In which war and peace both have a place in an affair.
Publisher: Various (I read the Penguin Classics edition)
First Published: 1878
Date Reviewed: 7th November 2015
Original language: Russian
Original title: Anna Karenina
Translated by: Pevear and Volokhonsky
Anna catches Vronsky’s eye whilst he is supposedly courting Kitty. The attraction is mutual and so they begin an affair to the sadness of both Kitty and Karenin, Anna’s husband. It may not be all doom and gloom for Kitty – she’d turned down a proposal from Levin due to Vronsky and Levin still wants her, but Anna’s life will be very different as there is more to consider than she wishes to think about.
Anna Karenina is a tome of a book that focuses on the lives of five main characters and several secondary ones. Whilst the climax may deal with the titular character she is not the be all, end all – that’s to say the book’s about far more than the one woman. At 800-odd pages, no matter the edition, it’s a slog sometimes, but a good book nonetheless.
You likely won’t be surprised to hear that Tolstoy is wordy. There are limits as to how much can be put down to translation and Tolstoy can drone on on occasion – compared to Dickens it’s nothing but it does make for lulls in the text. This is somewhat but not completely to do with the themes of the novel; Anna Karenina owes much to philosophy – economic, religious, political, social.
This philosophy is explored through the character of Levin who in part represents the author himself. The narrative of Levin and Kitty’s courtship is comparable to that of Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia, and beyond that much of Levin’s thinking is based on Tolstoy’s own. This is surely why there is so much non-Anna in the book and knowing that it relates to Tolstoy can make it far more interesting than it would be by itself.
Whether because the author flipped back and forth himself or because he just wanted to explore the ideas (the likelihood is of Tolstoy flipping) there is a lot about Levin’s thinking that is objective. Tolstoy sends Levin’s thoughts flying in one direction before pulling him back the other way, not on every subject but a vast many. Of course he comes to particular conclusions in the end that may or may not fit the reader but he gives ample time to other viewpoints beyond his own. He appropriates lifestyles and thoughts whilst Levin figures out what he wants – and he aims to be respectful even if it doesn’t end up that way. Besides this consideration of one character, Tolstoy provides counterparts in Levin’s friends and family. Levin’s story isn’t exactly thrilling; it is the inactive (as opposed to physical action, extroversion) musing that balances out Anna and Vronsky’s social life.
To Anna then – yes, it feels odd not to have spoken of her thus far but somewhat right nevertheless – Tolstoy succeeds in luring you in. Everyone who meets Anna falls a little in love with her and damn it if you won’t also. It is in this way, the almost interactive nature of the text wherein Tolstoy makes you love her too, that the author shows you why people do the things they do. Making the reader fall for Anna does the job better than any descriptions, even if descriptions are what make you fall. Things get a little awry later insofar as reasoning goes – not everything Anna does makes perfect sense – but in general she is a fantastic character in that whether you like or dislike her she will make her mark on you.
With Vronsky it’s a little different. You don’t ‘have’ to fall for him and likely you won’t. Tolstoy sets him up as only a semi-hero from the start. Because you hear so much from both men – husband Karenin and lover Vronsky – you’re never in danger of putting them before Anna, which is quite possibly what Tolstoy planned. You will feel for all three characters in the triangle at various points, Tolstoy showing no major favouritism, rather exploring to an objective outcome the effects of an affair in such a time and society.
Explore he does. Of initial interest, perhaps, in our modern view with our particular mores, is the fact that it’s not the affair itself, the affair as a concept, that is the issue in this book. The society of which Tolstoy writes does not care for morals in this way – people have affairs all the time. What it does care about is divorce and the actual physical relocation of a couple from the bonds of marriage. It is Anna’s move to Vronsky’s side that heralds the start of her troubles, a queen moving anywhere she wants on the board that will eventually be brought down no matter how far she goes. Anna’s incapability to accept the changes in society’s view of her causes many problems and whilst Tolstoy invariably strikes her story with a God-like hand he then sits back and lets it play out. He may be saying something, moralising as he does with Levin, but he wants the reader to see things for themselves, to come to their conclusions without too much help.
