I look at it this way. I could look at a 1,000 page Anna Karenina and pass it up thinking it’ll be boring or too difficult to read. What do the lives of Russian aristocrats that lived almost 150 years ago have anything to do with me and my life? I could play some computer game, watch TV, pull weeds… or I can challenge myself to be a part of the conversation of some of the greatest writers who ever lived. In doing so I can get the closest thing possible to living an entirely different life. Leo Tolstoy is undeniably a titan in literature, and books written by titans are the most comprehensive way to have a conversation with a genius—albeit a one-way conversation, and transport oneself into the experiences of others. Books like Anna Karenina don’t become “classics” by chance. There’s a reason why this book continues to live, and that’s why I read it. I also happen to like Russian lit. Yes, this is pleasure reading to me.
Like many of the books I read, this edition is a Modern Library edition published in 1950. The translation by Constance Garnett who translated many Russian novels into English for Modern Library. I’ll call it an excellent translation, but what do I really know about that? All I know is that it reads as though a brilliant writer in English wrote it. The inside flap of the jacket states, “…As a writer, he towers above all the literary figures of his time, and his two great novels—War and Peace (Modern Library Giant G-1) and Anna Karenina—are universally acclaimed as classics. I collect Modern Library—I love the size, the covers, the affordability of a used hardback—usually around $7.50, and the title list is a great start if you want to read the best of the best literature from the Western World (up until about 1950).
I admit it took me a long time to get through this book, but primarily because I had recently gotten married, was trying to go running 3-4 nights a week, not to mention fit everything else in that I wanted/needed to do. It was one of those things where the book seemed to be a permanent decoration on my nightstand for months. I wasn’t reading much at a time then, so it took a while to get through, but the fancy shmancy book cover became a welcome fixture under my night lamp for a long time. But no need to be intimidated, this is a very reading EASY book for hectic lives as the chapters are generally very short, so there are plenty of stopping places, and aside from the Russian names, the language is not particularly challenging.
I also believe, and I’ll likely repeat myself on this point, that great books sometimes require patience of the reader. I don’t want a 20 page version of Anna Karenina. Patience is what you pay into it, and in reward you get not only the experience of absorbing the characters, but the experience of living with something over a long period of time. A novel, especially a long one, is the most comprehensive portrait of a life other than your own that you can possibly get.
And what experience do you get reading Anna Karenina? You experience the lives of many Russians from different walks of life—of womanizing men, married women carrying out an affair and shunned because of it, lovesick young women, farmers… it is both a sprawling and yet personal novel of fully fleshed characters.
The Introduction by Henri Troyat right away describes a real event that is central to the novel—that of an autopsy witnessed by Leo Tolstoy in 1872, of a woman in central Russia who committed suicide by throwing herself under a freight train. Consider the horror of that for just a moment! “There in the low, smoky room, besides the doctor and the police representative, stood a solid, stocky individual…This was none other than Leo Tolstoy…to witness the performance…. He studied with painful intensity the body of this attractive woman as she lay, bloody and mutilated, on the table.”
This suicide by train, committed because her lover had deserted her for another mistress, is a tragedy that appears twice in Anna Karenina, although the first occurrence is accidental, and involves a man. Still, it leaves a lasting impression on Anna Karenina, the central figure, a stunning married society woman who attracts the attention of a young officer, Vronsky, who has already snagged the heart of Kitty, a young beautiful girl. Boiled down: Levin loves Kitty, Kitty loves Vronsky, Vronsky falls for the older, married Anna. 90% of college term papers will say it is about the societal double standard of men getting away with infidelity with almost no repercussion, while women with extramarital lovers will pay a much dearer (read “ultimate”) price. There is that, but ultimately it is about life and the thing we concern ourselves most with in our young life: matchmaking, love, love-lost, broken promises, in a word…relationships.
The novel is primarily centered on Anna’s affair with Vronsky, and how they flee and try to make a go of it. Anna’s husband is hesitant about granting a divorce, and then there’s Anna’s son to consider. Anna’s husband forces the choice—granting a divorce will also mean Anna can never seeing her child again. But so much more fleshes out the world immediately around them. Beautiful girls, infidelity, Russian high society, balls, unrequited loves, being shunned by society because of your scandalous life choices.… Anna Karenina is all of that, but it’s the steady pace of great realist writing that was the star of the show for me.
As a counterbalance to the world of balls and high society, there is the connected story of Levin, an admirer of Kitty who loses her to Vronsky early on. Levin retreats to his estate to build up his farm and so there is a very pastoral storyline in this book, and I found myself gravitating to this natural world. A couple highlights for me were Chapter 13 of Part II, where Levin works alongside his serfs for the experience of working the land (something his serfs find very peculiar). Chapter 13 is rich in sentences like, “The cowherd girls, picking up their petticoats, ran splashing through the mud with bare legs, still white, not yet brown from the sun, waving brush-wood in their hands, chasing the calves that frolicked in the mirth of spring.” And while riding “through the slush of farmyard” making plans to “plant all his fields with hedges” and later observing the “crop of clover coming up in the stubble.”
Part III Chapter V As someone who spends his day working at a computer processing insurance transactions, Levin mowing the grass with a scythe along with his laborers, was especially impressionable and escapist.
Part VI chapter XVI, some very tough, universal words of marriage, raising children , “The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies, that last moment… then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains…” “Then the children’s illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil propensities… And on the top of it all, the death of these children.”
Was I 100% engaged the entire novel through? Unlikely, but the depth of the life in the characters, the context of their lives, Anna’s experience as being a woman in society, the high Russian-ness of it… it is a lasting experience. In spending the time refreshing my memory of this novel, I realize how much I do recall of it, of how great the writing is. If I ever again find the time, it is certainly something I would enjoy re-reading. Admittedly that is not saying much as I love re-reading most books.
I recall too one particular night reading in bed, the pillow between the wall and my back, and a big bottle of Brother Thelonius on my nightstand. The Belgian Dark Strong by North Coast brewery, like a classic book, is something I come back to at least once a year to enjoy. This is a great style for a heavy themed, refined work like Tolstoy. The big bottle lends itself for a nice long cozy read. As a Belgian Dark Strong, it is more of a deep amber, but in a fall fruit with a tiny handful of chocolate malt kind of way. Personally I think of fresh pressed and unfiltered fall apple cider, raisins, and Belgian candy sugar. Frankly, I thought it was a Belgian Dubbel, but Lost Coast is calling it otherwise—fair enough, lots of grey area between those two styles anyway. This is one of North Coast’s American Artist series, but I believe I’ve only come across one other artist featured in the series. Regardless, money from every bottle sold helps support the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. I love Monk. I love jazz. I love the beer… win win win. North Coast is also the Brewer of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, so that is another obvious choice when picking up any Russian lit.
One last note, as a point of comparison. I have also read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. While also an exercise in patience, let’s put it this way… see that bookmark and where it’s at near the end but not AT the end? It says a lot about a book that I would read 1,408 out of 1,443 pages and then give up. Granted, I gave up because it was the book’s Epilogue which is a 100 page essay that would interest philosophy wonks only. I do recall liking say the first 200 pages—there’s some really great war writing in there, particularly of a kind of warfare you don’t often encounter. After that it became more or less a chore and a challenge to get through. Tolstoy himself in Henri Troyat’s Anna Karenina introduction mentions that Tolstoy didn’t see War and Peace as a novel, and looking back, it makes sense. In short, if you’re going to try and tackle Tolstoy, Anna Karenina is your book.