Saturday, 15 September 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (book)

It took longer than hoped, but I've finally finished Anna Karenina.  Two weeks and 806 pages of very small text later, I'm left wondering how to describe this wonderful wonderful book.

As a caveat, as already discussed, I'm a fan of sprawling Victorian-era novels.  If you aren't, then don't even try to begin Anna Karenina - it's got all the hallmarks of the genre: a character list that spans several pages (all with confusing similar and often genderless Russian names), large passages of earnest moral debate, still larger passages where the author apparently forgets the plot.  If you can cope with all of that, you will love it.

Without wanting to introduce too many spoilers (although, having said that, I'm going to assume that most people have some idea of the main direction of Anna's story), it is striking how different the novel was from what I anticipated.  Unlike Tolstoy's even more famous epic, War and Peace, Anna Karenina is a title that suggests the story will focus on one particular heroine.  This simply isn't the case, as Tolstoy juggles Anna's love story with that of another will-they-won't-they couple, Constantine Levin and Kitty Scherbatsky, as well as a less central third couple, and then seemingly endless other character arcs, many of which we very literally never hear the end of.

Even Anna's own story was different to how I anticipated it. (Spoilers here!) The facts of the case (married woman, adulterous affair, tragic death), plus the emphasis of the new film trailer, led me to expect a Russian Romeo and Juliet, with society tearing apart the star-crossed lovers. That's partly true, but the novel is far
deeper and darker than that. Whereas Romeo and Juliet has three acts of beautiful love poetry, Anna's first night with her lover (Vronsky) is greeted by the starkly bleak: 'she drooped her once proud, bright, but now shame-stricken head, and she writhed...'

The characterisation of her husband, Karenin, is too credible for us not to be sympathetic to this wronged man, even while Tolstoy succeeds in showing us how and why Anna loathes him - there's a wonderful detail about her suddenly noticing his too-large ears.  This foreshadows the psychologically devastating deterioration of Anna as the novel progresses and her dependence on both Vronsky and morphine reaches critical levels - as the story approaches it's climax Tolstoy brilliantly inhabits her disintegrating mind, as she interprets everything he does as a sign of infidelity.  Anna is such a wonderful character because she is at once so (sym)pathetic and so clearly and consistently in the wrong.  You can't help but feel, however much her circumstances and her society's mores are responsible, she is a dark and destructive force at the heart of the story.  It isn't a coincidence, nor completely ironic, that the first reaction we hear to her death is Vronsky's mother's verdict: 'say what you will, her death itself was the death of a horrid woman'.

But, strikingly, the novel doesn't end there, but returns for 50 more rambling pages with Kitty and Levin, whose story is so charming because it is so utterly eventless.  The skills that develop the psychological depth in Anna, her husband and her lover are put to still better use in making us care about this charming but simple girl and her dull, wordy and antisocial love interest, who spends most of the novel trying to solve the problem of the labourer in theories of Russian agriculture.  Sounds gripping?  Bizarrely, it is.

Through this pair, plus Kitty's sister Dolly and her errant husband Steve (Anna's brother), Tolstoy weaves the wider world that stops this being a story about a horrible society that crushes the heroine's love.  There are certainly problems in Russia, which we are made to care about because of their impact on the characters, or because of their scathing Dickensian satirical detail (like Dickens, Tolstoy sets his sight on local elections). This is certainly a novel you can get lost in.

Of course, there are really serious themes here - gender relations and romantic relationships are interrogated in a sophisticated manner - if Anna and Karenin are a bad couple, Anna and Vronsky are little better; Steve and Dolly are an ongoing catastophe from the first line, while Kitty and Levin cannot seriously be viewed to be anything like ideal.  The novel's slightly out of place opening maxim is "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  Through jealousy, indifference and even boredom, Tolstoy illustrates this for 800 pages.

I have so much more to say about the novel, and I may attempt a more scholarly attack on it in the near future (as well as letting you know my views on the film, which I can now see with the appropriate snobbish foreknowledge), but, if you have a good few weeks to invest, you really have to read this book.

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1 comment:

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