Friday, November 30, 2012

Reading Anna Karenina

My library copy of Anna Karenina

Between, recovering from surgery and starting chemotherapy, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands.  So, I thought, why not tackle a big novel? Previews for the Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina were being shown, and a friend told me she loved the book, so I checked it out of my local library and began.  All 924 pages of it.  You may find another version that has a slightly different number of pages, but my version had 924.

I was pleasantly surprised that the translation I was reading was very approachable and easy to follow.  Sometimes I have to really concentrate to read "classics," but this one read fairly easily..  I was also a bit surprised to find Anna is not really the main character in this peopled Russian novel, and you don't even meet her at the beginning.  In fact, the book starts with her brother dealing with the fallout at home of his own discovered affair with a nanny.  Stephan Arkadyvich (Anna's brother) and his wife are one of three couples followed throughout the narrative.  Tolstoy's novel is less about Anna and more about marriage and society.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Although Stephan's wife struggles to forgive her husband of the affair, society is accepting of it.  Anna, on the other hand, gets an entirely different reaction as she enters into an affair with Count Vronsky.  Unhappy in her marriage to the stiff Alexsey Aleksandrovich Karenin, Anna seeks happiness with Vronsky, and they have a child. While Vronsky continues to move freely in their social circle, Anna finds herself paying a very high price for the relationship.

Alicia Vikander as Kitty Levin

Meanwhile, Kitty Levin's marriage plays out as the counter to the other relationships.  Kitty and her husband, Konstantin, live in relative domestic peace.  When they have conflicts, they talk them out and resolve them.  They work at keeping one another happy.  Tolstoy had a very astute eye when it comes to viewing society, marriage, and families.  Many of his observations are as applicable today as when he wrote his novel in the 1870s, and many moments in the novel made me smile or think.  For example, as Levin enters into marriage, Tolstoy writes "As a bachelor, when he had watched other people's married life, seen the petty cares, the squabbles, the jealousy, he had only smiled contemptuously in his heart.  In his future married life there could be, he was convinced, nothing of that sort...."  Of course, Levin discovers he does have all of the "normal" difficulties in his relationship with Kitty. 
Vronsky and Anna believe they will find happiness with each other, but as their relationship continues, it grows strained.  Vronsky tries to reassure Anna as her insecurity increases.  Her decisions about whether or not to divorce her husband and marry Vronsky further complicate  their relationship. Tolstoy writes "Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy."  Many times the thing we thought would make us happy fails to do so, and I appreciated Tolstoy's recognition of this in his novel.
The tragic Anna Karenina
Anna reminded me a bit of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart in "House of Mirth" in that both women are on downward spirals, and as a reader, you hope someone will pull them out, or especially in Anna's case, that they will make decisions that will lead them to peace in their lives and acceptance in society.  However, both women have tragic ends.  Tolstoy's novel, for me, bogs down a bit in the parts about local Russian politics, but his characters are well-drawn.  Levin and Karenin both experience religious journeys that are in themselves interesting to examine.  With the new movie introducing another generation to this story of complicated love, it is a good time to delve into Tolstoy's enduring novel. 

1 comment:

  1. I have never been able to swallow a Russian novel, but this review makes me want to try. Or, maybe just a movie version will do...