1.18.2012

Currently Reading: Anna Karenina

Anna KareninaVronsky heard with pleasure this light-hearted prattle of a pretty woman, agreed with her, gave her half-joking counsel, and altogether dropped at once into the tone habitual to him in talking to such women. In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one’s children, earn one’s bread, and pay one’s debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.

Author: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Synopsis: When beautiful, charismatic Anna Karenina finally succumbs to Count Alexey Vronsky’s illicit attentions, she must sacrifice either everything she lives for—including her son and society—or the only romance she’s ever known. Meanwhile, shy nobleman Konstantin Levin searches desperately for happiness and meaning in life, pursuing pretty Kitty Shcherbatskaya, peace with the peasant laborers who work his land, and spiritual honesty. As Anna and Konstantin seek joy, separately but with similar passion, both must face matters of morality and the consequences of choice.

Notes: With a book of this magnitude, you don’t review it—it reviews you. But I’ll see if I can’t find something intelligent to say about it.

As someone with an armchair interest in all things Russian, this story interested me from the names on down. I wondered, and have not resolved, why Ekaterina was called by the English 'Kitty', and Darya 'Dolly', instead of Katya and Dasha. Likewise, why Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin was called by his Christian name and patronymic, whereas Alexey Kirillovich Vronsky (really, Tolstoy, were you trying to kill my favorite Russian male name? I’ve always liked Alexey) was generally referred to as Vronsky except for the one part where he was out on his estate.

More fascinating, from the etymological perspective, is that the surname Levin is closely related to the author’s own Christian name; the first of many similarities between author and protagonist, both of whom ultimately prioritized the spiritual search above all else in life.

Nineteenth-century Russia, as contrasted with twenty-first century America, also provided an excellent illustration of the fact that not all cultures think alike. While some of the conversations grew dull after a few pages, the different perspectives on class, poverty, society, religion and marriage were intriguing. Tolstoy covered early communism and hints of democracy among the nobility, and the ideas and consequences of Orthodoxy, Pietism and atheism. More specifically to the story, he discussed treatment of marital infidelity in three perspectives: as natural, as evil, and as acceptable if kept from the public eye. All of these offered themes and thoughts startlingly removed from quotidian Western ideologies.

And into all that mix were thrown the characters, the loved and the hated.

Anna could not but sometimes prove sympathetic, despite her adultery. The strong, sensitive longings of a woman for love and stability can save or destroy; in Anna's case, they tore her down the middle. Also, she suffered the injustice of a community that judges woman but not man. Vronsky’s pursuit of her was shameless and determined; her brother Stiva carried on one affair after another, deceiving his wife, equally without shame; both of them were in some sense worse than she, yet neither suffered from societal consequence as she did. It is nothing short of horrific to watch her treated as a 'lost woman' by those who welcomed Vronsky and Stiva at every turn.

Vronsky came off as something of an idiot, without much of weight to be said for or against him except that he had feeling but no principle. He had physical boldness, but not courage; generosity to those he liked, but not respect for anyone; passion, but little idea of how to give love. He was likable on rare occasions, but never admirable.

Alexey Alexandrovich, Anna’s husband, evoked respect and disgust and compassion by turn. Lidia Ivanovna's influence gradually ate away at his general respectability, but he retained strands of it by his compassion to little Annie. The tale of Annie's and Seryozha's growth to maturity in such a house would probably make stuff for another tragedy-laced great novel, however.

Levin, who apparently took strongly after Tolstoy himself, annoys and fascinates and sometimes delights. His character contained the myriad depths of the shy, serious, conscientious type: the way his concentration locked onto one project after another, his frustration over things not getting done right, his attempts to empathize with the peasantry, his bafflement over his own feelings, his inability to live life without first understanding it, and his constant devotion to the search for truth and goodness. The best part of the tale is his eventual thinking through ideas C.S. Lewis would later work through in the first chapters of Mere Christianity.

But then, that’s the focal point of the book. The central theme, the idea, is in the contrast between Anna’s choices and Levin’s, between her journey into despair and his into joy. Both of them wrestled with right and wrong, with passion; both of them were even suicidal in their desperation. The question and the resolution were alike centered in the spiritual.

If you haven’t read this book and don’t want spoilers, skip ahead.

