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Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
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Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Advantages: A masterpiece
Disadvantages: A very long masterpiece
I say story rather than novel as this has been the subject of many film and TV adaptations, from Greta Garbo in 1935 to Sophie Marceau in 1997 the IMDb website lists no less than 24 different adaptations, from all over the world.
How popular the novel itself is is questionable, weighing in at over 800 pages it is quite daunting but if you've only seen the films you really have missed out. The novel is a masterpiece of literature and covers characters and themes far beyond the reach of film.
I'll be honest and say that I've never seen any of these adaptations but from the synopsis' and commentaries I've read it seems that they focus almost entirely on the title character and relegate everyone else to supporting roles. While this may work dramatically it misses the fundamental purpose and intent of the book and to my mind short changes the memory of that great writer.
Now, how can I précis a story of such scale? Well, to summarise, this is not a single story but two stories intertwined. One of those stories is of Anna, a beautiful woman in an unhappy marriage who falls for the dashing soldier Count Vronsky. In isolation their story is as pure and wonderful as any love story could be. They are both vivacious, popular characters, well liked by their peers they are passionately devoted to each other with a love that survives many an obstacle.
Unfortunately they don't live in isolation and their affair scandalizes the male-centric society in which they live and they are forced to flee their native St Petersburg and live in virtual isolation which puts an intolerable strain on their relationship.
The second story is of Levin, a man struggling to find his role in life, a man who questions and doubts everything around him. He is very idealistic and is in the habit of objectifying everything around him, from the courting of his future wife Kitty to his dealings with the workers on his farm he acts artlessly and is often hurt in the process. His is an existential journey as he tackles some of the bigger themes of the book; if there can be a bigger theme than love that is. Levin is a representation of the author himself and on many occasions you can suppose that his thoughts are the thoughts of Tolstoy and this always makes a character more compelling.
While Anna has become one of the most famous literary heroines, for much of this book her story is in the shadow of Levin's. In terms of pages and attention we spend far more time with Levin and because he is such an internal character and on such a journey of personal growth we are more emotionally invested in him rather than Anna.
Through Levin Tolstoy tackles many of the key social issues facing imperial nineteenth century Russia. All the central characters are of the aristocracy, if not indeed minor royalty; you couldn't swing knout in any scene without catching several Princes or Counts. But while they are all very European in their outlook, well educated and travelled, they are inviolately tied to the Russian people who are decidedly not European. Either by working in government posts or being active landowners they are faced with a rapidly changing populace who, while still behind their European counterparts, are fast growing in influence and ambition. When the monarchies of Europe were falling to revolution the Russian peasants suffered in serfdom, owned by the local landowners there personal freedoms were non-existent. By the time of this novel the serfs had become muzhiks, still tied to the land owners but with greater freedoms. Free to own their own land and businesses they nibble away at the high living aristocracy whose debts force them to sell land to survive.
Levin can see this, and indeed is encouraged by it, but also sees the future dangers if the state does not adapt for the time when the muzhiks are as powerful as the established aristocracy.
Levin is a natural philosopher, in that he seeks to discover a true understanding of the motivation of people and the potential for social progress. He is passionate in his beliefs but because they are original and he is inarticulate he cannot persuade his friends and associates who are more academic philosophers. Practiced in debating established opinions they are more articulate and persuasive and do not accept any of Levin's opinions.
Levin's other journey is his search for personal happiness. As I've mentioned before he has a habit of idealising those around him and his pursuit of Kitty and expectations for happiness should they marry exemplifies this. For him it is a simple matter of getting married - being happy without an understanding of the realities of life. As a consequence the minor setbacks that life throws up hurt him more than those with a better sense of reality.
It is clear to see that Tolstoy has used Levin to make his own arguments and observations on the society he lived in and this view of the opulent pre-revolutionary Russia makes very interesting reading.
While Levin's story is Tolstoy's vehicle for making his wider social observations, Anna's story is far more personal. Here it seems he has set himself an intimate social problem, the lot of an adulterous woman, and works it through to its conclusion.
Anna is married to a much older man, a high ranking government official he is cold and uncommunicative and does not provide the warmth that she craves. Together they have a son she loves dearly.
Without much preamble she is courted and falls for Vronsky. From the start the affair has society tongues wagging, at parties they spend much time in intimate conversation and the gossip reaches the point where the husband can ignore it no longer and he implores her to act more appropriately. Although she initially agrees she cannot hide her feelings for Vronsky and the affair progresses to the point where she is now pregnant and cannot continue living a lie. She explodes at her husband, telling him everything and the veil of self deception he was living under is shattered. Eventually they separate and she flees with Vronsky, destroying both her and her husband's reputations and standing in society. Forced to travel in isolation around Europe and Russia she feels ever more alone and even her passionate love for Vronsky comes under question.
Much is made of how unfairly she is treated by her husband and others around her but we must be wary of judging the situation with modern morality. In the society she lived in her actions had catastrophic effects, effects that she would certainly have predicted. Deceiving and then leaving her husband in this manner meant ostracism for her and would be equally destructive for him. Where once he was a powerful government official, with a voice heard in the highest circles now he is a figure of pity and snide derision. His career is ruined as he is now ignored and over taken by those who would previously have deferred to him. All that was important to him (both family and career) has been destroyed by her actions. Whether she should be held responsible for this is one question, but the fact that she would have known this was a consequence cannot be ignored.
As I've said, for three quarters of the book Anna's story is very much in the shadow of Levin's, but finally her character explodes into life. There is a passage of several chapters where we become intimate witnesses to her unravelling. Forced into turmoil by the impossibility of her situation she plumbs such emotional depths that as readers we are left floundering. Vronsky can fare no better in the face of this as she moves from love to jealousy to hatred and back again in the briefest of heartbeats and he becomes lost in his own frustration at his inability to make her happy and articulate his love for her. In their conversations she turns everything he says this way and that and reads betrayal into every word, her ensuing anger is then reversed into compassion before he can begin to understand. In the end he can do no more than step back and escape the situation, not with any finality but just from a desire for some room to think. Left on her own her emotions run faster and unchecked and eventually consume her.
The description of her carriage flight in pursuit of him and the internal dialogue she conducts is a literary master class. At the end of this sequence all you can do is say 'Crikey', close the book and have a cup of tea. To read on immediately is impossible, you will need a good ten minutes to digest what you have just read and there aren't many novels that can manage that.
This book is not the lightest of reads. It is very long, the narrative is often dense and slow moving and keeping track of the vast array of secondary characters can be taxing. One of the criticisms of the novel is that Tolstoy has over-extended it by combining two fully fledged stories into one. Although there is plenty of overlap between them they could easily stand as novels, and great novels at that, independently. But I think the contrast between the two characters adds to the novel, we get two contrasting views on their shared society and the mental struggles of Levin present a compelling parallel to the emotional drama surrounding Anna.
This book is worth the effort. The sequence with Anna I highlighted above is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I have ever read and is enhanced by the time we have invested in the characters previously. I pity the book I read next, it hasn't got a chance.
Summary: Read it and find out what the fuss is all about