Thursday, January 27, 2011

Anna Karenina

I think I can safely return to Russian Literature now without seeming too one-dimensional.  I was worried I would overwhelm you at the beginning if I wrote about too much at once, but I have a corner in my heart reserved just for Russian Lit.  In an earlier post, I offered my list of the great Russian authors of the 19th century.  As I've already written about Crime and Punishment and Dead Souls, I now turn to Anna Karenina.

One can hardly mention Russian Literature without immediately thinking of Leo Tolstoy.  He has been a figurehead of the genre for over a hundred years, launching the Russians onto the literary scene on a global scale.  And I do feel that he deserves this recognition, for he is definitely a skilled writer who can harness stories on an epic scale.  Unfortunately, I have not yet read War and Peace, so I can't speak of that, but I think Anna Karenina is a good sampling.

"Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This iconic opening line instantly brings readers to the grim reality of the dissolving relationships which are about to unfold.  The novel primarily follows the relationships of Anna and Levin.  Anna gets wrapped up in a love triangle between her husband and her lover, and Levin's story with Kitty is full of ups and downs.  They each experience happiness and heartbreak, but their endings are drastically different.

For the most part, I associate Tolstoy's writing style as more British in nature than Russian.  The Russians tend to incorporate a fair amount of black comedy, with humorous descriptions and ironies.  They also have a unique narrating style in which the narrator breaks in and out of his third-person mode in order to add personal commentary from time to time.  Tolstoy, however, writes in a consistent third-person narration and maintains a serious tone in his work.  His language is also quite proper, (in the English translation, at least), and together with his subject matter of the more elite social classes, he reminds me of his British contemporaries.  Nevertheless, there are a number of features in his writing that are quintessentially Russian.  For example, Russians love to talk about the physical landscape.  They often devote time to describing the land or mentioning the ground.  Tolstoy makes this particularly evident in his narrations of Levin at his farm.  Personally, I am a big fan of Levin, and I could feel something admirable about his devotion to his fields and workers.  And I'm a city girl!  Anna's life revolves more around St. Petersburg, which I would absolutely love to experience, but the pure farming lands are much more romantic and idyllic in this novel.

This is quite a lengthy book, so I must control myself before I write a review much longer than you'd like to follow.  Thus, I will just mention one more aspect of it that appeals to me - Tolstoy's representation of women.  I suppose I've brought up feminist themes quite a few times in my blog, but I find it fascinating these days.  In an age before women's rights were appreciated, Tolstoy illustrated just how unfairly the social system was structured.  Anna was trapped by societal expectations and prejudices much more dramatically than any of the other characters.  Her plight passionately evokes sympathy from readers, and I was definitely taken in.  In fact, I felt for many of the characters in the novel, even though they were all quite different.  I think Tolstoy did a wonderful job characterizing them and making their stories feel real.

I think Anna Karenina is a great Russian book.  Like many of its kind, it's fairly dark, but I believe it's worth reading.  There's a great story in there as well as a great author to experience.


A Journey in Reading said...

This is one of my favorite books. I tend to compare any Russian lit that I read to this one.

Kat @ A Journey In Reading

Anonymous said...

I concur with Kat. I can't gush enough over this novel. Pure genius.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I love your description of Ana Karenina. It really captures just how wonderful a book this was. I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it, I thought that it would be an extremely difficult read and instead I flew through it. My only difficulty was that at times the discussion about politics, particularly from Levin was a little bit boring. But otherwise Tolstoy captured the lives of these characters so well I fell in love with the book

Amy said...

It's nice to hear you all love this book. As Becky said, it can get quite long and drawn-out which I think might turn off a lot of readers. I know I had to set daily reading quotas for myself to make sure I pushed through and read it in a timely fashion so I could really enjoy it. Ultimately, I think it's the books that are full of discussion and thought that are the most rewarding, even more than the page-turners.

IngridLola said...

I absolutely love this book.

Karen Hugg said...

You're so spot on about Tolstoy being more akin to a British writer than Russian. I think of the Russians and Eastern Europeans as similar. Tolstoy is more like Hugo or Dickens, more of a hopeful romantic. I'd love to see a review from you of War and Peace. I believe it truly is the greatest novel of its time. And Pierre's epiphany at the end ... it's so powerful. Thanks for your site!