I had intended to be done with Anna Karenina by November 15. In the time honored fashion of an +800 page classic, that just didn’t happen. My plan to see the movie also didn’t happen. I probably end up catching it on DVD down the road a bit.
But Anna Karenina. This book is exceedingly frustrating to read. It is well-written, certainly, and I found the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation to be quite readable. The content itself, however, is filled with unlikeable, entitled characters who display few positive character traits. They are idle aristocrats whose lives are filled with an endless round of parties and other diversions, but who seem to actually contribute little of substance to the community. The title character, Anna Karenina herself, becomes less appealing throughout the entire book until, by the end of the book, I regret to say if she didn’t actually throw herself in front of the train, someone might desire to push her (this would’ve been a very different, and probably much more exciting resolution) in front of it. She completely lost me when, not content with diverting the attention of every eligible man within a ten mile radius, she decides to try to make the married husband of an acquaintance become her champion.
There was really only one character that I actually liked: Levin, the Russian landowner whose responsibilities for serf and wife and son weigh heavily upon his soul, and who takes a more scientific and creative approach to the process of growing food. Even Levin, when he spends time in the city, becomes somewhat corrupted by the indolent and extravagant lifestyle that the aristocrats are living. In Levin, it is possible to see the seeds of a more productive, less stagnant, Russian ruling class. Levin is seen by many critics as being semi-autobiographical, which may explain the reason that he is a more sympathetic and appealing character than many of the other characters.
I wanted to feel sorry for Anna Karenina, but she was such a victim of her own bad choices that I just couldn’t, and her ultimate decision to take her life, rather than being poignant or desperate, really came off like the unthinking tantrum of a toddler who holds her breath until she passes out. Her last thoughts are focused on how her suicide will make her lover, Vronsky, sorry that he treated her so badly. And Vronsky, again, seems so shallow and so sadly codependent with the emotional vampire that Anna Karenina ends up being that he, too, seems basically bereft of redeeming qualities.
The comparison of the two relationships – Levin and Kitty versus Anna and Vronsky – was very well-done.
Personally, I enjoyed Tolstoy’s meditations on Russian farming, and nature, and religion significantly more than I enjoyed the psychological destruction of Anna and the two men who were involved with her.
A few quotes that I enjoyed:
Tolstoy on economics:
He knew that he had to hire workers as cheaply as possible, but that he should not put them in bondage by paying them in advance at a cheaper rate than they were worth, though it was very profitable.
Tolstoy on dealing with infidelity:
All that was going to befall her and their son, towards whom his feelings had changed just as it had towards her, ceased to concern him. The only thing that concerned him now was the question of how to shake off in the best, most decent, most convenient for him, and therefore most just way, the mud she had spattered on him in her fall, and to continue on his path of active, honest and useful life.
Tolstoy on love:
When the princess came in five minutes later, she found them perfectly reconciled. Kitty had not only assured him that she loved him, but in answering his question about what she could love him for, had even explained to him what for. She had told him that she loved him because she thoroughly understood him, that she knew what he must love and that all he loved, all of it, was good.
Tolstoy on life:
I’ll get angry in the same with with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray — but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!
Tolstoy is a master writer, and I am certainly not sorry that I read Anna Karenina. Even as bleak as parts of it were, I enjoyed it.