Translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
I got this beautiful new Vintage classics edition which is part of their Russian classics reissue. All the covers in the series use Russian textile designs from the nineteenth century and Soviet era and are gorgeous.
It’s a big book, and 1000ish pages can look a bit intimidating, but it’s surprisingly easy to read. I loved parts of this book and felt meh about other parts.
So much of this novel is about the search for meaning, and working out how to live. All of the characters are complex, contradictory, and trying to find their way. They are all human and flawed and doing their best (which doesn’t always mean what would be best for them). Levin and Anna, both equally the central characters despite the title, are very different people, but essentially have the same questions about life. The contrast is how joy and death move in different directions for them.
Sometimes it feels a little bogged down in repeated, similar conversations about farming technique or philosophy. I get that they were there as a literal and metaphorical part of that search for meaning, but at times it was too much and some sections were a slog. Particularly as Tolstoy is definitely an advocate of ‘tell don’t show’.
I lot of the book is also about the differing position of men and women in society. After Anna leaves Karenin for Vronksy, she is shunned by society; most of her former friends won’t even visit her at home. Vronsky, on the other hand, is able to live just as he had before without question. This, and Vronsky’s lack of real understanding, underlies the tension between them. Equally, Kitty, expecting a proposal from Vronsky but not getting one, is made to feel incredible shame, even though nothing happened and she did nothing wrong. Dolly is cheated on Oblonsky, but she is seen as the unreasonable one for being upset about it and wanting to leave.
Even so, I wouldn’t call this a wholly feminist novel. Women are praised, by Tolstoy, for meekness and submissiveness – “She was frightened, shy, shamefaced, and therefore even more charming.” Vomit. And nearly every woman bursts into tears as soon as someone even disagrees with them (and the ones that don’t are not painted in a positive light).
I also thought it ended a bit oddly. I can see that Levin and Anna both finding answers to their existential crises was supposed to stand in contrast as their lives had throughout the book, but finishing with Levin’s ending rather than Anna’s made it feel a bit flat.
I like books that explore meaning and have fully rounded characters, so I should have loved this. But it didn’t blow me away the way Moby Dick did, which is what I was expecting. There’s a lot I loved about it and some sections were incredible, but I felt so meh about other parts I couldn’t love the book as whole. A nearly-but-not-quite read for me.