as to why it was named after a character who seemed to be playing such a minor role in the goings-on.  Indeed, through much of the middle of the book I was disappointed at returning to the Anna/Vronsky narrative after spending pages with the fascinating and much more sympathetic Levin.

Tolstoy did of course return to Anna toward the end (resolving my confusion), but the last several of her chapters were simply tiresome.  From about halfway through the book, Anna and Vronsky had the same disagreements over and over again with no resolution.  So you know the same spats will continue, and indeed they do, to an irritating extent, until in her last pages she literally cycles continuously through her feelings for about three chapters.  It makes sense in that Tolstoy wanted to create a crescendo effect that could really only end in one way, but reading it was more tedious than entertaining.

Another part I disliked about the Anna/Vronsky narrative was that Vronsky himself did not at any point arouse my sympathy in the least.  From the very beginning he struck me as Anatole Kuragin 2.0 (from W&P), and while Tolstoy at least gave him a more dynamic character arc he never broke out of that mold of the vain, selfish, immature man-child.  I have rarely hated a literary character as much as I hated Anatole Kuragin, so having him as one of AK’s main characters made it difficult for me to care for his struggles, or to sympathize with Anna for falling for him (just as I hated Natasha for letting Anatole seduce her).

This brings me to probably my final annoyance with this book (and with Tolstoy): his completely superficial understanding of love.  For Tolstoy, jealousy is a sign of love’s strength, not a red flag of insecurity.  While he does a good job of illustrating how jealousy by one partner can lead to the cooling of the other partner’s love, he still refers to it frequently as signifying the strength of a bond.  Additionally, it is incomprehensible to me how people can fall in love and decide to marry over the course of a few nights.  It seems so casual and fickle.  I recognize that this incomprehension is mostly due to huge cultural and epochal differences, which is why it’s only a minor annoyance.  My bemused skepticism does, however, jar me from the story when such a scenario occurs.  The “courtship” of Sergei Ivanovich and Varenka was probably the height, followed by the inexplicable finality of his non-proposal.

Additionally, Kitty’s “love” for Levin never convinces me that she’s not just grateful to settle for the runner-up.  This is a pretty significant flaw in what is supposed to be the ideal relationship of the novel.

Two final quibbles: starting Part 8 with three chapters of Sergei Ivanovich is weirdly anti-climactic; and when she drives by Levin on the country road, Tolstoy clearly states that Kitty “recognized him, and her face lighted up with amazed delight” when, yet when they finally meet at Dolly’s she doesn’t remember it.  Huh?

Overall I am impressed with the scope of the work and floored by its prose, psychology, and cultural critique.  Due most probably to some defect in my judgment, I cannot consider it one of the finest novels ever written (as I have seen so many claim).  I’d maybe place it tied for 4th among Russian novels (tied with The Brothers Karamazov and behind C&P, W&P and Lolita).  For context, I haven’t read Fathers and Sons but I have read most Gogol and Dostoyevsky.

I would give AK a “3.5” if pressed, but I round down since I gave W&P a “4/Favorite,” which feels accurate.  And in my opinion AK is not within a “Favorite” distinction of W&P in terms of impact and achievement.

Apologies for the length of this one.  Something about Tolstoy brings out the epic in my reviews.

Original Review


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