Winter Window Class1x
[View from my classroom, January 29, 2014. Westerville, Ohio, feels very Russian.]

Art, emotion, ego & spirituality in Tolstoy’s masterwork.

Tolstoy is a magnificent writer. He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!—James Joyce

The book floats in some charmed section of the lake of literary opinion where the ripples from modernism and the ripples from Hollywood overlap without merging.—James Meek, on rereading the novel, in the Guardian

More than any other book, it persuades me that there is such a thing as human nature, and that some part of that nature remains fundamentally unaffected by history and culture.—Francine Prose, in the Guardian

4th Draft-Ann Karenina Opening[4th draft of Anna Karenina's opening.]

As I said in my first post about reading Anna Karenina, I picked the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky based on its opening line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—liking their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph.

It took me a couple of weeks to read the 817-pager, and in the process I learned that Leo Tolstoy can do anything as a writer. And he wants to do a lot. A couple of times he goes into the mind of a dog and makes it feel easy and natural. I was impressed by the way he traces shifting human emotions, shows how people get embarrassed, get angry, change their minds, rise above ego and fall to it. In Anna, people blush—a lot. I imagine this is historically accurate, and makes me realize one way we’ve changed, our shifting shame points, though the same conflicts remain.

But more than this, Tolstoy excited and touched and astounded me with his depiction of the way people read each other—their feelings and even their plans shifting as they interpret facial expressions, body language, and comments that might say one thing and mean another. This complex inner ballet is in response to cues they’re picking up from each other or to feelings they can’t suppress. He’s obviously studied himself and others like a scientist.

Anna is a tragic figure but a very human one; famously the novel indicts social mores and hypocrisy, showing how social shunning plays out in a highly stratified patriarchal society in which affairs were countenanced but not serious love affairs. Yet because Anna’s fully rounded, this is the least of it; what lingers in your mind is her own nature, especially her mistakes, and how she crumbles mostly because she loses custody of her beloved son. Both her husband and her lover are unworthy of her, but she’s unworthy of herself.

The novel’s religion theme fascinated me. Almost everyone’s a nonbeliever, at least privately; then one character’s spiritual yearning and his breakthrough to a belief in Christian goodness (without having faith in a deity) become an impressive if mystical coda to Anna’s fate. And I’m still thinking about a passage that explores Tolstoy’s views of art and artistry.

Admittedly these may seem digressions, especially the religion one for most contemporary readers. The novel’s true digressions into civil service, farming, and politics can surely lose any reader briefly. Yet Tolstoy handles them well, even so. I loved the farming material, of course, and blanked out a few times on the other topics. How much to fault a writer or a book for this? It’s kind of like criticizing a cathedral because, while grand, it’s really too big and your feet got sore.

Anna’s vast swaths read like a dream. Tolstoy’s sentences are so stately, elegant, and rhythmical that once you get accustomed to them other rhythms can jar you. The first book I started afterward, I felt whiplashed. A celebrated memoir of place, written in a spare poetic and much more compressed style, almost telegraphic, it seemed to be missing transitional sentences. Nope, just a Tolstoy hangover.

Something that makes Anna Karenina easier to read, despite its length, than one might expect of a doorstopper 19th-Century novel is that, like Moby-Dick, its chapters are short. In Anna, they come in sets, like waves. After three or four chapters within the same scene/topic, there’s a big new wave: a shift to a new thread. That’s where I often stopped for the night, my brain rebelling at the effort of immersing in a new setting; though Tolstoy is easy to read, his prose like water, usually I got out my bookmark after finishing one set, depending on how much time I had.

Most of Tolstoy’s chapters don’t need to be broken that way—they could’ve been passages separated by space breaks, which Tolstoy also uses. But the short chapters make the book seem very user-friendly and also modern. They may be the mere consequence of the fact that its first publication was in serial form. According to Wikipedia, Anna was published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. It was the Sopranos, the Wire, the Breaking Bad of its day.

