Wow – I’ve definitely got a book hangover after finishing this chunkster! I’ve spent a week and half living this book, and it’s been one of those experiences where you feel as if you’ve been on a journey, joining the characters in what they’ve been through, so that it becomes personal. It’s going to take me a little while to get out of this tome and into another one, and also for my feelings to settle about it.
I feel that I approached AK with very few preconceptions, and as the Vintage edition I read has no extra material at all, I was in effect reading it ‘cold’. Literally all I knew about it was that it’s trumpeted by Nabokov as “one of the greatest love stories in world literature”; it’s one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces; and what happened to Anna at the end! Knowing the latter actually didn’t bother me because in many ways it took the pressure off and I wasn’t rushing to find out what happened to the heroine!
Of course, AK has been written about *a lot* over the years and is studied everywhere, so what I can add to that body of commentary is debatable, but I’ll give my thoughts for what they’re worth. So, a quick summary: AK tells the story of a doomed love affair between the title character and Count Vronsky. Anna is married to an older man who she feels little for, and has a young son she adores. Vronsky is a rich society officer who falls head over heels and pursues Anna until they have an affair. She falls passionately in love, and in this lies her mistake – most of her society acquaintances have affairs left, right and centre, but these are casual liaisons, discreetly handled and then broken off. But Anna loves and is not discreet and by leaving her husband and son, and initially refusing a divorce, becomes an outcast, a scarlet woman. Can Vronsky and Anna’s love survive the ostracization and the strain of the scandal?
Frankly, to sustain that plot for 950-odd pages wouldn’t be likely, but Tolstoy presents us here with a remarkably rich and deep novel, peopled with a vast array of characters, from the Oblonskys (Anna’s brother Stiva, sister-in-law Dolly and numerous others) to Vronsky’s army colleagues and society friends, Kostya Levin and his family and farming, Kitty Oblonsky who initially attracts Vronsky but ends up marrying Levin – well, you see what I mean. There is even a family tree for the book on Wikipedia! There’s no point in attempting a full plot summary – you can get that online and frankly you’d be better off reading the book.
But despite this apparent complexity, this is a remarkably easy book to read. It opens with marital dissent between Stiva and Dolly – Stiva is an inveterate womanizer and one of the most engaging characters of the book. The other major characters are gradually introduced one after another and as the story develops Tolstoy weaves all the strands together expertly. However, this is not rushed or forced but flows naturally and the changing viewpoints are never confusing. My book is the Maudes translation and I believe that they actually knew Tolstoy and he approved their version. The structure of the book is short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and somehow this helped the reading of it to stay manageable. I never felt bogged down and the prose was in the main light and easy (and very beautiful in places).
Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky
Although the book is a joy to read, there is considerable depth in AK. We are not dealing with a simple story of a tragic love affair here – rather we are dealing with moral choices, right and wrong, hypocrisy and issues in society and the difference between men and women. This latter seems to me one of the most dominant elements in the book – there are regular illustrations of the differing perceptions and reactions of men and women to issues and events, and also of society’s expectations of the different sexes. The phrase “it’s different for girls” certainly applies here: Vronsky, although having taken up with Anna and living with her, is accepted in his normal circles when not accompanied by her; Anna by contrast is shunned and regarded as an evil woman, for having left husband and child and for living ‘in sin’ with Vronsky. We are presented regularly throughout the book with examples of Stiva (and others) having liaisons with ballet dancers etc, and this is given tacit approval by society (although pure souls such as Levin and Kitty cannot bear the thought of this). The difference between the attitudes faced by the brother and sister are quite dramatic, and Tolstoy has many digs at the hypocrisy of Russian society (particularly in St. Petersburg, where the reception given to Anna is particularly hostile).
With a cast as interesting and varied as that presented here, it’s sometimes hard to pick out favourites. I did find myself fascinated by Karenin, the wronged husband, and his development throughout the book. He is initially totally repressed, a buttoned-up man who cannot express his feelings or even recognise them himself. He is unable to comprehend that Anna might be unfaithful to him, and then goes into denial, trying to ignore the fact out of existence.
“He now experienced a sensation such as a man might feel who, while quietly crossing a bridge over an abyss, suddenly sees that the bridge is being taken to pieces and that he is facing the abyss. The abyss was real lilfe; the bridge was the artificial life Karenin had been living.”
When he finally allows his emotions through, it’s a revelation, but this doesn’t last for long and he soon gets himself under control again. I was glad when we finally got a bit of back story about why he was like he was (orphan) and how he came to marry Anna (coerced into it). I did find myself wondering about Anna’s motives in marrying him – security and status presumably had much to do with it, but we find out very little about Anna’s past. Karenin goes through many stages ending up passing from a kind of real spiritual discovery and Christian forgiveness of Anna, to a warped, fake religion dealing with spiritualists and the very unpleasant Countess Lydia. Despite this, he loves and cares for both Anna’s children and in many ways redeems himself.
Tatyana Drubich as Anna and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky
Anna herself is in some ways hard to discuss. Beautiful, lively and favoured by society, we actually don’t really know what made her how she is. She has a passionate nature which is unfulfilled by her marriage (and the unanswered question of why she married Karenin constantly came back to me), and most of her emotion seems to have been transferred into an almost obsessive love for her son. I found myself wondering if Tolstoy was trying to make Anna seem an unnatural women. Although he presents a wide variety of viewpoints in AK, the predominant message I got was that he felt that marriage was for procreation and fulfilling God’s will by having children. Certainly, the union of Kitty and Levin is very much presented in this light, and Tolstoy gives Anna very little true happiness from her relationship with Vronsky – the actual consummation is discreetly portrayed, but in dramatically negative terms, reading more like a murder than an act of love. Her rejection of her daughter by Vronsky, little Anna, implies that she knows her union with him is wrong and despite her passion for him, her son has come from a legal, religious marriage and the daughter from an illicit affair. I wondered whether she saw herself in her daughter and feared for her future.
