Anna Karenina

Reviewed on , book by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina. Let’s summarize it as a Gossip Girl in 1875’s Russia with an astute social observer. I was pretty close to closing this book for good on three occasions. It’s taken me since April to finish it, primarily in spurts. What kept me going was that every 50-75 pages there’d be an excellent observation from Tolstoy that rang true then and today.

I picked up Karenina for a variety of reasons. First, the reputation of being one of the best novels of all time (which I will respectfully disagree with, then I think the readability should’ve aged a little better). Second, the historical context it takes place in. I cherish historical fiction, and what better than a novel written by someone in the present, that today works as history? Two birds! I highlighted about 400 words in this book that I didn’t know. Good for my vocabulary, a bit tough on the reading experience here and there—however, overall, the translation seemed decent—but could’ve been more modern and approachable at times. Visualizing the book was challenging, unlike historical fiction where the author knows to compensate for the reader’s lack of intimate knowledge of the time—Tolstoy was writing about his present. This means he leaves much up to our imagination, but with my fairly limited understanding of 1875, I found it took a lot of energy to come up with a believable picture of each scene. I’ve been thinking about why I didn’t find this to be the cant-put-it-down novel I imagine this would be for many, given the reputation it has. I think it’s a combination of ease-of-imagination an early 1900s reader and the juicy sub-plots (anything that’s borderline-censorship: divorce! suicide! jealousy!) When I think back of which novels I’ve torn through in single-digit sittings, it’s typically been easy to imagine, and thus submerge myself in the universe.

Anna Karenina follows the dramatic lives of the upper-crust of Moscow and St. Petersburg society. It takes place in a variety of places, from decadent Tartar eating establishments to gentlemen’s clubs, extraordinarily large homes, horse wagons, and the race track. Where you’d imagine ladies with puff skirts and folding fans. There’s a dozen or so main characters who the book oscillates between dedicating a couple of chapters to at a time, often crossing paths. Hot drama, as a woman tries to undertake a divorce—not popular, as you can imagine, in turn of the last century Russia. Jealousy, so palpable it could morph into a duel at any time! The struggle of the hustle and bustle of intellectual city life, versus the pastoral country life—but that can grow dull over time. Luckily, over the counter opium can ease most pains!

Tolstoy takes the role of the perennial social observer. It’s clear he’s used to this type of society and uses the many of the intellectual, political conversations throughout the book to color with his perspective. He’s quite remarkable at this. Every time you poke this ever-present silent observer, a fantastic analysis comes pouring out. It seems that Tolstoy had much to say about his own environment and decided to create an 800-page universe to explore and express those opinions thoroughly. In many ways, it feels similar to his contemporary Dostoevsky. I read Crime and Punishment a long time ago, and it felt like a similar intellectual pursuit to build a universe and explore. In his case, what it might do to someone psyche to kill someone. It’s remarkable they never met, and never became friends (apparently they didn’t like each other’s work).

There are good observations and ideas in this book, and many of these will make it into index cards to brood on over the coming years. However, I feel that in the time it took me to get through this, I could’ve obtained more useful lessons from other works. That’s merely a hypothesis though, and I feel I can only fully judge that until a few years from now. The depth of the universe and the characters may make some lessons able to sink in from here, that otherwise would be difficult to absorb. Since it was hard to read, it might stick better? If I find this to be the case, I may end up toiling through more similar works in the future.

I half-promised you some of those quotes that made me stop and think, here are just a few random ones:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
..religion is only a curb to keep in check the barbarous classes of the people…
Pretty conversial for the time.

Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous through their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it and blushing still more, almost to the point of tears. And it was so strange to see this sensible, manly face in such a childish plight, that Oblonsky left off looking at him.
he went up to Oblonsky with some papers, and began, under pretense of asking a question, to explain some objection.
When socratic questioning is used as a manipulation tool, rather than genuine interest.

“It’s not that you’re no good at it,” said Sergey Ivanovitch; “it is that you don’t look at it as you should.”
…as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles.
Like a positive version of sticking our like a sore thumb?

…he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury.
Countess Lidia Ivanovna, though she was interested in everything that did not concern her, had a habit of never listening to what interested her; she interrupted Anna…
You can be a gossip but not a good listener.

“‘No one is satisfied with his fortune, and everyone is satisfied with his wit.’”
Just great.

One thing he did with more sincerity confess to was that living so long in Moscow, a life of nothing but conversation, eating and drinking, he was degenerating. They talked till three o’clock in the morning. Only at three o’clock were they sufficiently reconciled to be able to go to sleep.
In order to carry through any undertaking in family life, there must necessarily be either complete division between the husband and wife, or loving agreement. When the relations of a couple are vacillating and neither one thing nor the other, no sort of enterprise can be undertaken. Many families remain for years in the same place, though both husband and wife are sick of it, simply because there is neither complete division nor agreement between them.
Wonderful description of how relationships can erode due to environment if you let it slip too long to make any change to escape.

And besides, he complained that he had talked too much about his book here, and that consequently all his ideas about it were muddled and had lost their interest for him
You can confuse talk with progress. I heard someone say that during a book, even by the very end, he’s still researching—it’s the only way to keep himself engaged. If he researches and then writes, he loses interest.
He had plenty of so-called connections, but no friendships. Alexey Alexandrovitch had plenty of people whom he could invite to dinner, to whose sympathy he could appeal in any public affair he was concerned about, whose interest he could reckon upon for anyone he wished to help, with whom he could candidly discuss other people’s business and affairs of state. But his relations with these people were confined to one clearly defined channel, and had a certain routine from which it was impossible to depart.