Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy
"Anna Karenina" tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel's seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness. While previous versions have softened the robust, and sometimes shocking, quality of Tolstoy's writing, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have produced a translation true to his powerful voice. This award-winning team's authoritative edition also includes an illuminating introduction and explanatory notes. Beautiful, vigorous, and eminently readable, this "Anna Karenina" will be the definitive text for generations to come. "Pevear and Volokhonsky are at once scrupulous translators and vivid stylists of English, and their superb rendering allows us, as perhaps never before, to grasp the palpability of Tolstoy's 'characters, acts, situations.'" (James Wood, "The New Yorker")


Reviewed: 2016-06-14
   Help Thou mine unbelief, O God, give me greater patience in my hope, and make me more constant in my love. In loving let me believe and in believing let me love; and in loving and believing let me hope for a more perfect love and a more unwavering faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen. (John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 1949; 23rd day, morning)
And if Thou dost permit us to know the many magnificent secrets of science, do not let us forget the one thing necessary; and if Thou dost desire to extinguish our vigor of mind or if Thou dost let us grow old on earth so that our soul gets weary, one thing there is that can never be forgotten, even if we forget all else, that we are saved by Thy son. (Søren Kierkegaard, Prayers of Kierkegaard; Prayer 14)
On the same day that I finished reading Anna Karenina, I also read these two prayers by Baillie and Kierkegaard. Each one felt to me like an apt prayer for the novel. Baillie's prayer speaks to what becomes Anna's ultimate question: Is there love, and am I loved? And Kierkegaard's prayer fits Levin, in his ultimate question of whether there can be simple faith in Christ, in a rational, scientific world.

I begin with something other than a plot-summary review of the novel, because really what would be the point of my stating that Anna Karenina is a perfect novel? Many more people more intelligent, informed, and eloquent than I am have already admired and analyzed Tolstoy's brilliant achievement. Like many other readers, I am in awe of the mirror that Tolstoy holds up to the small and large details of human life. Of course I see a lot of myself in Levin, which I think is a natural response to the novel, since Levin was very autobiographical of Tolstoy himself. I don't think everyone in the world is a lot like Levin, but I'd wager that most people who would read Anna Karenina are a lot like him. His idealistic pursuit of purity in life and ambition so resonate with me; I also understand his dissatisfactions, his paralysis and doubt in the face of completing a "great work." Levin is very much like I remember myself in my 20s and early 30s. I've grown and matured in many ways since then--thanks to marriage and raising children--but I definitely understand Levin's struggles.

I also see myself in Anna, but understanding her mindset at various points throughout the novel is not a pleasant experience. Rather, it forces me to confront my own selfishness, the times when I in my marriage have been hurtful in word or thought, giving in to jealousy, greed, or power plays. Seeing myself in Levin is fun--I remember being like that, and it was mostly harmless; seeing myself in Anna is a more difficult experience.

What I want to remember from the novel this time through is Tolstoy's idea that the way we see the world around us and live within it depends on how we choose to see it. Levin and Kitty at different times throw themselves completely into what they believe is selfless, sacred living, and they see the world as good, happy, and loving. Anna's fear, on the other hand, forces her to view the world as cold and unloving. Both Anna and Levin are seeking true love, they both momentarily believe that it is impossible in this world, but Levin perseveres and finds true love as a sacred life, with all of its imperfections and unknowables.

Another aspect of Levin's story that resonated with my own experience is Levin's struggle to find the best way to work with and motivate the muzhiks. Having lived in a cross-cultural situation for 12 years now, I could feel exactly what Levin was feeling--his frustration and bafflement in the cultural differences between himself and his muzhiks. That desire to be doing what is best, most appropriate, most sensitive, but the unavoidable frustration when people around seem to be acting illogically, or even to their own harm. I hesitate to write this, because I don't want to suggest that I view myself as the wealthy landowner, and the Papua New Guineans I work with as the poor rural "folk"; I don't see my situation (or Levin's) in terms of inequalities, but rather in terms of cultural differences and misunderstandings. This is an aspect of Tolstoy's writing that would not mean nearly so much to me if I had not lived through culture stress. Reading about it in Anna Karenina has been a welcome reminder that the stresses I've felt in my life are nothing new in the history of human interpersonal relations.

If there is anything in the novel that I find disappointing, it is merely that the momentum seems to wane in Part 6 (tangents about Veslovsky, and political meetings). But more than that, I am disappointed with where Karenin ends up. I like the halfway point, where it seems that the point of the novel has actually been to move Karenin toward a pure, selfless salvation. I'm sad that he moves on to other identities after that, and that by the end of the story he has virtually disappeared from the stage.

Those are small criticisms, and I finish the book feeling grateful that Tolstoy left this record of human life as he knew it in late 19th century Russia. I will return to it again and again throughout my life, and it's a book I would recommend to anyone--everyone--to read.

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