Author: Leo Tolstoy
Published: 1877 (this edition 1999)
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
ISBN: 978 1 85326 271 5
Firstly, apologies for my long absence. It can be attributed to the fact I’ve spent the last five weeks (!) ploughing through this book (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), whilst also rereading five of my beloved Harry Potter series. Although it took what felt like a lifetime to read, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this book. The problem is, the pleasure I did get from the tale, which tells the story of a married Russian socialite who leaves her husband for a soldier, derived from Tolstoy’s writing rather than the characters or plot. The novel contains a slender plot that is stretched over hundreds of pages more than what is warranted; yet it’s difficult to complain about this since Tolstoy’s beautiful narrative would feel somehow inappropriate and over-the-top in a shorter book. Although the lack of a truly engrossing plot was an issue, my main issues with this book definitely stemmed from my feelings toward the characters.
At first, the titular Anna Karenina reminded me of my beloved Scarlett O’Hara (the formidable heroine of Gone With the Wind and one of my favourite fictional characters ever), in that she seemed like a passionate, opinionated protagonist destined to do great things. Then the inevitable happened- she fell in love with a bland, dislikeable man and declared herself a wronged wife. Cue the book descending into her struggle to obtain a divorce, her fight to see her young son and her doubts over how her lover really felt about her. Pointless insecurities about Vronsky (her lover) and other women are what ultimately drives the novel to its ‘tragic’ ending. Said ending is meant to shock and devastate readers, yet by this point I felt so indifferent towards the character of Anna that I couldn’t bring myself to shed a single tear. In fact, the conclusion of the sorry tale made me feel the whole thing had been rather pointless, and that Anna’s paranoia was utterly unfounded. Given how traumatic I found Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I expected this ‘sadder’ novel to be the one that broke me. Unfortunately, my contempt for Anna stopped it from doing so. I simply felt she came across as a very spoiled character, who got what she deserved when she left a husband she resented for a man who eventually made her even more unhappy. It was difficult to feel sympathy for a hypocritical character who stole a man from a close friend, then worried about others doing the same, yet one does get the impression Tolstoy intended this irony to strike his readers.
It wouldn’t be right to review Anna Karenina without mentioning the men in this love story- her husband Karenin and the aforementioned lover Vronsky. Readers will definitely emphasise with Anna’s desire to escape the narcissistic, angry and somewhat dull Karenin. What they will not understand, is how a character described as beautiful both inside and out could decide to do so by eloping with Alexis Vronsky, who has to be one of the dullest, surliest characters I have encountered in any novel. He simply serves no real purpose, other than to give Anna an excuse to leave her husband. I’d even go as far as suggesting the novel would be more interesting if it simply told the tale of a fed-up woman who leaves her husband just because she is unhappy. That would surely have been more shocking and revolutionary for Tolstoy’s 1800’s audience, and would certainly be more interesting for his poor readers!
The final characters I cannot neglect to mention are Constantine Levin, whose story is told as a parallel to the main storyline, and his wife Kitty. I found Levin to be a pleasant enough character, but I simply don’t understand his purpose in the novel. Other than when he briefly interacts with Anna, her brother Steve and Vronsky socially, his presence in the novel centres around his farming and business concerns. I simply don’t understand the relevance of this in a novel supposedly about Anna’s affair. I understood the presence of Levin’s wife Kitty, an irritatingly twee and spoiled young woman, a little more since it is she who Anna steals Vronsky from early in the novel. Other than to say she went on to find happiness with her eventual husband, however, I struggle to ascertain her presence in the rest of the story. This parallel tale of love and resilience seems to be present only to show readers Tolstoy’s idea of the perfect Russian life, in great contrast to Anna and Vronsky’s situation, and one does get the sense he actually liked writing about the Levins and their morals. I’m just not sure this shining example of domestic bliss warrants hundreds of excess pages of Tolstoy’s novel.
One of the few aspects of this book I cannot fault is its beautiful narrative. Despite being somewhat long-winded, and occasionally arduos, the voice does feel appropriate for a true Russian epic- especially a Tolstoy. Regardless of your feelings towards the characters, it is fascinating to see the details he goes into when describing almost every detail of their lives. In fact, the detailed description of the characters was probably part of the reason I grew tired of them. I felt this description was an asset better utilised in War and Peace, when Tolstoy was able to perfectly convey the feelings of characters I actually liked and felt invested in. That being said, I did enjoy his meticulous, and often philosophical, musings on both the flaws and the triumphs of his characters. I particularly appreciated his daring to have Levin openly question religion- a rarity in older novels that shows Tolstoy’s brave ambition to tackle as many ‘taboo’ subjects as possible. It seems fitting such comments should be included in a novel that- horror of horrors- features a female adulterer.
As I have already stated, most of my issues with this book stemmed from the plot and my feelings toward the characters. With regards to the plot, the idea of a women rebelling and leaving her husband for a lover is interesting… For about a hundred pages! Everything that follows- suicide attempts, Society fall-outs and repeated arguments over Anna’s husband denying her a divorce- just feels a tad melodramatic, and unworthy of the amount of time dedicated to it. By the end of the hundreds of pages discussing Society’s view of Anna and Vronsky, mere mention of the word was enough to bring about the shakes! The novel may be an interesting look at how an out-dated society dealt with scandal, not to mention the consequences of betrayal, but it is essentially a social commentary. Such narratives simply don’t offer enough to keep readers engrossed for almost a thousand pages. I can’t say I disliked this book, yet I can’t really bring myself to say I liked it either. An average rating for a decidedly average book.
Rating: *** (3/5)