Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - Anna Karenina by Count Leo Tolstoy


Note: While most people I know have read Anna Karenina, and even those who haven’t know the basic storyline, I’ve tried very hard to avoid any spoilers in this review. If you find any, please accept my apologies and know that this panorama of 19th century Russian life is far, far richer than any review could portray.

I don’t know any serious reader who isn’t familiar with the opening lines of Anna Karenina, considered by many to be the “world’s greatest novel.” Whether it is or not, I do think it’s the definitive exploration of love and marriage and human frailty, set against the panoramic background of Russian high society.

Anna Karenina is a rather long novel and its title character doesn’t even make her appearance until Chapter Eighteen. The book begins, though, with a scene from a marriage – the marriage of Anna’s brother, Prince Stepan Oblansky (also known as Stiva) to Dolly (Darya) Shcherbatskya – and the problems caused by Stiva’s infidelity with his children’s French governess.

Despite the confusion he’s caused, Stepan Arkadyich isn’t wholly without a sense of humor regarding his infidelity (and many other things as well, as we’ll learn later in the book):

Stepan Arkadyich was a truthful man concerning his own self. He could not deceive himself into believing that he repented of his behavior. He could not now be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he. He repented only that he had not managed to conceal things better from her. But he felt all the gravity of his situation, and pitied his wife, his children and himself. Perhaps he would have managed to hide his sins better from his wife had he anticipated that the news would have such an effect on her. He had never thought the question over clearly, but vaguely imagined that his wife had long suspected him of being unfaithful to her and was looking the other way. It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

Stiva does take comfort in the fact that his sister, Anna Karenina, wife of a well-known government minister in St. Petersburg, will be arriving the next day. Anna, Stiva believes, can calm Dolly and cause her to see that forgiveness would be the best route for her to take.

It is through Prince Oblansky (Stiva), that we’re introduced to another pivotal character in Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin, a man very much taken with Dolly’s teenaged sister, Kitty Shcherbatskya. Kitty, however, has already given her heart to another, the dashing Imperial aide-de-camp, Count Vronsky.

Konstantin Levin’s story in Anna Karenina will echo and reflect and intertwine with Anna’s own, though the two will meet only once. Levin’s story will be just as important as Anna’s, and though it may not appear to be so at first glance, Levin and Anna are really very much alike. Both have compassionate, though somewhat self-centered natures, and both throw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they do. Unlike Anna, however, who loves city life and high society, Levin is very much attached to the countryside and his own farms and has an almost spiritual reverence for the land.

Tolstoy, himself, was very much attached to the land, an attachment he believed necessary to the preservation of health and well-being. Cities, on the contrary, to Tolstoy, represented hotbeds of moral depravity.

We first meet Anna Karenina as she’s stepping off a train. In this book, trains are an important symbol, usually foreshadowing death and despair (Tolstoy greatly disapproved of Western industrialization in Russia and decided to make the train one of many symbols of his dislike). Just as it’s no coincidence that we first meet Anna as she’s stepping off a train, in my opinion, it’s also no coincidence that Anna and Vronsky, who are destined to become lovers, first encounter each other at a train station.

Just as Tolstoy believed in a reverence for the land, he also believed in a reverence for family life and this included one’s extended family as well as one’s immediate family. Adultery was common in 19th century Russian high society, and some society matrons even made their appearance at the opera or at afternoon teas with both husband and lover in tow. Very few thought any the less of them as long as they “kept up appearances” in their marriage and family life as well. Princess Betsy, a friend of Anna’s and the epitome of “high society hypocrisy” even gives a croquet party at which two society matrons arrive with their husbands…and their lovers. Anna, however, doesn’t give a whit about her husband; she only attends because she doesn’t want to miss a chance to see her lover.

Anna’s inability to maintain her marriage and simply “dally” with her lover as many other women did is the source of her anguish as well as a manifestation of the richness and depth of her character. Anna Karenina was a passionate woman, but she could give that passion to only one man. Anna’s passion for her lover dooms both her family life with her husband and son, and her lover’s family life with his mother and siblings.