In some cases, I prefer getting spoiled. I’m glad that I knew to expect tragedy. The foreshadowing of Anna’s death gave me chills, and I felt somewhat prepared to walk with her along the platform and face what, being only the reader, I couldn’t stop her from doing. It still hurt to watch. Her wandering mind was confusing to read, and her jealousy bewildering, but the moment on her hands and knees on the tracks made clear sense. She died praying, and it is not hard to believe that God hears such a cry.

Tolstoy, with authorial cruelty, took us immediately away from that climactic moment and dropped us into some drollery about Sergei Ivanovich and his publishing woes, which resulted—for this reader at least—in a couple of chapters of furious angst. Sergei Ivanovich led eventually to a glimpse of Vronsky, however, who did call forth some compassion. At last, the book returned to Levin, whose spiritual awakening made sense of the rest of the tale.

Spoilers ended.

It’s been years since I read Dostoevsky, but though I loved Crime and Punishment, I think I actually preferred Anna Karenina. Or at least, I loved them equally. Both novels deal with themes of sin and guilt, and both resolve toward hope and faith. The difference is that Sofya Semyonovna struggles in the darkness, eyes fixed faithfully on the glimmer far beyond the heavy shadow; Konstantin Levin trudges in the light, finally discovering that all he has to do is open his eyes.

It’s too bad Tolstoy himself couldn’t stay there; it’s a good place to be.

Recommendation: You may wish for a little vodka to get through a couple of parts, but the tale is absolutely worth the read.

9 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you love Anna!! It's amazing isn't it! I loved reading you thoughts and insights...and your right, vodka is essential, especially in the digressive sections. :)

    For clarity on the names, in Tolstoy's Russia, where Anna is placed, English nicknames are very popular, along with English fashion, English nanny's, and some English phrases. When you read War and Peace you'll see the same thing with French..except that French gained a way stronger hold. So That's why Kitty & Dolly have the English nicknames. As with the first vs. last names, its the same as with guys now..my husband works with three guys who go almost exclusively by their last names, some who go by their first, and some who switch it up. I'm not sure what it is about guys and last names, but it's definitly a consistent thing. :)

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  2. JENNA JENNA I am so, so, so glad you love Anna! I have been anxiously awaiting this review ever since I heard that you were reading it! And M. explained about the English nicknames ALREADY, so I don't have to!

    I don't really have anything to add except oh my goodness, this book. Anna's death -- and that part where Anna is about to step off the platform and she suddenly remembers swimming-- has got to be one of the most brilliant things ever written by a human. Oh my goodness, reading this book is like being stabbed repeatedly in the heart in the best way possible.

    Next. . . War and Peace? Just as good in my opinion, but a very different reading experience-- though an emotional rollercoster for sure. And you never have to worry about running out of book! There's always plenty more where that came from.

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  3. Yay, Masha and Laura! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments... and Masha, the name clarifications helped a ton. Thanks!

    I definitely want to read War and Peace now, and the only thing stopping me is that it took me two and a half weeks to read Anna, plus I'm backed up on Christmas books and writing. :) But when the bottleneck clears, I'm on it.

    Laura said: you never have to worry about running out of book! There's always plenty more where that came from.

    HAHAHAHA! True, that. :D

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  4. Great review, Jenna, as always. Except that I want about 8 pages more. :) Anna Karenina is so vast -- there is so much going on there, so much complexity, so much typical Tolstoy brilliance. Good observation on the connection between Levin and Tolstoy. From what little I know of his life, I would definitely agree that Levin is autobiographical. Pierre in W&P is a searcher of the same ilk, a wonderer, a philosopher.

    *Be warned, by the by, when you head into W&P, that there are torturous amounts of War in between the Peace. In order to help me slog through the War (which by the end I realized was integral to the story and valuable in its own right), I used to flip through the chapters until I found where the Peace resumed and stick a bookmark there as a kind of mile-marker. ("Only 50 more pages until I reach the oasis!") Also there is about 5(? - going from memory here) random pages of Tolstoy's philosophy inserted toward the end. Don't skip those either even though it may be tempting.

    Back to Anna. One of my favorite scenes, though not an important one, was of Levin at the symphony where some modern, dissonant music is being played. The modish set is all pretending to exult in it, while Levin cannot figure out why it is driving him crazy. Tolstoy's dissection of dissonant music is so thoroughly satisfying that at the end of it I think I actually jumped up and hollered, "YES!!!", fist pumping and all.

