You have to wonder about when, in his writing process, Tolstoy came up with Anna Karenina’s killer first line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—seemingly one of the truest and certainly one of the most famous in all of literature. Did it always launch his 800-page novel, published when Tolstoy was 49, or did it arise during composition and end up placed there? (Scholars?) In any case, does it not refute the maddening “kill your darlings” commandment? It adds an expository moralizing signpost atop a great paragraph that could open the book. There’s every nasty neat reason to cut it—and one not to, bound up in the category called genius.
I’m struck too by how Tolstoy starts in long-distance mode, referring in the second paragraph to “the wife” and “the husband,” but in the third paragraph he’s moving the camera closer; soon we’re right up in their nostrils. I’ve always loved Tolstoy’s simple but elegant sentences, on full display here.
But of course I’m reading him in translation, in the new edition edited by the hottest Russian-literature translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you poke around on the web and read Amazon reviews, you’ll see even these lauded midwives dissed—someone swearing an older translation is better. Basically I picked Pevear and Volokhonsky based on Anna Karenina’s opening line: I liked their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph; you can read several using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I might have read the Constance Garnett version with an opening line almost identical—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—though Garnett’s second sentence, truer to Tolstoy for all I know, feels slightly less felicitous: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.”