Throughout the novel, both Anna and Karenin, her husband, adopt a “first they will and then they won’t” attitude toward divorce. In 19th century Russia, the only grounds for divorce were extreme cruelty or adultery. Anna rebels against divorce primarily because she would lose custody of her beloved son, Seryozha; Karenin rebels, in part, because of the disruption it would cause to his career and to his public image. He even goes so far as to tell Anna that he’s willing to accept her affair if only she conducts it with a little more propriety. I know many readers who disliked Alexei Karenin immensely. I’m not one of those readers. I found Alexei Karenin to be both as complex and complicated as Anna, and though he can be cruel at times, I was often impressed with his generosity of spirit and his understanding and acceptance of his wife’s far more passionate (and adulterous) nature. So many times I found myself more in sympathy with Karenin than the far-less-rational Anna.

In contrast to Karenin, Vronsky is a shallow and superficial man, not in the slightest bit complex; a man who would probably be hard-pressed to succeed at loving any woman, even one whose passions were far less potent and demanding than are Anna’s. And Anna’s passions are demanding. She allows her lover no time to “be himself,” and tries to place all the responsibility for her happiness on his shoulders by telling him:

Everything is finished. I have nothing but you now. Remember that.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina to tell a story of marriage and infidelity, of marriage and faithfulness, of jealously and kindness, but he also wanted to showcase life in 19th century Russia and detail the many changes that were taking place. He does the latter, not through Anna, but largely through the deeply conflicted and deeply troubled character of Konstantin Levin.

As a landowner, Levin worries about his relationship with the peasants and muzhiks working on his lands. He even enjoys whole days mowing with the muzhiks in the meadow, and these “days in the countryside” represent some of the book’s most lyrical passages:

They finished another swath and another. They went through long swaths, short swaths, with bad grass, with good grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus’s. But as soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard his work was and the swath came out badly.

More than any other thing, however, Levin worries about death. It’s clear that Levin is a highly spiritual being, and until quite late in the novel, a being without a God to trust.

As Anna grows apart from both husband and lover, Levin and Kitty grow closer and closer together. And although still much alike, Anna’s passions are destructive and damaging, while Levin’s are spiritual and nurturing. As Anna’s life spirals downward, Levin’s reaches a beautiful state of grace.

Anna Karenina is a novel told in eight parts. The story’s climax is reached in Part Seven. Part Eight, which is shorter than the preceding seven parts, contains a beautiful denouement of falling action in which Tolstoy shows us how Levin’s quest for the spiritual led him to life rather than to death.

Some readers have called Tolstoy “too moralistic” for the views of marriage and fidelity he presents in Anna Karenina. While there can be no doubt that Tolstoy was a bit of a prude, I don’t think this book is really about what is morally right and what is wrong. I think it’s more about the power of undirected passion to overwhelm, to destroy, to kill. For after all, Levin is not Anna’s opposite; of all the characters in the book, he is the one most like her, the one character, perhaps, capable of understanding her dilemma to the fullest. And yet, Levin, passionate as he is, is not consumed by his desires, not destroyed by them. He flourishes; he prospers; he finds happiness and peace.

Although this is my all time favorite book (I’m a great fan of Realism), the main reason I reread it when I did was because of my great admiration for the translations of the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I certainly was not disappointed. In this book, I think the human condition is portrayed in all its intricacy and richness. I was immediately swept into the story and into the lives of the characters. I savored the book and the translation and was sorry to read the final page. And even though I didn’t like all of the characters, I still found echoes of them in myself and in every other person I meet. Therein, I think, lies this book’s timelessness and its genius. Anna Karenina is, at its most basic, a celebration, for good or ill, of what it means to be human.

5/5

Recommend: Absolutely. This book is a richly detailed portrait of life in 19th century Russia and a beautifully detailed look at the essence of “simply being human.” If you decide to read the book, I highly recommend the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

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