"Anna Karenina"

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

(clears throat)............I HAVE FINISHED READING ANNA KARENINA!!!

There really should be balloons, or seventy-six trombones leading a big parade.
I am going to my guilt list to cross it off now. Ok, I'm back and that was very satisfying.

Now to give some kind of review. Hmmmm. Where to start. This novel has been read by millions and analyzed and reviewed and studied and critiqued by far more learned people than I and any review I attempt could only sound pathetic. So, I will simply say what I thought as I was reading it, though not everything I thought, because this is a family-friendly blog.

First of all did it really have to be over 800 pages long? Surely what Mr. Tolstoy was trying to accomplish could have been done in a few hundred less. But he is nothing if not thorough in making his point.

And I have to ask: are all Russians bi-polar? If this is the only Russian book you ever read, you would certainly think so. One minute they are ecstatic with joy and the next they have sunk into the depths of despair and there is no reasoning with them. And this dramatic change seems to come about with only a word, or a look, or a thought. I thought my house was all drama all the time, but we don't have anything on these people. Every conversation is an emotional roller coaster. Every love affair is passionate, dying, passionate again, etc. It's exhausting.

Tolstoy himself gives a good description of this when Levin refers to a concert he attended. "Gaiety, sadness, despair, tenderness and triumph appeared without justification, like a madman's feelings. And, just as with a madman, these feelings passed unexpectedly."  Madmen indeed. I questioned the sanity of some of these characters frequently. He goes on to say "All through the performance, Levin felt like a deaf man watching people dance." Perfect. He has described exactly how I felt all the way through Anna Karenina.

I didn't dislike the book, but I also didn't love it. I couldn't relate to any of the characters much. I didn't like any of them really. The Anna of the title seems brittle and distant. She isn't the character I will remember most from this story. All the characters have a harsh and blundering way of speaking to one another that I found un-natural.

I'm beginning to think I should stick to books written in English. There is only so much a translator can do. When a writer puts together a phrase in his native language, he chooses words that will both make his point and flow well together. The translator can choose English words that will make the same point, but much of the time the flow will be lost. Since I read more for the "poetry" of the prose than for the story, what I'm looking for is often lost in translation.

From what I've read, people consider this a great love story.  There is a love story in it, two actually, but to me they seemed secondary to the social, political and spiritual principles being analyzed. The last few chapters of the book deal almost exclusively with one character's spiritual struggles and awakening. I enjoyed all the philosophical discussions about the workers vs. the landowners and who was entitled to what. Tolstoy made some interesting observations about profit being immoral if it does not correspond to the work done to earn it. All of these things would make good topics for discussion at a book club, but my book club would shoot me if I asked them to read anything with 800 pages, because they all have lives.

One section I thought wonderful was where Levin knew that the woman he loved was also in love with him. I loved how he believed everyone he met was in on the secret. He found everything he looked at beautiful and all people kind and generous. The world was turning just for him and there was no flaw to be found in anything. What a lovely picture of what being in love does for you. 

Tolstoy also addresses the other side of that when Anna is overwhelmed by her feelings of despair. Everyone she looks at is unfriendly and unattractive. Her eyes see people as ugly. She sees no worth or beauty in anything around her. Life loses all meaning and there is no point to anything. Not as pleasant to read as the happier side of that coin, but just as real.

I must be honest and say that in places it was just plain boring. Bang-my-head-on-the-wall boring. Can you say that about Tolstoy without being struck by lightening? The truth is, if Tolstoy had never written a book, I don't think it would have affected my life in any detrimental way. Now don't get all mad and tell me how uneducated and shallow I am. I know already. I just couldn't get into this story and I didn't enjoy the writing. I am glad I read it though, because it was such fun crossing it off my guilt list and now I can recognize references to it in other books. And I will confess, that even now as I'm writing about it, the book grows better in my memory. Funny how that happens.

The Brothers Karmazov is also on my list. I don't know how long it is and I'm not going to find out until after I reward myself with a couple of lighter novels. Tolstoy and I will have to pace ourselves if we're going to have any kind of relationship at all. I think it's best to take it slow. Real slow.


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