As a daughter of a Russian literature teacher, it seems I have always known the story of Anna Karenina: the love, the affair, the train - the whole shebang. I must have ingested the knowledge with my mother's milk, as Russians would say.
My grandpa had an old print of a painting hanging in his garage. A young beautiful mysterious woman sitting in a carriage in wintry Moscow and looking at the viewer through her heavy-lidded eyes with a stare that combines allure and deep sadness."Who's that?" I asked my grandpa when I was five, and without missing a beat he answered, "Anna Karenina". Actually, it was"A Stranger" by Ivan Kramskoy (1883) - but for me it has always remained the mysterious and beautiful Anna Karenina, the femme fatale of Russian literature. (Imagine my childish glee when I saw this portrait used for the cover of this book in the edition I chose!)
Yet, "Anna Karenina" is a misleading title for this hefty tome as Anna's story is just the tip of an iceberg, as half of the story is devoted to Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy's alter ego (Count Leo's Russian name was Lev. Lev --> Levin), preoccupied with Russian peasantry and its relationship to land, as well as torn over faith and his lack of it, Levin whose story continues for chapters after Anna meets her train.
But Anna gives the book its name, and her plight spoke more to me than the philosophical dealings of an insecure and soul-searching Russian landowner, and so her story comes first. Sorry,
Anna's chapters tell a story of a beautiful married woman who had a passionate affair with an officer and then somehow, in her quest for love, began a downward spiral fueled by jealousy and guilt and societal prejudices and stifling attitudes.
"But I'm glad you will see me as I am. The chief thing I shouldn't like would be for people to imagine I want to prove anything. I don't want to prove anything; I merely want to live, to do no one harm but myself. I have the right to do that, haven't I?"
On one hand, there's little new about the story of a forbidden, passionate, overwhelming affair resulting in societal scorn and the double standards towards a man and a woman involved in the same act. Few readers will be surprised that it is Anna who gets the blame for the affair, that it is Anna who is considered "fallen" and undesirable in the society, that it is Anna who is dependent on men in whichever relationship she is in because by societal norms of that time a woman was little else but a companion to her man. There is nothing new about the sad contrasts between the opportunities available to men and to women of that time - and the strong sense of superiority that men feel in this patriarchial world. No, there is nothing else in that, tragic as it may be.
"Anything, only not divorce!" answered Darya Alexandrovna.
"But what is anything?"
"No, it is awful! She will be no one's wife, she will be lost!"
No, where Lev Tolstoy excels is the portrayal of Anna's breakdown, Anna's downward spiral, the unraveling of her character under the ingrained guilt, crippling insecurity and the pressure the others - and she herself - place on her. Anna, a lovely, energetic, captivating woman, full of life and beauty, simply crumbles, sinks into despair, fueled by desperation and irrationality and misdirected passion.
"And he tried to think of her as she was when he met her the first time, at a railway station too, mysterious, exquisite, loving, seeking and giving happiness, and not cruelly revengeful as he remembered her on that last moment."
A calm and poised lady slowly and terrifyingly descends into fickle moods and depression and almost maniacal liveliness in between, tormented by her feeling of (imagined) abandonment and little self-worth and false passions which are little else but futile attempts to fill the void, the never-ending emptiness... This is what Tolstoy is a master at describing, and this is what was grabbing my heart and squeezing the joy out of it in anticipation of inevitable tragedy to come.
"In her eyes the whole of him, with all his habits, ideas, desires, with all his spiritual and physical temperament, was one thing—love for women, and that love, she felt, ought to be entirely concentrated on her alone. That love was less; consequently, as she reasoned, he must have transferred part of his love to other women or to another woman—and she was jealous. She was jealous not of any particular woman but of the decrease of his love. Not having got an object for her jealousy, she was on the lookout for it. At the slightest hint she transferred her jealousy from one object to another."
