Monday, 17 June 2013

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Synopsis: Stepan Oblonsky's house is in turmoil. His wife Dolly has found out about his affair with their children's former governess and now wants nothing more to do with him - so Oblonsky invites his sister Anna to stay with them. Dolly adores Anna and Oblonsky hopes that Anna will be able to convince her to forgive him. Anna has a son and has been married for almost 10 years to a wealthy husband (albeit one she doesn't love). However when Anna gets off the train at Moscow she happens to meet the handsome and charming cavalry officer Count Vronsky; the man whom Dolly's younger sister Kitty is besotted with. After they flirt and dance together at a ball, Vronsky follows Anna back to St Petersburg and they embark on a passionate affair. Anna even becomes pregnant by Vronsky. This affair scandalises their families and upper-class St Petersburg and Moscow society. Anna's friends no longer want anything to do with her and she can no longer go out without being treated with derision and scorn. This makes her increasingly bored, bitter and resentful and it ultimately leads to tragedy. Meanwhile Oblonsky's friend Levin - who is in love with Kitty - embarks on a quest for contentment, spiritual fulfilment and meaning. This is a semi-autobiographical story that mirrors Tolstoy's courtship of his wife Sophia and his conversion to Christianity.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". 

This famous opening line sets the tone for Tolstoy's novel about various families in 19th century Russia. I loved Anna Karenina and it's one of the best books I've ever read. I'd been kind of apprehensive about reading Tolstoy because for some reason I'd always got the impression that his writing would be really dry and stuffy - but that wasn't the case at all. This book wasn't at all dry and I absolutely loved Tolstoy's writing style. Anna Karenina is brilliantly-written and it's moving, deep and fascinating. Yes, that regional election in Part Six is pretty boring and I ended up skim-reading it. Yes, those multiple Russian names can be a bit confusing at first. Yes, Anna and Vronsky are annoying. But none of these things take away from the brilliance of the book and I'd still definitely recommend it.

I feel I should talk about Anna now since the book is named after her. Well, I didn't actually like her for most of the book. Don't get me wrong, as I say I loved the book. I just didn't like Anna herself and I don't think Tolstoy liked her very much either. In fact I consider it proof of Tolstoy's sheer ability as a writer that I was able to love this book as much as I did even though I couldn't stand Anna. Anna isn't always unlikeable though and Tolstoy does give her some good qualities. At the beginning of the book Anna is vivacious, kind and warm. I really liked and sympathised with her. But then Anna began her affair with Vronsky and I became so disappointed and annoyed with her. That wasn't because of her being an adulteress. Oblonsky cheats on his wife but he still seems like he'd be great fun to hang out with. We're told that Levin slept around before he met Kitty but I still loved his character. No, the reason why I stopped liking Anna was because she becomes so whiny! She gets everything she wants but she still whines all the time about everything! As soon as Anna begins her affair with Vronsky she becomes incredibly cruel and bitchy towards her husband Karenin. One moment Anna will be complaining that Karenin is cruel to her and then she'll be complaining that he's too nice to her! The man can't do anything right! It's hugely unfair. Karenin has never abused Anna in any way or cheated on her. Even though Anna isn't the love of his life he's always treated her well and with respect. Anna then selfishly chooses to abandon her son by running off to Italy with Vronsky (which I was appalled by). She shows barely any interest in her daughter. She moans when she and Vronsky are living in the city and she moans when they're living in the countryside. She becomes clingy, paranoid and irrational when she thinks Vronsky is losing interest in her. She whines that she's whining. She complains endlessly about her position in society. OK, yes, Anna does have some cause to be upset there. It is horribly unfair that Vronsky can still go out and she can't. Having said that Anna knew that would be the case. Towards the end of the book I was actually feeling quite sorry for Vronsky for having to put up with her and it's not like he's a likeable character himself! Thankfully though Anna Karenina isn't just about Anna - despite her name being the title of the book. Tolstoy gives the reader plenty of insight into what other more likeable characters are thinking. At one point we even get a sentence that's told from the POV of Levin's dog! And, as aggravating as Anna becomes, I still found her story interesting and I still felt sorry for her when she goes mental and completely loses it towards the end of the book.

By far my favourite character in the book was Levin. I was under the impression that the Levin storyline was just going to be a subplot when I first started the book but in fact he gets just as much pagetime as Anna does. Tolstoy could have very easily called the book Konstantin Levin instead. I absolutely loved Levin's character and I enjoyed his story much more than Anna's. Levin is far from perfect but he's still an extremely likeable character. In fact he's now one of my favourite characters of all time. He's just so earnest and passionate and socially awkward and sweet that I couldn't help but love him. And his romance with Kitty is just adorable. Their romance was a lovely foil to the Anna-Vronsky stuff. Also, when Levin finally reaches the conclusion that God really does exist in the final few chapters of the book, it's extremely beautiful and uplifting.

I also loved Anna Karenina for its fascinating social commentary. I learnt so much about 19th century Russian culture! I learnt things about Moscow and St Petersburg, countryside life, Russian government, Orthodox weddings, the military, etc. Tolstoy makes some scathing criticisms of the hypocrisy of Russian high society and the lack of education available to women and the peasantry too. And even though Anna Karenina might sound quite bleak and depressing - since a lot of it is about adultery and its consequences - the ending is very uplifting and there's still plenty of wit and humour in the book.

I really want to read War and Peace now and I'm planning on reading it either at the end of this year or at the beginning of the next. This is mostly down to the brilliance of this book but there's also a new BBC adaptation due next year and I want to read the book before then.

Rating: 5/5

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