Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Kathy 1, Tolstoy 0.

Today I am finally able to remove this albatross that has hung round my neck since early August.  Victory is mine! After a grueling double overtime, I WIN!! Suck it, Leo! What a weight is lifted from my shoulders. I deserve a gold star and a margarita. But, in Tolstoy's own words, "it's not the reward that's precious; it's the work itself."

I expected this book to be a kind of cross between Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I also expected to need a notebook to keep track of the characters and their multiple names. Those Russians! Between the given names, diminutive forms, patronymics, and surnames, sometimes it seems like there are dozens more characters than there really are. It doesn't help that an incredible number of people in the Russian aristocracy somehow ended up with the title of Prince or Princess. But as it turned out, I did not find the names as troubling as I'd expected.

I read with interest and trepidation the story related in the foreword about the difficult birth of this novel. I feared the reading of it might be as much of a struggle as the writing of it. I was also afraid that by the time I got to the middle of the book I would already have forgotten what happened at the beginning, and by the time I got to the end I would just have to start over.

Happily, that does not seem to be the case. This doesn't look like an 800-page book, and it doesn't feel like an 800-page book, but it is an 800-page book. 807, to be exact. And though I am amazed by people who have read this book more than once (I'm talking about you, Rachel!) I have no plans to join their ranks. I will soon be mailing it off to a fellow paperbackswapper with relish.

I don't want to give you the idea that this was a horrible book. It's an excellent story, skillfully written, fully deserving of its place as an eternal classic, encompassing themes that will resonate with readers for as long as humans populate the earth. But it just took me freakin' forever to read and I am never going to do it again. Even with the help of LibriVox audio. Which, by the way, Tolstoy scolded me for. "Every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labor spent on it is dishonest."

I wonder why I was more accepting of marital infidelity in a book like Lady Chatterley's Lover, and scornful of it in this book? I was almost rooting for Lady Chatterley to cheat on her husband, but Vronsky and Anna whining about how it just couldn't be helped rubbed me the wrong way.  I wanted to smack them both. Vronsky's words were,"You know that I have come to be where you are . . . I can't help it." And Anna later echoed him by saying, "Can it be that they won't forgive me, won't understand how it all couldn't be helped?"

I'm not convinced that this book's title is especially fitting. I suppose Anna is one of the main characters of the book, but she isn't the only one--especially as she is barely mentioned in Book Eight, the final division. I don't think she's even the main-est main character. She is probably on equal footing with Levin in terms of significance in the story, but I don't think the book should have been solely named after him, either. For a while I was thinking a better title might be "Cheaters Never Prosper," but (besides how corny that would sound) there's far more to the book than infidelity, just as there's far more to the book than Anna.

It was interesting to consider what linked Anna and Vronsky with Levin and Kitty, other than their tenuous familial bond (Kitty's sister is married to Anna's brother). I came to see comparison as the purpose of their juxtaposition, showing a healthy marriage as a foil for a diseased relationship that sets out in ignominy and is deteriorating almost before it has begun.

I wasn't sure if I was allowed to laugh at this book--it's so serious--but when one character pleads, "Please manage that there may be no talk of my having shot myself on purpose," how can you not laugh when another character responds, "No one does say so. Only I hope you won't shoot yourself by accident anymore."

Speaking of laughing, is it just me, or did anyone else want Levin's brother to go on and die already? Hemingway could have made it happen in one sentence, but in Tolstoy's hands poor Nikolai dragged on interminably. I had to laugh when the book expressed my very thoughts on the matter: "They all knew that he would quite inevitably die soon, that he was half dead already. They all had only one wish, that he would die quickly." (In case you are currently gnashing your teeth, I promise that's not a spoiler; Nikolai is unwell from the moment he is introduced.)

And I couldn't help but snigger while listening to the audio version as the reader seemed to be saying that one of Kitty's sisters was Madame La Vulva. I was glad to have the print version to refer to so I could see that Kitty's sister was the much more politely-named Madame Lvova.

