Saturday, April 6, 2013

Big, Big, Big, Big Book #3: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

"Anna Karenina seems to have everything – beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike and soon brings jealously and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself." An over 800 page book's plot is distilled into those four sentences. But seriously, that's basically what Anna Karenina is about. Although, of course, there are lots of side-stories and many, many characters who are not central to the story.

The book begins with telling of the trouble in the Oblonsky household; the husband has had an affair with the former French governess. But very quickly, he learns that his sister Anna, the title character, is coming to stay for a while. Then there's his friend Levin, who wants to marry his sister-in-law Kitty. And then there's Count Vronsky, the major troublemaker in the story. We also follow the story of the Oblonskys, a couple who have problems but always manage to right themselves. They provide good contrast to the other disastrous love story.

Much like Sense and Sensibility, there are so many subtle conversations in Anna Karenina, when the characters say one thing and mean something entirely different, or when they notice the tone of someone's voice but pretend not to notice it. Though Anna Karenina is set in much more high society than Sense and Sensibility, that similarity struck me. I really enjoyed reading about the Russian society too; it was so fascinating and foreign and strange. I also loved hearing the descriptions of all the meals, the oysters, that the characters have. 

Much like My Sister's Keeper (review in a few weeks), Tolstoy's books seem to resemble (to me, at least) a large soap opera, though a much more sophisticated soap opera with so many fascinating things about it. There are amazing characters, amazing descriptions, and lots and lots of intrigue and subtleties. Anna Karenina was so absorbing, and I just couldn't stop reading. With an author like Dickens, in many cases I have to force myself to go on. But there was much less of that in Anna Karenina, though a little bit in some of the middle parts. 

The writing is just so compelling and gripping. In fact, the book's writing hardly reads like an older book at all; there's some old-fashioned language, but not much, and it's really powerful. Also, there were way less references to Russian culture than I thought there would be; I read the footnotes, but there actually weren't that many, of which I was glad. Also, even without reading the footnotes, you can still understand the story. 

There's a really great scene towards the beginning of the book, when Kitty arrives at a ball all dressed in pink, and she sees Anna, who is dressed in a stately black and enjoying the attention of almost everyone. Rather than tell us that Anna is beautiful and admired, Tolstoy shows us that from another character's perspective. Here's an excerpt: "Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had imagined her inevitably in lilac. But now, seeing her in black, she felt that she had never understood all her loveliness. She saw her now in a completely new and, for her, unexpected way. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, that her loveliness consisted precisely in always standing out from what she wore, that what she wore was never seen on her. And the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen - simple, natural, graceful and at the same time gay and animated." (pg. 79). Anna proceeds to steal the show, and enraptures everybody, most notably Count Vronsky, who up until then had been Kitty's suitor.

Anna's husband is sort of like a much, much crueler Mr. Bennet. There's no love in their marriage, that's for sure. Anna, though, is also really self-centered, and she makes a lot of bad decisions in the book. But still, one can't help feeling sorry for her; she's young and vivacious and she's trapped in a dull marriage, and then she meets someone who she really hits it off with. Can you exactly blame her for that? But she does handle the situation in a not-so-great manner.

In a book like David Copperfield, it's really long because Dickens put in so many unnecessary words and descriptions. In a book like Anna Karenina, it's long because the story is really long. Are there some unnecessary scenes? Maybe. But the language itself is so meticulous and cleverly planned that the novel never feels like it's spending way too much time on description. And at the same time, the descriptions are fabulous and interesting. Also, Tolstoy invokes such passion in his writing, something that's lacking in many classic authors.

By page 200, so much had already happened in the book. I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen in the next 600 pages. That might have been my only criticism; there was perhaps a bit too much action. Anna and Vronsky become lovers within the first 200 pages, and other momentous things happen. But we've gotten through less than a quarter of the book. My fears turned out to be somewhat justified. The book kept going strong, but there were a lot of unnecessary scenes dealing with country life and farming techniques. I could have done without that. It was less interesting than the main story of Anna and Vronsky. But that didn't really detract from the brilliancy of Anna Karenina.

There are some amazing character sketches in Anna Karenina; all of the major and minor character are portrayed and described so well. When Anna's husband is thinking about what to do, the reader can really see his thought process and what kind of a man he is.

There were some dull moments in Anna Karenina, but that is to be expected of a book this length. I would highly recommend Anna Karenina; I was surprised by how much I loved it, despite the occasional dull moments. I'm planning to read War and Peace in the future.

Read Anna Karenina:
  • if you like Leo Tolstoy
  • if you like Russian literature
  • if you're looking for a long but amazing classic novel
817 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (if I own it)!
Though Anna Karenina is not exactly the kind of book one rereads often.

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