At 817 pages, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is the most daunting book I’ve yet read for The Classics Club. I chose the translation by husband-and-wife-team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their work translating Russian literature is highly acclaimed, and I liked the idea of a native Russian speaker and a native English speaker working so closely together on the translation. I found their Anna Karenina very readable.
It took me quite a while to read Anna Karenina, but I did enjoy it. The book was just so large it was hard to take everywhere, and I finished several thinner books for more portable reading. I think ‘intermittently’ was probably the best way for me to read Tolstoy. Usually I would read whole Parts in a chunk, but when it switched between different character arcs (and there were several), I needed a short break.
The main reason I was excited to read Anna Karenina was because my creative writing professor always talked about Russian writers as examples of superb character building. In this regard, Tolstoy did not disappoint. My sister, who’s reading War and Peace, said she noticed the same thing. The characters, especially his male characters, are nuanced people with depth of personality. I particularly enjoyed Levin and his story.
Three couples are at the centers of the novels main plots: Stepan and Dolly Oblonsky (Anna’s brother and sister-in-law), Kostya and Kitty Levin (Kitty is Dolly’s sister), and Anna Karenina with Alexei Karenin (her husband) or Alexei Vronsky (her lover). I know why Tolstoy chose Anna Karenina’s name as the title — she’s the only character which connects and influences all the others — but I was a little surprised not to see her play a more prominent (or at least more active) role in all the main plots.
Anna makes one decision — to enter an adulterous relationship with Vronsky — and then everything else just sort of happens. Her affair takes Vronsky out of Kitty’s life, which leads to Kitty’s very wise decision to marry Levin, but that’s the only affect Anna has on that plot line. Her main influence in the Oblonsky family storyline takes place at the beginning of the novel, before she even meets Vronsky. As relatives they cross paths throughout the book, but don’t influence each other much. For all the talk about her strong personality, Anna may be least active main character I’ve read. She takes the easiest road from the moment she throws her life in with Vronsky. She tells her husband only when she can’t bear not to. She won’t accept Karenin’s forgiveness because the self-awareness, growth and repentance necessary is too daunting. She doesn’t accept a divorce because it seems like such a final step that would separate her from her son. She refuses to take an interest in her daughter. She throws herself under a train because she can’t stop sabotaging the one relationship she has left, with Vronsky.
Here we get back to my caveat about Tolstoy’s really great characters mostly being male. I liked Kitty, I sympathized with Dolly, I partly understood Anna, but I didn’t empathize with them and they didn’t always feel real. Or maybe they were realistic, but I just didn’t like Anna and Dolly much? I’m not sure.
Plot wise, it did seem odd to me that the book continued so long after the title character’s death. These last chapters did tells you the main things that happened to Anna’s Alexies after her death, but didn’t follow them closely. Instead, it switched to wrapping up Levin’s subplot of spiritual awakening, which had absolutely nothing to do with Anna. Ending on that note made me wonder if the main point Tolstoy wanted his readers to take away wasn’t the tragedy of Anna’s unhappy families, but the beauty of Levin’s spiritual quest. Levin is also tempted by suicide, but he doesn’t take that route, and instead finds hope in his newly re-awakened faith in God that sits apart from any organized religion. Perhaps Tolstoy hoped his readers would progress on a path of faith, hope and happiness as well.