When I was halfway through the book, I felt these characters had been with me for so long, I would miss them after they'd gone (meaning, after I finished reading). But by the end they were like guests who had overstayed their welcome. I was ready to say goodbye, in some cases even good riddance, and send them on their way.

Two more orphan comments that don't seem to fit in anywhere else: First, thanks to Jane Doe, I noticed every time Vronsky's strong white teeth were mentioned. Too bad nobody kicked them in. Second, I CAN'T BELIEVE I was dealt a spoiler about Anna's fate--and all from a brief mention in a silly, fluffy magazine. That will teach me to read silly, fluffy magazines. Argh! It was akin to Rachel spitefully telling Joey, "Beth dies."

I hereby pronounce that I will be reading only skinny books until I recover.


Greg Zimmerman said...

Congrats on finishing! And congrats on writing a wonderful review - you've really demystified a book that has scared the bejesus out of me my whole life...but one I know I should read. In fact, I've deemed 2011 Year Tolstoy, so I'll be referring back to your post when I make my own advance against Tolstoy next year. War and Peace and Anna Karenina are both on the agenda. Cheers to you!

Kristi said...

You finished! Good for you. I'm so intimidated by this book. I've checked it out twice from the library and returned it after being too afraid to read it. I'll have to try again.

Stephanie said...

Oh my gosh ... I love your writing and your sense of humor. I am especially love the bit about wishing Levin's brother would go ahead and die already -- "Hemingway could have made it happen in one sentence." :-) Indeed he could, but you can't expect a Russian writer not to dwell on a tragedy, can you?

I loved this book, though the business of Russian names did make me rip my hair out. And like you, I didn't have much sympathy for Anna and Vronsky.

She said...

Oh, Russian lit. I want to read this but am so daunted by it! I totally understand what you mean about the names. I had much the same response with Crime and Punishment-- I had to keep a piece of paper on the side to keep everyone straight. Who knew one could have so many names!

Kathy said...

Thanks, guys! I have felt great all afternoon. It's as if I've just been released from years of indentured servitude. (Or six weeks, anyway.)

Greg--don't be scared. If you have defeated Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow, you have nothing to worry about. AK is not confusing or difficult to understand in any way. I just wasn't prepared for how looooong it is. I knew about War and Peace's reputation, but I honestly didn't realize what a fatty AK was until I actually got started with it. And it's not as if 800 pages is impossible. I survived The Fountainhead (694) and Pillars of the Earth (983) with much less angst. I will say my copy of AK suckingly deceived me, as my copy of The Fountainhead is a full 1/4" thicker, with fewer pages!! Not sure about the physics of that, since the paper feels like it's the same thickness in both books . . .

Kristi and She--a couple of suggestions you might take or leave: First, set a goal for yourself to read a certain number of pages a day. The book has 8 parts, which were really too long for me to read one each day, and each book has about 30 very short chapters, which are too short (and unequal in length) to read just one a day, so try to find a good # of pages to read each day (25? 50?). Second, have a light, short book going at the same time, to reward yourself! (I didn't do either of these things, but I wish I had. I would have gotten through it faster, anyway.) OR--this would probably be a great book for a read-along, if you are so inclined.

Stephanie--why, thank you! You made my day just that much better. :) And you're so right about Russian writers--they love their tragedies, don't they!

Jessica said...

Well done for reading it. My copy is just under 800 pages as I think my copy must have smaller writing (dont you hate that)

I have got an American Classic project on the go at the moment but I am hoping to read this early next year. The Russians like their long novels though dont they.

Kathy said...

Thanks Jess! I think I'm still on an I-finished-it high three days later.

I hope you're able to zip through it faster than I did when you read it next year! It really is a good book. And so far it seems like everyone else who's read it loves it, has read it more than once, and can finish it in about five minutes. :P

Jenny said...

You rock. Congrats on finishing it. I tried to read it on my own about 10 years ago and petered out about halfway through.

Kathy said...

Thanks! I sure feel like I rock for finishing it!! ;)