March 21, 2011

Anna Karenina (#111)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What I said then:

I’ve steered pretty clear of the weighty Russian masters, but I thought I should give at least one of them a go. Wish me luck.

What I say now:

When I was at Uni, I was briefly forced to study the short stories of Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov, and I absolutely hated them. Ever since then I've had a major phobia about the 19th Century Russians. If I didn't like the short stories, what chance I'd dig the 800 page novels? It's probably unfair to tar them all --- Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc. --- with the same brush, but hey, life ain't meant to be fair.

Nevertheless, I'm a pretentious enough jackass that when a damaged copy of Anna Karenina arrived at the store, I decided it'd look nice on my shelf and brought it home. Fast forward two years, add a dash of foolish-personal-challenge, and suddenly I was actually going to have to read it, something that I can truthfully say I would never have done otherwise.

And lo and behold, it was ... not terrible. I'd love to say that it was wonderful, and elements of it certainly were, but there was also a lot of fluff. Essentially, Anna is a beautiful, vivacious woman married to a much older, utterly loveless man. When she meets the handsome, charming Count Vronsky, she falls in love with him. Society is enjoyably scandalised, shit hits fans all over the place, teeth are gnashed and hearts broken. It's like a whole season of Days Of Our Aristocratic Russian Lives, without the eye-patched villains and insomnia victims.

At the same time, a second, (very) loosely related story involves an aristocrat farmer(!) named Levin trying to snare himself a wife and hopefully figure out the best way of living his life, and how to be happy within it.

My relationship to this book is an odd one: I feel like I should have hated it, because there was so much about it that annoyed me. Almost without exception, the characters are vacuous morons, and I despise the bloody lot of them. Things which have assumed enormous importance are dropped in an instant, when the character decides that it's not that important after all (Levin is a master of this). Very little ever even happens; for the most part, people mope about in sitting rooms having minor crises of the psyche. The whole thing kicks off with Anna and Vronsky having one of those 'locked-eyes-and-immediately-fell-for-each-other' moments that shits me in fiction because, frankly, I see it as the writer taking the easy way out (and it never happens in real life, does it?).

These are things that, given my preference for books with strong plots, should have had me raging.

But no, Tolstoy's writing is good enough that a character spending fifty pages pondering the state of Russian agriculture can be as gripping as any thriller. Okay, maybe not any thriller, but you get the point. Anna's disgrace, and the effect it has on her relationship with Vronsky, and how they try and fail to counter their increasing disillusionment, is recounted with a dispassionate, perfectly accurate eye. Levin's struggles for meaning in his closed little world, and his increasing desperation as he cannot find it, are, at times, incredibly moving.

Two sequences, one on either side of the story, stand out, both of them involving death: Levin and his wife nurse his brother as he passes away; Anna grows frantic at Vronsky's increasing coldness, and her disjointed, harried thoughts eventually lead her to a train station where (spoiler alert!) she throws herself under the 4.27 to Hurstbridge. In both passages, the thought processes the two characters undergo as they grapple with death, and with the fact that no-one living can ever understand it, are pieces of writing of immense beauty and skill.

Also, in places it's actually pretty funny. It's clear that Tolstoy himself is not a fan of the hoity-toity milieu in which most of the novel takes place, and there's a lovely snide tone to a lot of his writing. I can't get sarcasm into a text message, but he can get it across two languages and one hundred and forty years.

I didn't love Anna Karenina, I only loved elements of it. However, this novel has done me a great service: it's forever banished my fear of the Russians. I'm coming for you, Crime and Punishment!

Just not any time soon ...

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (the big dumb epic fantasy sequel I threatened you with in my last post ... and a damaged copy showed up at work last week, so I didn't even have to buy it)
books to go: still 111


  1. So John, your rules aren't actually clear as to whether you are still allowed to buy a book since you got The Wise Man's Fear for free... Your simple version states "Read Ten, Buy One"?

    Glad you liked Anna Karenina - I have read it three times and always enjoy it - I quite like the Days of Our Lives fluff. War and Peace is good too. And Crime and Punishment. But my favourite russian of all has to be The Master and Margarita - weird and wonderful.

    I'm loving the blog!

  2. Even though Wise Man's Fear wasn't paid for, because I'm going to read it, it counts as the 'one' in my 'read ten, buy one' equation. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was cheating because I'm not gonna read it, it just went under my bed.

  3. I get the impression that ladies in the 19th century cooled their faces with dainty paper fans. So when the 'shit hit the fan' as you say, they really did get a rather rude shock. 'Oh, my!'

    Erm, I think that sarcasm (or at least satire or japery) in texting can sorta be conveyed by repeating the last letter in the last word of the sentence eg.

    'hey sluttttttttt'

    -use cautiously.