There are no evil-doers in Tolstoy’s book, no wicked husband, no wicked wife, no stepmothers keeping children from balls. A huge part of the book’s triumph lies in its objectivity – again that same word. Yes, Anna decides to have an affair when she had previously loved her husband and could have said ‘no’, but even though Tolstoy has a narrative all prepared for her that may be upsetting and unnecessary to us nowadays it is somewhat a result of the era rather than the character herself. And Vronsky may become rather disaffected and you may emphasise or dislike him for it but you can see his reasons and they aren’t bad; there’s a misunderstanding afoot. Karenin is shown in a fair light, very fair, but whilst you will feel sorry for him Tolstoy never rams him down your throat, indeed he gives Karenin a bit of get-up-and-go that will have you wishing he had held back.
The questions are thus: is this right or wrong? Why? What should be happening? What is going to happen and ought it? There is certainly something to be said regarding Tolstoy’s choice to end the book with several chapters devoted to Levin rather than the aftermath of the triangle but whether that’s moralising or simply down to Tolstoy’s wish to talk about himself is hard to decipher.
A note on Kitty, then, because I’ve left her out, and Dolly because there’s a short piece that is mightily compelling: Kitty’s a nice enough character. She represents the home life Levin hopes for and is obviously meant to balance out Anna’s presence in the text. She’s the wife whose existence brings Levin to the place Tolstoy wants him to be, who grounds him from going too far with the appropriating. It could be said she’s what stops Levin from just throwing his money away and pitching in with his workers – which may sound like appropriation itself but is a welcomed change from it because it becomes uncomfortable reading about a rich man helping out in the fields and being jolly about it because it’s a novelty and nothing he’ll have to do full-time. Kitty’s character lends the book a younger feel, providing readers who may be on the cusp of age but not quite someone they can relate to as they wade through a mature text. Dolly? She helps Tolstoy explore the emotional effects of affairs, more so than Karenin, because of her husband’s (Oblonsky) inability to stay faithful. Society may see affairs as almost inevitable but Dolly reminds us not everyone feels that way. The compelling short piece? Tolstoy has Dolly consider for a moment how her life might have been had she not had children. It is only a moment, it takes place amongst a few pages only and is neatly tied up by the end of the chapter with the assertion that she much prefers life the way it is – as you would expect of a novel from the 1800s. But it’s there and it reveals perhaps a tiny inkling of Tolstoy’s possible opinion that women ought to have more say and a bigger role in society. When added to the statement several chapters before that a woman’s lack of rights stemmed from a lack of education and vice-versa, it becomes quite the poignant concept in terms of Tolstoy’s message.
As said, Tolstoy waffles on occasion. He repeats himself and talks about things that would be edited out these days. Worthy of 800 pages this book is not, but it’s also not bad. The writing is fair and insofar as one can judge when referring to a translation the text is easy to read and alluring. It can be funny. And when not bogged down in meetings that will never get anywhere it’s a quick read. I must recommend the translation I chose, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s. The colloquial English grammar at times overlooks the fact it’s Russian but it’s a much simpler read than some. The Maude translation, which I read 500 pages of, is quite clunky and poorly written. (Not to mention it seems one of the Maudes disliked Tolstoy – they knew each other – so what they were doing translating it in the first place and how much that infers reliability is quite the question.)
Anna Karenina is an undertaking. In deciding to read it you’re signing yourself up for the long haul and whilst it’s a good long haul it isn’t the most thrilling or satisfying one out there. There are parts you can take away with you but the likelihood is you’ll be relieved once you’ve finished.
Read it; it’s worth it and it feels good to say you’ve read it, but have another book on the go at the same time and remember to keep your wits about you because everyone has three to four names they go by.
November 11, 2015, 4:57 pm
I think one of the snags with reading a book like Anna Karenina is that it’s been adapted for TV and film so much. The reader’s probably expecting one ‘simple’ love triangle style story, whereas,not only have you got three relationships going on – Anna’s Kitty’s and Dolly’s – but Tolstoy’s inevitable philosophising as well. I’m glad I read it before seeing it on screen.
November 11, 2015, 4:59 pm
A book I’ve started umpteen times but have never managed to finish.
Great review, you have presented your arguments so well I’m almost tempted to give the book yet another go.
November 11, 2015, 6:40 pm
What a great, thorough review! I read this years ago and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t very happy with the translation (it was the Maude one) so if I decide to read the book again one day I might try Pevear and Volokhonsky. I agree with most of the points you’ve made, although I remember disliking Anna and feeling sorry for Karenin and Sergei.