Anna Karenina: not really a review, thoughts on the book

I had to read this back in the dark ages for a grade.  I made it through, somehow, hating the whole thing because it was unwieldy and finding the pearls that would be on the test was difficult: What foreshadowed what—that sort of thing. Then over the years (the last few anyway), I have had it downloaded to various phones and I would skip around reading a chapter here and there, loving the insight into humanity and very often laughing.

I just finished Tolstoy’s work again, this time translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  What the reviews sad was correct: the language was much more vivid and earthy and real. Even if you can download an older translation free, spring for this one.  It’s worth it. And, I just do not know how one could keep at this book on an e-reader, but, then, to each their own.

The introduction states that Tolstoy’s original Anna was a fat, sensual and vulgar married woman; the Anna in the finished volume is a strong beautiful woman, but the image from the book is more Jane Russell or Kate Winslet (not that either of these are fat or vulgar) than Kiera Knightly. This goes to an old and sore topic for me.  I try always to read the book before a movie so that the character forms an image in my mind independent of what others see.

Had Anna remained fat and vulgar, the book would have described yet another facet of real life with the rich Vronsky falling for someone no one can understand.  I think it would have added even more contextual realness to the story than it has in its present form.

The two story lines are classically and appropriately identified as Vronsky and Anna’s affair and Levin and Kitty’s romance and marriage. To me the central character is Vronsky. Anna joins Vroncky wihout  a marriage and finds hewrself well above her station and cannot believe she is where she is, which I think leads to her neurosis.

Levin had to ask Kitty twice to marry him because the first time, she was enraptured with the prospect of marrying Vronsky, who might have asked her, but on the way—so to speak—he saw and fell in love with Anna and never again looked at or thought about Katerina.

While, Levin is the everyman in the story and often has doubts about why Kitty could condescend to be with him, Anna is absolutely sure—most of the time—that she is not worthy of being Vronsky’s beloved and goes about making sure she can never be happy. I cannot help but wonder that if Kitty had married Vronsky that she would have suffered the same problems as did Anna. In this way, Anna provided the two sisters, Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly) and Katerina a means for a secure and comfortable life by saving Darya’s marriage from divorce and Kitty from marrying the wrong person.

The book is about family and friends, failures and success, life, love and loss; it is about Russian society and class divides and distinctions, about the need of the nobility and wealthy to provide for the poor—Vronsky’s building a hospital and staffing it is but one example.

The wonder of the book is the revealing and real internal struggles of the characters, of how they change their minds and the course of their lives, just like normal people. Levin, having forever written off Kitty as a potential wife because of her rejection of him for Vronsky, not wanting to be anybody’s second choice, meets her by happenstance, is struck again, and changes course immediately and permanently.

We are looking into the elite circles of Russian society while reading this book, and through it see the struggles of many of the underclass. Sometimes, it is hard to feel compassion for the main characters and their troubles when considering the plight of those not in their station, but the characters are real and have depth that surpasses almost anything I have ever read.

It is said that Tolstoy worked on each paragraph, making it perfect, before moving on to the next and that when complete, the book needed not editing.  If true, amazing.

William Faulker described it as the best novel of all time and Dostoevsky called it flawless.  Hemmingway put it first on a list of 17 books, all of which he “would rather read again for the first time […] than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”

I am not sure I would go as far as did Papa, but it is a very good read. Yes, it is a big book and people have asked me how I could read it. Here’s the test: read the first page, not just the famous first line—Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—and if you laugh before the end of the page, read the book. If after the first page, you do not see the humor or insight, then probably it is not for you.

One interesting thing happened while I was reading it this time. I would take it to lunch and read while I ate—yeah, I am often one of those pathetic figures eating alone, my nose stuck in a book—and several people (women) would stop by and ask me about it, which never happens when I am reading the USA Today.

The image is of the book and is from Amazon.com

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