Thursday, 30 August 2012

Anna Karenina: the joy of long books

In a possibly ill-advised move, I decided yesterday that I wanted to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina before the new film adaptation (starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law; trailer below).  Armed with a disgracefully cheap Wordsworth Classics copy, I quickly got to work on its 806 pages.  Unfortunately, it quickly emerged that (presumably to cut costs) the publisher had used the smallest font possible.  The nine days until the film release suddenly don't seem so long.

Now, I'm no stranger to long books.  With an English degree behind me I've tucked away 20 Victorian novels in a term, as well as chewing through James Joyce's Ulysses and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (the longest poem in English, I believe).  I only drew the line at Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which comes in at a smidgeon under a million words - in my defence I had to write about the almost-as-long Tom Jones and the not insubstantial Pamela in the same week, and I ended up writing an essay on why Clarissa's length made it impossible to study.  But I digress.  (Much like Tolstoy.)
I'm still too early in Anna Karenina to give a full assessment of it, but what it's brought to mind straight away was how fun it can be to get lost in an extremely long novel.  Most books published today tend to be around 250-400 pages, with exceptions for genres such as high fantasy - the assumption (backed up by a great infographic I saw the other day but have now lost...) is that in the twenty-first century people get bored too quickly to get through anything longer.

To that end, it was refreshing to get 50 pages into Tolstoy's novel and to only have heard one brief mention of the titular heroine.  Tolstoy starts us off with a completely different character (the wonderfully named Oblonsky), with whom we spend a leisurely chapter or three, before skipping over to follow Constantine Levin and his infatuation with Kitty Shcherbatskaya (part of the reason for the books length is the space taken up by the names).  At this point all we know is that Anna (or Mrs Karenina, to give her her proper title) is visiting later in the week.

Now, I'm sure all of these plot strands will be brought together soon enough.  Also, there is obviously a tactical element to Anna's delayed entry - we're reading a book called Anna Karenina, so we cannot fail to notice her absence.  Nonetheless this doesn't stop the opening chapters from having a delightfully purposeless feel - we are not truly in a story, but merely observing the lives of these different Moscovites.  Tolstoy is a good enough writer to make such meanderings entertaining, but I don't see why a gifted modern author couldn't do the same.

It's also fascinating to note that when we do finally meet Anna, she quickly finds time to read a book.  Anna's distracted at this point, and finds that she doesn't just want to read, she wants to live the events themselves: "If she read that the heroine of the novel was nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man".  Obviously, this is showing that Anna is restless, which is vital to the plot, but I found it also conveyed the experience of reading Anna Karenina - the slow pace and vast cast of characters create a well developed world which feels almost tangible, where a more rushed novel only has time for its single arc.  

The new film might be too busy showing Anna being
emphatically distressed to show her casually reading...
(As a side note, when Anna's husband reads fiction, he does so as a 'duty' to keep up with the latest trends, and always has 'the most distinct and decided opinions' in inverse proportion to his understanding.  When you compare his approach to his wife's, it is clear which seems more like hard work, and thus where such a playful novelist's sympathies lie.)

I'm already starting to wonder how Joe Wright (the new film's director) will handle the book.  There's always a challenge in cutting a lengthy book into a (relatively) short film - Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy plainly succeeded where the Harry Potter films struggled, to pick two recent high-profile examples.  But both of those books were comparatively plot-heavy, meaning the challenge for the director's was to cram a lot of story into a short space of time.  With Anna Karenina, it seems so far, the challenge will be to decide how much time can be devoted to a jaunty conversation at the ice rink which doesn't move the story along at all.  I hope some time can be spared, because such moments are so central to the books appeal.

Joel is currently 118 pages into the 806 page novel - give him some encouragement via Facebook, Twitter, or the comment section below.  Alternatively follow the blog to make sure you're the first to hear his full review when he finishes


1 comment:

  1. This was really encouraging to read, because I've been working on a book for a while that just seems to be growing...and growing...and growing. And it's very much a "just observing the lives" of a few people in a village, in an up-close way... and I was wondering whether anyone would even enjoy that kind of "purposeless" narrative. So thank you for this!!