    I did not expect to like A.K. and avoided it for years. This was mostly due to having seen an awful film version starring the exquisitely beautiful Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean as Vronsky, and Alfred Molina, who was not nearly handsome enough to be Levin. The adultery storyline was so badly mishandled that it turned me off the book completely. I thought, how could such an awful topic be worth attending? How could there be any benefit to studying a subject like that? I do not often seek out tragedy in literature or film because it takes so much more emotional energy and because it's often badly done. But perfectly executed tragedy is worth the effort.

    One thing that struck me the most about A.K. was the infinitesimal moment that was the beginning of the affair. I don't have the text in front of me, so I'm going from memory, but I remember the exact moment at which the choice was before Anna. It was an incredibly small action, but it was the first thread that she willfully pulled from the tapestry, only later realizing when she could not stop pulling it that it would end with her whole life in ruins around her.

    That moment illustrates so well how mortal sins do not start as such and things like that cannot be toyed with even for a second. They must at all times be unthinkable, even in the incipient stages. Bernard of Clairvaux or somebody said these have to be dashed against the Rock of Christ before they have a chance to take root.

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    1. oh jeeeeeez, awful this film may be, but if it has BOTH Sean Bean AND Alfred Molina in it I might have to watch it anyway. Sorry to derail your thoughtful comment with useless fangirling, but. . . not sorry enough, clearly. I LOVE THEM BOTH.

      And just to veer back on topic for a second, those "infinitesimal moments" are one of the things Tolstoy is more awesome at than anyone else, I think. W&P is full of them -- and of their inverse, intense life-changing revelations later revealed to be false starts.

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  5. The other thing that stuck with me, which I mentioned in my criticism of Twilight, is that Anna always insists that she has sacrificed everything for Vronsky out of love, when the truth is the opposite. She is willing to give up everything for him except her own lust. She does not love him enough *not* to hurt him by participating in an illicit relationship that on top of being sinful, will ruin his career.

    Anna is all the more pitiable because she is so likable. Another scene that is inscribed in my mind is of Anna showing off her little girl to a friend and it coming out that the little girl has a new tooth that Anna did not know about until the friend's visit occasioned this ingression into the nursery. A little thing, and yet so tragic, so telling! What a student of human nature Tolstoy was. I suppose this is why he is still revered after two centuries.

    Alexey Alexandrovich is a compelling character, too, especially because of, in the midst of his own pain, his kindness to the child he knows is not his own and who is moreover the fruit of his wife's betrayal of him. Anna seems shocked to realize that it was within her power to wound him so terribly, but the realization is in the doing, and the damage is done.

    This is one of those books I've been looking forward to re-reading since the moment I put it down.

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  6. Really great thoughts, Maria. Yeah, this was a review that I couldn't make very short. There was just too much present in the story.

    Alexey Alexandrovich was very compelling. I loved him for caring about little Annie, even when I got sick of his buying in to Lidia Ivanova's absurdities.

    Oh, and I've totally forgotten somehow about Levin's dissing of the dissonance. But that sounds awesome. I might have to go back and look at it. :D

    OK, I hate war stories. :P That's the biggest thing keeping me from diving into W&P... but I've got it on the Kindle, and should start pushing my way through it one of these days. Maybe when I get done with The Silmarillion. One effort-heavy read at a time is enough.

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  7. I hate war stories too, though oddly, I usually find I become absorbed in them if I will give them 20 minutes. "Band of Brothers" is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, ever (minus one totally out-of-the-blue and unnecessary sex scene).

    But if it helps at all: the "war" parts in W&P are not exactly about the war itself. That is, they are not about the logistics of this battle and that. It's more like Tolstoy is using the war as a backdrop to develop characters and examine interpersonal dynamics and also as a vehicle to probe the idea of cause and effect. In War & Peace, Tolstoy seems to be thinking through the problem of ultimate causes. The winning or losing of a battle is traceable to the smallest of actions, and yet without the collusion of all the other actors, it might still have ended differently. This seems to be a source of fascination for Tolstoy.

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  8. ...In other words, the War parts are only boring because there's no romance in them! :D

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