Yes, it's the little evils, the multitude of little faces of unhappiness that Count Tolstoy knows how to portray with such sense of reality that it's quite unsettling - be it the blind jealousy of Anna or Levin, be it the shameless cheating and spending of Stiva Oblonsky, be it the moral stuffiness and limits of Arkady Karenin, the parental neglects of both Karenins to their children, the lies, the little societal snipes, the disappointments, the failures, the pervasive selfishness... All of it is so unsettlingly well-captured on page that you do realize Tolstoy must have believed in the famous phrase that he penned for this book's opening line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Tolstoy is excellent at showing that, despite what we tend to believe, getting what you wanted does not bring happiness.
"Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand out of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realization of their desires. "
And yet, just like in real life, there are no real villains, no real unsympathetic characters that cause obstacles for our heroes, the villains whom it feels good to hate. No, everyone, in addition to their pathetic little ugly traits also has redeeming qualities. Anna's husband, despite appearing as a monster to Anna after her passionate affair, still is initially willing to give her the freedom of the divorce that she needs. Stiva Oblonsky, repulsive in his carelessness and cheating, wins us over with his gregarious and genuinely friendly personality; Anna herself, despite her outbursts, is a devoted mother to her son (at least initially). Levin may appear to be monstrous in his jealousy, but the next moment he is so overwhelmingly in love that it's hard not to forgive him. And I love this greyness of each character, so lifelike and full.
And, of course, the politics - so easily forgettable by readers of this book that carries the name of the heroine of a passionate forbidden affair. The dreaded politics that bored me to tears when I was fifteen. And yet these are the politics and the questions that were so much on the mind of Count Tolstoy, famous to his compatriots for his love and devotion to peasants, that he devoted almost half of this thick tome to it, discussed through the thoughts of Konstantin Levin.
Levin, a landowner with a strong capacity for compassion, self-reflection and curiosity about Russian love for land, as well as a striking political apathy, is Tolstoy's avatar in trying to make sense of a puzzling Russian peasantry culture, which failed to be understood by many of his compatriots educated on the ideas and beliefs of industrialized Europe.
"He considered a revolution in economic conditions nonsense. But he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury."
I have to say - I understood his ideas more this time, but I could not really feel for the efforts of the devoted and kind landowner striving to understand the soul of Russian peasants. Maybe it's because I mentally kept fast-forwarding mere 50 years, to the Socialist Revolution of 1917 that would leave most definitely Levin and Kitty and their children dead, or less likely, in exile; the revolution which, as Tolstoy almost predicted, focused on the workers and despised the loved by Count Leo peasants, the revolution that despised the love for owning land and working it that Tolstoy felt was at the center of the Russian soul. But it is still incredibly interesting to think about and to analyze because even a century and a half later there's still enough truth and foresight in Tolstoy's musings, after all. Even if I disagree with so many of his views, they are still thought-provoking, no doubts about it.
"If he had been asked whether he liked or didn't like the peasants, Konstantin Levin would have been absolutely at a loss what to reply. He liked and did not like the peasants, just as he liked and did not like men in general. Of course, being a good-hearted man, he liked men rather than he disliked them, and so too with the peasants. But like or dislike "the people" as something apart he could not, not only because he lived with "the people," and all his interests were bound up with theirs, but also because he regarded himself as a part of "the people," did not see any special qualities or failings distinguishing himself and "the people," and could not contrast himself with them."
It's a 3.5 star book for me. Why? Well, because of Tolstoy's prose, of course - because of its wordiness and repetitiveness.
Yes, Tolstoy is the undisputed king of creating page-long sentences (which I love, by the way - love that is owed in full to my literature-teacher mother admiring them and making me punctuate these never-ending sentences correctly for grammar exercises). But he is also a master of restating the obvious, repeating the same thought over and over and over again in the same sentence, in the same paragraph, until the reader is ready to cry for some respite. This, as well as Levin's at times obnoxious preachiness and the author's frequently very patriarchial views, was what made this book substantially less enjoyable than it could have been.
By the way, there is an excellent 1967 Soviet film based on this book that captures the spirit of the book quite well (and, if you so like, has a handy function to turn on English subtitles): first part is here, and the second part is here. I highly recommend this film.
And even better version of this classic is the British TV adaptation (2000) with stunning Helen McCrory as perfect Anna and lovely Paloma Baeza as perfect Kitty.