Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 963 (Paperback)
Anna Karenina is a novel of unparalleled richness and complexity, set against the backdrop of Russian high society. Tolstoy charts the course of a doomed love affair between Anna, a beautiful married woman, and Count Vronsky, a wealthy officer who pursues her after becoming infatuated at a ball. Although she initially resists his charms Anna eventually succumbs, falling passionately in love and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to her downfall. In this extraordinary novel Tolstoy seamlessly weaves together the lives of dozens of characters, while evoking a love strong enough to die for.
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. Although I really enjoyed most of it I did have to slog through it at points like no other book I can even remember. It was rewarding, definitely, but boy was it draining. There were several times I just had to put the book down for a couple of days and it took me faaar too long to finish (I was meant to be done by the end of September), but at no point did I want to abandon it. Now that I am done, rather than dwelling on the book itself, my presiding emotions are simply a sense of relief and vague pride in having finished. But I’ll try to get over that to write a review.
This wasn’t the Anna Karenina that either the blurb or pop-culture had really promised me. The famously doomed love affair is not the sole focus of the book – I’m not even sure it’s meant to be the main focus at all – but one of many themes and threads that run through the story. In fact Anna Karenina herself is neither the most compelling character nor the one who gets most page time. That last honour (but not, for me, the first) would probably belong to Levin, an introspective country gentleman, and his romance with Kitty Scherbatsky (two characters I’d never really heard of before starting the book) gets at least as much attention as the more passionate affair between Anna and Vronsky. As well as these simultaneous and contrasting love stories, however, there’s a lot of page time spent on stuff that doesn’t really seem to add to the narrative – Russian politics, agricultural theory, the aftermath of emancipating the serfdom… It can probably be a bit much if you go in expecting only an epic love story. Personally I really enjoyed most of these chapters, particularly the ones on agricultural theory and Russian peasantry. It might just be the former history student in me but I found it absolutely fascinating to look at the types of thoughts and theories being written in late Tsarist Russia and find the little hints of things to come that Trotsky couldn’t have known about when he wrote it. In fact I often found myself enjoying Levin’s chapters on interacting with the peasants and trying to find the most efficient way to run a farm (while not particularly enjoying Levin as a character) more than I liked a lot of the angsty relationship drama – at least early on. But equally a lot of people I know who don’t share my geeky interests found these chapters a real drag and I can totally understand why.
The main criticism I heard from friends before I started the book though was ‘none of the characters are likable’ and ‘it’s just horrible people doing horrible things to each other’. And that’s true, to a certain extent. There were characters I liked (Oblonsky is fantastic and I actually really liked his long-suffering wife, Dolly, as well) but everyone in the book is a far cry off perfect and although they do grow and change over the 900 odd pages it’s not necessarily in positive ways. I started off not thinking much of Vronsky for his behaviour towards Anna (seriously, stalking is not the way to win a girl!) but ended up totally wishing he would kick her jealous, clingy, batshit insane, bitchy arse to the curb and stop putting up with her shit. At the same time I could totally relate to why Anna was behaving the way she was, her frustration with her situation of being ostracised by society until she divorces her husband and marries Vronsky instead while only wanting herself to be his mistress/lover and enjoy the sex and the romantic times and being the centre of his world without being expected to settle down and start popping out his children.
The characters weren’t necessarily likable, but they were interesting and I have to say that Levin, who everyone else seems to love, was the only one who consistently pissed me off. He’s often thought to be a stand in for Tolstoy’s own views so I’m not sure what it says about my opinion of him that I found Levin to be a patronising, moralising twat of the ‘I can’t be a misogynist, I think women are paragons of perfection!’ school of misogyny. Even another character in the book (hurrah for Oblonsky!) had to eventually call him out for always assuming that women naturally wanted to be mothers and nothing else. The way Levin romanticised everything to the extent that reality always disappointed him wound me up, especially when it came to Kitty *gasp* actually existing as a person with opinions of her own that didn’t always gel with his vision of her as a subservient woman who always agreed with him. Every time another man even spoke to Kitty he seemed to instantly think the worst of her and get irrationally jealous. It was more unhealthy than Anna/Vronsky/Anna’s husband in places and I just wanted Kitty to get out of there fast because no one deserves end up with someone who has that little trust and respect in them. But since Levin and Kitty were the foil for Anna and Vronsky’s romance I never really expected that to happen. They’re meant to be the healthy happy and pure relationship to Anna’s hurtful, miserable and adulterous one.
On the whole though, irritation with Levin and reading fatigue at the sheer length of the book aside, I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. It was a slog, not going to lie about that, it took a lot of effort, but I think in the end it was worthwhile. I enjoyed the odd chapters on politics and agriculture a lot and, eventually, I found myself getting pretty into the love stories as well. I’m still a bit disappointed with the way the start of Anna and Vronsky’s affair and how and why she caved into him wasn’t really shown – one chapter she was fancying him but loyal to her husband and the next they’d had sex. It was a rather beautiful scene actually and I really liked the way Vronsky compared the crime and aftermath of adultery with that of murder, but I don’t know, it seemed to miss a bit of build up somewhere. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending either. After the culmination of the book that everybody remembers (even if they haven’t read the book) we get several chapters of Levin being introspective and an obnoxiously heavy-handed moral and religious message. What I really could have done with instead was less Levin and more Vronsky and Karenin, both of whom were much more interesting characters. But the majority of the book I liked. Trotsky handled an insane number of characters (all with several different names depending on the social status of who they’re speaking with) magnificently and there was a lot of really beautiful, true to life, writing.
The one passage that will probably stick with me the most, is the lingering death of one of the character’s relatives and the way everyone about him just wanted him to die and for it to all be over. After spending what seemed like forever in that situation myself over this summer sitting by the hospital bed of somebody I loved, it was the one section I could really truly relate to. But even that didn’t affect me as much as I felt it should and the reason I only give this four stars rather than four-and-a-half or higher is really because of that feeling; I simply never connected with the story on a particularly personal level. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t invested in it. I wanted to see what happened, but as an impartial observer and, ultimately, I didn’t really mind what the hell happened to all the characters.