At long last! I finally finished Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – the first big chunky Russian classic I have read, though based on this experience it won’t be the last. It may have taken me three months to make it through, but I enjoyed it tremendously nonetheless. I feel like everyone is at least somewhat aware of the plot of Anna Karenina, including the ending, but I’ll steer clear of major spoilers in this post anyway. The eponymous Anna is a member of the Russian aristocracy, married for years to her husband Karenin. Dissatisfied with her married life, she gets involved with a young (also aristocratic) soldier, and the novel largely follows the consequences of that decision. This story runs alongside that of Levin, an idealistic member of the landed gentry who wants to a) get married and b) improve the condition of Russian agriculture. In a novel this size, of course there are many other side plots and details, but I would probably describe Anna and Levin as the main characters.
I was initially a bit suspicious of Anna Karenina as a novel, honestly. There is a whole subgenre of 19th century novels about women who marry perfectly adequate men for security, get bored, put it about out of boredom or spite, and then clutch their pearls in shock when this behaviour affects their marriages. (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary). I recognise all the meaningful things these novels are meant to say about the condition of women, the difficulty of getting a divorce in the 19th century, etc, but for my money The Tenant of Wildfell Hall addresses them better and with a much less irritating protagonist. When I was reading Madame Bovary, it just felt like this:
So, because I knew Anna Karenina was about a doomed love affair, I wondered if I would have a similar experience, only over many more pages. Because it is such a widely lauded novel, though, I decided I still wanted to give it a shot. I’m so glad I did. It turns out that, shocker, this novel repeatedly described as one of the greatest novels of all time is actually pretty good.
Admittedly, it was a slow read. If I was going to do it again, I think I’d set it aside for a holiday when I could really sink into it for whole days, rather than reading 20-50 pages at a time. (Should I ever actually get to go on my twice-postponed Transmongolian Railway adventure, I’m planning on taking War and Peace with me for our travel days. I know this is a cliché, but sometimes clichés exist for a reason). I was reading the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, which was approved by Tolstoy himself, and I think that was the right call. That said, it meant that I was dealing with something originally written in a very different language, and then translated over a hundred years ago, so it’s twice removed from the way we speak in 21st century Britain.
As the novel progressed, and especially on the rare day where I was able to read for a couple of hours uninterrupted, I got used to the pace and flow of the language. However, I broke it up with other books (reading the same novel for three months is not a good way to maintain a book blog), and returning to it after reading more recent publications always felt challenging to start with. The different naming conventions in particular were difficult to understand. I’m sure there were reasons why characters were sometimes called one thing and sometimes another, but without the context the original readers would have had, it was just confusing to hold on to. Similarly, I was several hundred pages in before I started to understand when Tolstoy simply said “the capitals” as opposed to specifying “Moscow” or “Petersburg”, he meant something very specific. Late in the novel, a character muses on the fact that Petersburg is a fun, liberal city that looks kindly on men sleeping with women who are not their wives, whereas Moscow is a taciturn spoilsport sort of place where having a second secret family that you are hiding from your wife is frowned upon. Even though this novel was already thick enough, I somewhat wish I’d read an annotated version – maybe this would have helped me to get more out of it.
Nonetheless, there was more than enough in here for me to get engrossed in, even missing some of the context. One of the things that I found most fascinating about this novel was the in-depth look at class structure and Russian agriculture, especially in the countryside. I studied the Russian Revolution at school, but our syllabus started with the onset of WWI and did not really look back into the 19th century at class relations or conditions for peasants. Of course, Tolstoy came from Russian nobility himself, and although he opposed the aristocracy and favoured anarchism, he still benefited from his wealth and education. It’s impossible to write about your own time objectively, no matter how good your intentions. That said, I found Tolstoy’s look at these issues really fascinating and written with a great deal of empathy for peasants and ex-serfs. There is a scene relatively early in the novel that stuck with me: Levin, suffering from a recent heartbreak and throwing himself into his landowner responsibilities, decides that he wants to cut hay with his peasants one day. He relishes the absorbing physicality of the work and enjoys feeling like A Man of the People. Yet, even though this segment is written from Levin’s point of view, we can see from the reactions of his staff that they really don’t love this side of him. He is playing at being a peasant – he spends all day working as hard as any of them, sure, but he can go back to his huge country house, eat pigeon and oysters, drink expensive wine any time he wants – and he doesn’t consistently join them. His labourers alternately laugh at and resent his playacting. I am pretty sure Levin was a kind of Tolstoy self-insert, so I appreciated the way that he allowed Levin to be completely ridiculous at times.