As the relationship with Vronsky implodes, she is unable to cope and resorts to opium to sleep. The almost psychotic state she ends up in during her final moments could have been exacerbated by the drug-taking and the strain of trying to cope with jealousy, loneliness and insecurity. She is unable to see that her behaviour is driving a wedge between herself and Vronsky. Yet, despite all this,Tolstoy doesn’t make Anna unsympathetic – we feel for her deeply, having escaped from a loveless marriage into a passionate relationship which is doomed to fail. Her temperament makes it impossible for her to find calm, rational solution to her situation. And had she lived in another time and place, she would not have been judged so harshly.
However, this book is not just about one set of lovers – there are many, the other most prominent couple being Kitty and Levin. Their courtship is a long and troubled one, aggravated by Levin’s continual soul-searching and Kitty’s need to mature and get through her adolescence. Levin is actually a bit of an irritating character in some ways – unsettled, constantly changing his mind and altering his opinions about things at the drop of a hat. He tries to be strong and stable, constantly sorting things out for people. However, there are numerous occasions when he cannot cope, the prime one being when his brother is dying and he simple does not know how to deal with this. Kitty is the stronger of the two in this situation and nurses his brother with a natural understanding of how to help him best, something which Levin could never have.
Aleksandr Abdulov as Stiva and Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin
Then there are Dolly and Stiva. Oblonsky is actually one of the most essential characters in this book, a kind of link between the various groups and sets of people, a sort of glue holding things together and bringing the different circles into contact. He’s the type of man you would probably still find today, the overgrown adolescent who will never get past that age, unable to accept that he has responsibilities.
“Try as he would to be a considerate husband and father, Oblonsky never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had the tastes of a bachelor and understood no others.”
Dolly is in constant emotional flux: betrayed by her husband, she actually considers divorce at one point, but meeting up with Anna and seeing how she suffers has a salutary effect and in the end she carries on putting up with her husband’s infidelity.
There are many other relationships shown in AK: Levin’s sick brother with a women he has rescued from a house of ill repute; Vronsky’s initial courting of Kitty; the missed opportunity of Varenka and Levin’s brother, when the moment to speak passes and nothing will ever come of the mutual attraction. And the reader ends up wondering which relationship Tolstoy is saying is best: Stiva and Dolly’s unhappy marriage; Anna and Vronsky’s obsessional love which turns in upon itself and destroys itself; or the marriage of Kitty and Levin, which is not what Kostya expects but ends up with the most chance of being a happy and long union. Tolstoy is looking for the perfect relationship and his various characters go through the tortuous events of their lives to allow him, through Levin, to find moral peace and a conclusion.
As for Vronsky – I felt angry with him and sorry for him at the same time. He loves Anna passionately and initiates the affair, but in doing so loses his career and in the end probably his life. He is constantly torn in opposing directions and driven to distraction by Anna’s demands and jealousy. What started as love ends up as a battle of wills – they say there is a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated here. When Vronsky, late in the book, refers to “…this dismal burdensome love…”, you know that things have got to rock bottom and there is no going back to their earlier happier times. Once again, the differing needs and expectations of men and women come into play here – as long as Anna has Vronsky, she could be happy living abroad in obscurity, but he needs more; he is bored and restless abroad and cannot really survive without career and society to mix in. I found it interesting that Tolstoy gave both husband and lover same first name, as if they represent two sides of the same coin. In fact, at one point Anna dreams that she has two husbands, and of course both men have their careers ruined by her.
There’s so much to think about after reading this book that I’m sure people write theses on it! Tolstoy’s writing style is excellent – compelling, readable and not just reportage, as has been suggested by some critics. The chapters where Kitty is nursing Levin’s brother; the section where she gives birth to Mitya; the descriptions of Anna’s deteriorating psyche and mental anguish; and those of Karenin when he finally allows his emotions to exist are remarkably powerful writing and stayed with me after reading. He constructs the book brilliantly, switching from one character to another’s viewpoint which apparent ease, and never losing the reader.
Any down points? Well, there is a *lot* of discussion – of politics, the peasant question, the meaning of life etc. Levin is the most soul-searching character, I believe normally taken to represent Tolstoy himself and his search for faith. Certainly he reflects Tolstoy’s almost schizophrenic nature, the spiritual fighting against the material. There were times when I wanted to shout “Just get on with it!”, but I imagine that on a re-read I would find these sections more absorbing, because even though I knew Anna’s eventual fate, I did want to find out what happened to all the other characters! By necessity, any first reading of AK is bound to focus on the plot but the issues probably come out more on a second or third read.
At the end of the day this was a thumping good read, as well as being filled with the issues Tolstoy was trying to debate – the sort of book you live through and which is utterly unputdownable. I think the “Anna Karenina” book hangover will be with me for quite a while!
As an aside, the Vintage edition I read was easy enough to handle, but found the lack of notes, introduction or anything a bit strange. Having read a lot of Russians, there wasn’t too much that was mysterious for me as a reader. However, someone with less knowledge of the context might have found some of the phrases or references a little puzzling, and any classic deserves an introduction. Oddly enough, the reasonably priced Wordsworth Edition is the same translation but with introduction and notes – perhaps more suitable for the general reader and a bargain at £1.99!
(Stills are from the 2009 Russian TV miniseries of “Anna Karenina”)