Review of: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
976 pages; Modern Library, 2000
Summary: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This will perhaps not be very encouraging (but hopefully it will be helpful) to future readers to hear but: in my humble opinion, there is no way to learn to like Tolstoy. There’s no process of adjustment, no method of accustoming oneself to the prose, the descriptions, the style, the themes. You either relish it or you don’t.
In other words, if you begin Anna Karenina and you are not immediately swept up into the story, with its complex characters, family tensions, and ornate depiction of Russian society… If you are ten chapters in and going forward on pure stubbornness… Put the book down. Walk away. This is not for you.
For example: the scene where Levin describes his experience of working in the fields with the peasants on his estate. Some find it impossibly tedious and boring. Personally, I find that to be one of the most compelling passages in the entire book. I’m not right while another reader is wrong, but I will say this: it’s a matter of taste. If you are not engrossed by the complexities of this vast and entrenched society, if you do not feel sympathy for Levin and feel drawn to his inner development, or feel simultaneously charmed and repulsed by Anna, or understand the sheer attraction of Vronsky, then do not torture yourself, and move on.
If you’re staying, though — Anna remains, I believe, one of the most interesting protagonists in literature, and precisely because while the reader is almost unwillingly forced to sympathize with her feelings, it is similarly impossible to remove the stigma of blame from her, or to avoid feeling frustrated with her, as we watch the wreck she makes of not just her life but of her son’s, her husband’s, her lover’s. Her transformation from the alluring and enchanting woman who so impresses young Kitty, to the sad and scorned, paranoid creature that Vronsky himself may still love but possibly no longer wants, in the end, is all of her own doing — but who among us can say we would have successfully avoided all of her misjudgments?
Contrasted with Anna is Levin, though their lives are intertwined only through friends and relatives and they have little real knowledge of each other — Levin is Anna’s exact opposite. We meet him as an awkward and abrupt, solitary man, with troubled family relations and an unrequited love — and in the end, after his long journey of self-awareness, we leave him in a place of pure contentment. We warm to Levin and take him to our hearts, perhaps because his choices are the ones we would like to think we would make.
If you ask the average American to name a Tolstoy novel, they will generally say War and Peace, but I’ve always thought Anna Karenina to be the more human story, the more accessible, and perhaps the greater classic because of that. It truly is a matter of taste — but if it’s to yours, you’ll have stumbled upon a literary find you’ll treasure always.