That said, I found the contrast between Levin and Anna’s lover, Vronsky, really telling. Levin, for all his flaws, really wants to improve the condition of his labourers and make his estate pay out – not for reasons of his own financial greed, but because if he makes the land more productive he will be able to pay more and the peasants’ conditions will improve. He devotes a lot of thought to how to make things better for the Russian agricultural labourer, and this way of viewing things means that he is regarded as a crank by the rest of the nobility. In contrast, Vronsky builds a big hospital for the rural poor, and gets a lot of credit for it, but he’s much more interested in showing off. His sudden interest in architecture is more of a vanity project than anything, and it shows.
‘The pediment is still too low,’ he answered Anna’s question as to what it was all about.
‘I said the foundations ought to be raised,’ said Anna.
‘Yes, of course that would have been better, Anna Arkadyevna,’ replied the architect, ‘but it’s done now.’
‘Yes, I am very much interested in it,’ said Anna to Sviyazhsky, who expressed surprise at her knowledge of architecture. ‘The new building ought to be in line with the hospital, but it was an afterthought and was begun without a plan.’
A few lines after this exchange, Dolly – Anna’s sister-in-law – asks Vronsky if his new hospital will have a maternity ward, the thing most needed in that area of the country. Vronsky interrupts her to say that it is not designed for that purpose, and moves her on immediately to admiring the new equipment he’d ordered for it. He isn’t interested in helping out the local populace or meeting their needs; this is public philanthropy carried out for reasons of public admiration. It’s in stark contrast to Levin’s bumbling but sincere attempts to understand his workers and what makes them tick.
And I suppose this brings us on to Anna’s story – the most famous part of the novel. Honestly, I found this to be the least interesting aspect of the book. Anna is afflicted with chronic selfishness and an inability to use her common sense. This is all well and good – characters should have flaws and plenty of people are selfish and irrational – but we have to spend so much time inside her head. I always find characters who delight in being ruled by their emotions frustrating, and Anna absolutely glories in it. It is impossible to discern anything that a reasonable woman could possibly find attractive about Vronsky, so the way in which her love for him dominates her behaviour for the rest of the book is difficult to comprehend. I often have this problem with Love At First Sight plots, and Tolstoy doesn’t really make me buy that Vronsky is appealing enough to warrant the huge life changes Anna makes for him. Her relationship with Vronsky quickly becomes the sole driving force of Anna’s life.
I suspect that the insularity of Anna’s narrative voice is intentional. After all, if she is having to rearrange her whole life because of the consequences of her affair, it makes sense that she would become completely preoccupued with it. The male characters in this book are (mostly) cheating all the time – to the point where they actively mock Levin for his faithfulness – and never face the kind of consequences that Anna does. Tolstoy is making a very good point with the way he contrasts Anna to these male characters. Nevertheless, I found it a bit difficult to get through those scenes, and it’s maybe here (rather than in all the pontificating about the Russian feudal system) that I most strongly felt the distance between Anna’s world and today. Of course, there are definitely still people this obsessed with their romantic partners, but most women now have jobs or hobbies or something else they can think about. Even the tedious Vronsky comes across as more multifaceted than Anna, since he at least has interests external to their relationship. I mean, this is an indication that Anna is well-written – she wouldn’t be half so irritating if she wasn’t – so I can see why this gets called a brilliant character study. I just wish that Anna was a more engaging character to study. Like Vronsky, she has other characters that act as foils, and she get more interesting when considered in that light – but this review is already long, and also I think I would need to get into spoiler territory in order to properly do that justice.
Despite my aggravation with aspects of the romance plot, I am still extremely glad I read this (and feeling less intimidated by War and Peace than I was). A short review doesn’t really feel like enough space to expand on everything I loved about this extremely mammoth novel – I haven’t even touched on Tolstoy’s descriptions of places, which were so vividly drawn that I could almost feel the mist and hear the midges. I read this partly because of my In Lieu of Travel challenge, and it felt like I was able to get a very good sense of the western Russian countryside, along with St Petersburg. It exposed a lot of gaps in my knowledge of 19th century Russian history – I was vaguely aware that serfs were emancipated in the middle of the 19th century, but this novel is explicitly set a few years after that and looks at some of the social and political forces involved. It is rare that I read a novel, even one of the classics, and think that I would love to study it in a classroom setting in order to learn more about it – but that is how I felt about this. So, irritations aside, I am happy to wholeheartedly recommend Anna Karenina – but only if you are willing to devote several weeks to reading it!