As I mentioned previously, reading Anna is part of a larger experiment: using Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature as my guide to some classic novels. That probably was my intent when I bought Nabokov’s book over 30 years ago, in 1981. So I’ve started. I’m now reading Nabokov’s analysis, and his insights help illuminate the text, though predictably he abhors Tolstoy’s essaying and preaching that I tolerate or adore. I may revisit this topic once I’ve finished Nabokov’s analysis.

Meantime I’ve also watched the latest movie version starring Keira Knightley. Enacted on lavish sets, it has a delightful theatricality and seems to yearn toward becoming a musical. I loved it.

Anna Karenina Movie Poster


  • Dear Richard, While I am far from enjoying “Anna Karenina” myself, you persuade me that it is the important book people say it is, and I am wondering if I should go back some time and give it another try. I got bored a lot while reading it, and felt Anna’s despair and suicide was somewhat forced, as if she had some sort of choice and had taken an easy way out, not a thing I would normally assume about any real-life person I know. Really, as if Tolstoy had taken an easy way out, perhaps. I don’t know why I’m so disgruntled. Maybe we just can’t all like everything we know, beyond ourselves, to be great. But I’m very happy to hear about your Russian literature project, and have a couple of suggestions that are very off-beat, and that I would like to discuss with you or hear you review. One is a book called “Nervous People and Other Satires” by Mikhail Zoshchenko, and the other a book I don’t know how to classify but which I found hilarious and was fascinated by called “The Master and Marguerite” (sorry, I don’t recall the author’s name). These are totally unlike Tolstoy, and if they have his degree of moral seriousness, they are nevertheless quite different in kind and voice. If you want a full picture of the Russian literary scene, these are interesting too (not that I’m an authority, but I’ve also been curious). Meanwhile, I suppose I should give as great a master as Tolstoy another chance….

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much for these thoughts and recommendations, Victoria.

      Ah, Anna! I resonate with your feelings. To be honest, she and Vronsky interests me far less than do Levin and Kitty, the utter contrasting couple. Tolstoy did a brilliant job there, as Nabokov points out in his analysis. Levin fascinates, a portrait of Tolstoy himself, a landed aristocrat who believed in equality for the peasants and who yearned for spiritual truth. His and Kitty’s love story is truly compelling and far from smooth, their differences and how they tolerate them wonderful.

      • Agreed about Levin and Kitty. I can see I need to read Nabokov also!

        • Richard says:

          Victoria, Your comments sharpen my thinking, and also Nabokov, who points out that it’s really a book about couples and marriages. The other one, which opens the book, is between the serial philanderer Oblonsky and Kitty’s sister, Dolly. The three central couples are connected in various ways and acting out very different versions of marriage.

          • Yes, I guess in light of Nabakov’s remark about it being a novel of couples and marriages, Anna’s suicide makes more sense psychologically: a woman trapped in a partnership with a strict and disciplinarian husband, or even in cases where it’s vice versa with the man and the woman, is likely to internalize the harsh criticism and suicide partly out of guilt and depression (and as we’re often told, depression is often internalized anger and hostility at unfair treatment). Yes, on the whole, I think I like that reading. Thanks for mentioning it.

  • This is why I come to your blog when looking for something to read. Not just recommendations but translations.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Love that comment from Darrelyn. And can’t really add much to it except “Amen!”

  • Loved reading this post on Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. I have attempted the book once before and didn’t finish it. I have recently downloaded it to my Kindle (it will weigh less!) and hope to take it up soon. You have encouraged me that there is much to be found within the words and pages Tolstoy has written for us. Thanks for a superb post!

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Sherrey. I have made a few runs at other books myself, so I understand. The good thing is that although it is looooong, Tolstoy is easy to read. His prose really flows, and there are amazing rewards—different for each reader—in the book.

  • cynthia says:

    I’ve read Anna Karenina twice as an adult–in 1993 and in 2001 when the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition came out. I loved it each time, and re-loved it reading your post. I just pulled my Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature off the shelf, but it doesn’t include AK. However, I did notice an underlined and starred passage where Nabokov explains that it’s only in rereading that we can appreciate a book from an artistic standpoint. That made me think of your Jan 1 post : )

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