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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review - Adult - Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Occasionally, I read adult books, written for adults, about adults. There tends to be too much sex, violence, substance abuse and misery in these types of books for my taste, but sometimes it's worth it for the story and the message. This book hits three of my four dislike buttons, but it came highly recommended. So I read it anyway, and even finished it. I'll start with my criticisms.

Now I know what it means to be “trapped in a Russian novel.” Anna Karenina is an excellent piece of literature in need of concision.


Tolstoy's plot is plodding. This is less a story and more a treatise on Russian life embedded in a bloated story. There was no part of Russian life left unexplored. [For the sake of my own concision I list the topics of Russian life explored by Tolstoy below, see Appendix, item 1.]

And, apparently Russian names are more of a song given at birth than a name, because Tolstoy doesn't just name his characters, he gives a genealogical history in each name and repeats the genealogy almost every time the person is referenced or speaks. Is this standard in Russia? [It reminded me of CB lingo, where the words 'yes' and 'no' are extended to 'affirmative' and 'negatory' to combat static interference. Forgive my disrespect, but I only got through it by imagining names in Russia needing to be long enough to be recognizable even on lips frozen by Russian winters.] Beyond the long names, Tolstoy uses beastly similar or duplicate names. A look at the principal characters page is enough to strike fear into the heart of any dyslexic. [Oh, wait, dyslexic sounds like a Russian name. Tolstoy, might even use it for three of his major characters.]

Also, I don't understand the opening quote. What is the place of the Lord's vengeance in this story? [It is either very obtuse, applied to every one or only to Anna and Vronsky, but I can't figure out which.]

Despite my complaints, Tolstoy is excellent at creating memorable scenes and compelling characters. I needed to know what happened to Anna, Levin, and Oblonsky. I had to finish the book, even though I was depressed by the hopeless of Anna's situation and the endlessness of the book. [I might have been satisfied with an abridgment, but what if I missed good parts?]

I have a long list of parts of the story I was glad I didn't miss, but first some more things I didn't like: the lack of names for Kitty's mother and Vronsky's mother, or the almost none existent names for the Oblonsky children. [See below in the Appendix, item 2.] I was interested in these characters, but was Tolstoy?

There were many moments when I wanted to smack characters on the head and say, “A duh!” I try not to remember those. But they happen most frequently with Levin and Kitty, especially in regards to each other. Then there were moments I want to forget because they seem to have no redeeming value, though I guess they did move the plot along. [See Appendix, item 3.] I will just mention the most important one. The pain, when Anna realizes after she throws her relationship with her son and her respectability away to be with Vronsky, what he most wants from her is an heir. Her subsequent misery, despair and suicide were grueling. I wish I could blot this out. I don't want examples of that kind of despair in my life. There is far too much despair in the world as it is.

But the compelling scenes and characters out weigh the negative ones. I also found many poignant moments.[See Appendix, item 4, for a list of my favorites.]

Oddly, this story reminded me of a darker version of Jane Austin's earlier work, Pride and Prejudice.[For a list of the similarities, see Appendix, item 6.] I had fun comparing the two stories. You must admit the archetypes are similar, and the relationships reminiscent. Anna Karenina is a more mature work that deals more with reality, but I much prefer the shorter, fairy tale version of relationships in Pride and Prejudice to the realism and despair in Anna Karenina. I wonder if Tolstoy was influenced by Austin?

My final opinion of Anna Karenina is that despite the failings of concision and the beastly difficult names, Tolstoy's wisdom is too precious to miss. [See Appendix, item 7 for the list.] I love how he demonstrates the power of simple, honest living.

Appendix
1. Tolstoy wrote at length about Russian: farming techniques, economy, local politics, the publishing process, the process by which war is initiated and maintained, care of the sick and dying at resorts, the education system or lack there of for peasants and girls, religion's uses and abuses and French art.

2. Names for the Oblonsky children: Tanya, Grisha, Vasya, Alyosha, Nikolena, Masha and Lily. [It was a lot of work to uncover these. They should have been included in the principle characters list. But I guess that's not Tolstoy's fault.]

3. Moments to forget: Princess Betsy's interfering liaisons, Kitty's unnamed mother's (the old Princess's) dismissal of Levin, Alexei Alexandrovich's self righteousness, Princess Lydia's interfering self righteousness, their consultation with a psychic, Vronsky's dogged pursuit of Anna.

4. Compelling scenes: Anna's reunion with her son, Seryozha, on his birthday; Kitty with Levin's brother, Nikolai Dmitrich, before he dies; Levin, right before his wedding and at the birth of his child, Dmitri; Darya Alexandrovna when her children, Tanya and Grisha share the pie; Sergei Ivanovich with Varenka at their pivotal moment; Alexei Alexandrovich's forgiveness of Anna and Vronsky; Levin's work with the peasants and when he finally figures out his beliefs.

5. Poignant moments: Kitty wanting to nurse her baby, Dmitri, as much as he wanted to be nursed; Kitty's confusing choice between Levin and Vrvonsky; Anna's choice between marital fidelity and motherhood and passionate love; Levin's embarrassment over his proposal to Kitty; the men wandering around the men's club that allows Levin to forgive Vronsky; Darya Alexandrovna's forgiveness of her husband's infidelity; Levin's many temper tantrums that he regrets; Levin's confession; Oblonsky's meeting his nephew, Seryozha; Alexei Alexandrovich's fondness for Vronsky's baby daughter and Levin's friendly ways with Darya Alexandrovna's children.

6. Similarities with Pride and Prejudice: Vronsky is similar to Wickham: a handsome, young military man who tries for one young woman but ends up leading another young woman into immorality. Prince Schesbasky and his wife are similar to Mr. and Mrs. Bentley in personality and goals. Each has multiple daughters and no sons. The names Kitty and Lydia are prominent in both stories. Both beauties, Anna and Kitty, are similar to Elizabeth. Anna has her pride and strength. Kitty has her ability to admit mistakes, to love someone previously rejected, and her piano skills. Levin is a socially awkward rich bachelor, like Darcy, whose heart is stolen.

It is almost like Tolstoy asked the question: what would have happened if Wickham had succeeded in capturing Elizabeth's heart.
-Anna could be Elizabeth/Lydia, if she married Mr. Collins/Alexei Alexandrovich in good faith, then fell in love with Wickham/Vronsky. We even have a Darcy/Levin come along afterward and they are still attracted to each other.
-Kitty could be Elizabeth/Lydia having rejected Mr. Collins/Darcy/Levin and fallen for Wickham/Vronsky. When the flighty heart throb falls for another, she then returns to Mr. Collins/Darcy/Levin.
-There is even a similarity between the beautiful Jane/Dolly, sister of Elizabeth/Kitty, marrying her princely, but silly Bingham/Oblonsky. Then Tolstoy has him look elsewhere for beauty once her looks mature with childbearing.

7. Tolstoy's opinions that resonated as wisdom to me: the value he placed on the peasants and manual labor is a good reminder, the judgment he places on the wastefulness of city activities and government jobs seems accurate, his views on marriage is refreshing, his ideas about infidelity versus faithfulness, and the need in marriage for either a complete division of labor or loving cooperation in decision making is insightful.

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