Columns > Published on September 30th, 2013

Culling The Classics: Anna Karenina

I hate Russian authors. Every time I've ever tried to read a book by a Russian author, I've failed miserably. Crime and Punishment? I hadn't committed any crime, but it sure felt like Dostoevsky was punishing me. Dr. Zhivago? Boris Pasternak should've changed his name to Boring Pasternak. Lolita? Vladimir Nabokov was writing in English about a French guy driving around the United States, and it was still too Russian for me. So it was with a heavy heart that I decided to read Anna Karenina, seemingly the longest book ever written, in honor of Russian author Leo Tolstoy's 185th birthday, which was this month (or last month, I guess). But I did it, and I did it for you, because this is "Culling The Classics," and we've got history to sift through.

The Book

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (The Russian Messenger, 1873-1877)

The Numbers

Considered by many, including Time and the late American author William Faulkner, to be the greatest novel ever written; Goodreads rating of 3.98; dozens of film and television adaptations (as well as a science fiction retelling) and countless references to the book throughout world literature and popular culture.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

[Tolstoy's] most remarkable achievement, however, is perhaps the weaving of so many varied aspects of social and political life across numerous spheres within the framework of parallel love stories.

Back in the late 1800s, before the Bolsheviks, before the First and Second World Wars, long before the Cold War, even before the Russo-Japanese War, Russia was doing all right. They had recently emancipated the serfs, a huge liberal reform, and seemed to be stepping into modernity with the rest of Europe. It was a time of great change, and Count Lev Nikolayevich "Leo" Tolstoy, a Russian noble, writer, and thinker, wanted to capture this upheaval through the lens of a group of aristocrats, which sounds just horribly boring. To spice things up a bit, he centered the story on an illicit affair, a passionate liaison between the book's main female protagonist, Anna Karenina, and the charming young Count Vronsky. Anna and Vronsky meet and fall in love very early on in the novel, and for the next several hundred pages their drama plays out across the social scenes of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Russian countryside.

Parallel to this forbidden love story is another, less scandalous tale. Konstantin Levin, a rich landowner and friend of Anna's brother, acts as a social canvas on which Tolstoy paints his views on many of the popular issues of his day. Levin struggles with and engages in many debates on love, the concept of marriage, dealings with the lower classes he relies on to work his fields, acceptance of the new reforms made in Russia, westernization, innovation, the role of women in society, and the general feelings of futility that often plague his daily life. Through Levin, arguably the true protagonist of the book, we gain a remarkable insight into not only Russian life in the late 1800s, but also many familial, social, and economic issues that are still highly relevant today.

You'll Love It

It's entirely possible that this is the most brilliant, the most complete, and the most perfect novel ever written. Authors, critics, and readers have praised Tolstoy for close to a century and a half for the way he was able to combine so many different human elements in such a powerful and compelling way. His faithful depiction of the tremendous gulf between the upper class—to which he himself belonged—and the lower classes that were subservient to that aristocracy is highly commendable. His near perfect understanding of the everyday struggles of family life is even more compelling. His most remarkable achievement, however, is perhaps the weaving of so many varied aspects of social and political life across numerous spheres within the framework of parallel love stories. Each character, from the lowliest fieldworker to the richest government official, is given life and depth and motivation. When Vronsky first meets and falls in love with Anna, it is impossible not to fall in love with her as well. When Levin despairs, heartbroken after an early rejection, it's easy to empathize with his sense of the pointlessness of life. Anna's brother, Oblonsky, seems only to ever want to have fun—he frequently enjoys drinking, hunting, and flirting—but when we are with him, all of his decisions seem to make perfect sense. Then, when we spend time with Alexei Alexandrovich, Anna's cuckolded husband, a stiff but honorable bore, we can't help but understand and sympathize with his position. Through subtle shifts in tone, location, and point of view, Tolstoy manages to present nearly every possible lifestyle and character type in such a way that the novel becomes a living universe, a Russia that is just as real as the one he inhabited.

You'll Loathe It

But holy hell is this book long. The version I read is 817 pages, though that doesn't include the Introduction, the List of Principal Characters, and the seemingly endless Notes section. And to make things as difficult as humanly possible, this book takes place in Russia, so not only does everyone have about 15 different names, each of which is used only in very particular situations, but all of these names sound exactly the same. There are at least three different Annas, four Alexei/Alexanders, a Nikolaevna and a Mikhailovna (as well as two Nikolais), and a host of V names—Vronsky, Varya Chirkov (also called Varvara), Varvara Andreevna (also called Varenka), Vasenka Veslovsky (also called Vaska and Vassily), Elizaveta Fyodorovna Tverskoy, Lydia Ivanona, Nikolai Ivanovich Sviyahsky, Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev, Fyodor Vassilyevich Katavasov, and Yashvin. And these are just the main characters. Once you add in all of the soldiers/officers, counts/countesses, princes/princesses, footmen, stewards, maids, nurses, villagers, coachmen, and sundry other minor characters, it becomes next to impossible to keep track of everyone. I needed three bookmarks to read this novel: one for the page I was on, one for the List of Principal Characters so I could refer back to it constantly, and one for the Notes, of which there are over 225 (not including the various translation notes at the bottom of many pages, since the book was originally written with Russian, French and English dialogue).

If you can handle the length of the read, the complexity of the character relationships, and the breadth and depth of the political and social issues being discussed, there's of course the added bonus of this being a Russian novel, which means that it's flowery and dense and often boring as all get out. Sometimes Tolstoy just decides to spend several pages discussing optimal methods for plowing a wheat field. At other times he goes into nauseating detail on the habits of Russians living abroad. We spends several chapters simply waiting for a man to die. And he never makes a point without repeating it at least three times; probably a good 60-70% of the book is inner monologue, usually Anna or Levin's. And while it's obvious that Tolstoy was an extremely insightful writer, he wasn't always a subtle one. Calling Anna Karenina dense is probably—wait, how do you say "understatement of the century" in Russian?

Read It Or Leave It?

And yet somehow, somehow, I finished this book. Many editions of Crime and Punishment are under 500 pages. Lolita is under 400. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, weighs in at close to 850 pages, but I just had to finish it. And it wasn't even because I had to know what happened at the end; the book has one of the most-spoiled endings in classical literature (Choo-Choo!). I mostly wanted to experience for myself the completion of these two emotional journeys, Anna's and Levin's, and be with these characters as they made the major and minor decisions that decided their respective fates. It isn't a particularly plot-heavy book, so it doesn't specifically keep you from putting it down in that way, but it creates such a complete world that it's hard to leave it except at the designated station: the end of the book. So much of Anna Karenina is open ended, but so is life, and everything that is tied up by the novel's conclusion is done so only through specific choices made by the characters to improve/react to their situations. Everyone sleeps in the bed that he or she has made for him- or herself, and no one is left gracelessly at the mercy of fate.

Final Verdict

If you have the patience, the capacity, the ability to remember the names of people you've only met once, you should absolutely read this book. I'm not willing to say that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written, but it certainly isn't very far off. The broad strokes of the story are incredibly compelling, but it's the characters, the complexity, and the richness of this 19th-century socialscape that make it, as Dostoyevsky is alleged to have said, "flawless as a work of art." But he was Russian, so what does he know?

About the author

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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