Monthly Archives: August 2010

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve been reading Anna Karenina off and on for months now. I enjoy Tolstoy’s long-form writing – okay, let me clarify: I really loved War and Peace, and still maintain that it is one of the perfect travelling books. I expected Anna Karenina to be like War and Peace, and it is in many ways.

(I had a whole thing written up, which unfortunately got lost in a chocolate/hot day scenario. I will try to recreate it as much as possible but at this point it’s been about two weeks since I finished the book and it’s been a really busy, mentally intense two weeks….)

One of the things that I think Tolstoy does very well is character. Every character – all the major characters, at least – have something sympathetic and relatable about them.  I enjoyed the stories of everyone in Anna Karenina. I enjoyed Vronsky, and Anna (even if I got incredibly annoyed with her attitude by the end), and I absolutely loved Levin and Kitty. I thought their relationship was wonderful and real and I really hoped that they would be happy.

Character is especially important in Anna Karenina because it is ultimately a book about relationships. Even more than War and Peace, the characters are connected. In War and Peace, there are several different groups of people who occasionally interact, but are mostly separate. In Anna Karenina, there are several different groups of people who are all connected in various ways. It makes it easy to get to know the key characters – Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty, etc. – because you see them in a variety of situations and from a variety of perspectives. It makes it less easy to keep track of the secondary characters, especially when they are sometimes referred to with their patronymic and sometimes not. But it is about the relationships – romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships – of all the characters, and you can’t understand the relationships until you understand the people.

Another thing that Tolstoy does is long ramblings about the state of the world – or, at least, the state of Russia. Both Anna Karenina and War and Peace include paragraphs and paragraphs about philosophical questions and cultural attitudes of the time. Anna Karenina, for example, includes entire chapters about agriculture and the state of the peasants, among other things. This is something that works quite a lot better in War and Peace than it does in Anna Karenina. You expect a book called War and Peace to be about – well, war and peace. You expect the long sections dissecting the state of the world. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, you expect to be about the people. The digressions about agriculture or education or whatever, even when they’re “subtly” inserted into conversations, seem a little bit obvious and out of place.

But the bits that are story are quite fascinating. Like I said, I totally loved  Levin and Kitty – I don’t think I’d want to know Levin in real life; he’d be a bit too serious and earnest and idealistic for me – and was so glad that their story ended well. I quite enjoyed Anna and Vronsky, until the end when she got a little bit loopy.  (“If I kill myself, THEN HE’LL BE SORRY”…..not exactly healthy, there, Anna.) I enjoyed the intricacies of society in Moscow and St Petersburg and how they were reflected in each of the characters.

When I finished War and Peace, even though it had taken me a long time, I just wanted to relive it. I don’t feel quite the same about Anna Karenina, though. I enjoyed it, but I think I like the bigger one better.

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