Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy

There we are: only 12 days into the year, and I’ve already read Anna Karenin from cover to cover.

The Reading Experience

Now, I don’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I had a lot of time on my hands (particularly due to missed flights and hanging around airports and having to sit out in the sun for long periods in foreign countries); and I feel if I hadn’t had so much time, it would have taken me about a year to read. I would, no doubt – as in the case of Tristram Shandy – have given up in the middle for a long time, finding it all a bit much; and perhaps after, I’d have come back to it refreshed and enjoyed it. Because the truth is, I wasn’t all that taken with Anna Karenin. Plodding on and on, it seemed to me a flabby mess of a book – not at all “the world’s greatest novel”, as it claims on the back.

Unity of Action

At times, during my reading of Anna Karenin, I found myself thinking of a passage from Aristotle’s Poetics, which turned out to be the following:

In composing his Odyssey, [Homer] did not put in everything that happened to Odysseus – that he was wonded on Mount Parnassus, for example, or that he feigned madness at the time of the call to arms, for it was not a matter of necessity or probability that either of these incidents should have led to the other; on the contrary, he constructed the Odyssey round a single action of the kind I have spoken of, and he did this wih the Iliad too.

Or perhaps it wasn’t that part precisely, but the section dealing with Unity of Action (Plot, if you will), in which he argues that each piece of the work of art should be perfectly and classically placed to contribute to the whole; there should be nothing superfluous. Not, of course, that I am against superfluity as a means towards art (see Tristram Shandy – but then, Tristram Shandy is purposely superfluous, which is perhaps different); but the superfluity in Anna Karenin seems constant and everywhere – oh, no doubt building a fine and inclusive portrait of Russian society in the 1870s, just as Homer did with the [made up mish-mash of Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Greek] society he portrayed – but in Homer’s case, the society is integral to the art itself, whereas Tolstoy is inclined, irrespective of plot, to go off for 50 pages on a discussion of the Russian peasant or a rant about Panslavism; so that I’m almost inclined, with the philistines, to suggest the work would not suffer from a little abridgement – until possibly, all that remained were the scenes between Kitty and Levin (though I suppose you’d have to think about changing the title then too).

Character and Psychological Coherence

For the truth is, I wasn’t much taken with any of the story or characters in the book except these episodes (and, of course, Laska the dog). Oh, they’re each given certain characteristics certainly – Vronsky and Anna (Oblonsky was ok too, I guess) – but their relationship wrought no emotion in me – affected me not at all – was dull, at times unintelligible. Tolstoy jumps, it seems to me, from the couple being happy to the couple being unhappy, without any great indication of how we got there. Circumstances are put forward, but there’s no real development, just this violent jump; so that I don’t really come away believing half the stuff at the end of the book (I shan’t say what, in case you want to read it); – Tolstoy doesn’t have me under his spell. – Oh, I’m not asking for a perfect mechanical sequence like Oedipus Turannos; just, you know, a few steps between one extreme and the other.

Plot Structure

At one moment in the plot I swear I could see Tolstoy’s brain itself ticking. Karenin – I imagine it was somewhere midway through the work – agrees to a divorce from Anna, for the sake of all Tolstoy being able to write all that stuff about magnanimity and being nice to people; but then later, when Anna’s happiness depends on Anna getting a divorce, Tolstoy’s forced to make up some way in which Karenin becomes unwilling to grant it, so has to have him coming under the spell of a religious cultist – the whole of which episode seemed to me most unlikely, out of character, if not actually absurd.

Philosophy in Novels

Oh, but the last fifty pages (I was back in the country by then, so perhaps that was the reason) I had to struggle and struggle. Yes, to end the book, he comes up with 25 pages of “philosophy” on the meaninglessness of life and how it might be ameliorated by listening to the views of Russian peasants; and then another 25 pages on the madness of Panslavism which has led to recent Russian involvement in the Serbian insurrection against Ottoman rule. (Sorry if I’ve now ruined the ending for anyone who hasn’t yet read it). Seriously, I’m not interested in one or the other. Please novelists, think twice before putting your own half-baked philosophy into a novel!

Proto-Stream-of-Consciousness

But one bit I did like were the sections just prior to this, where we enter into Anna’s mind. As noted with last year’s big Russian novel (Dostoevsky’s The Devils, which I recommend in preference to this), there’s not much difference between what’s set down here and what would, a few years down the line, be heralded as the invention of stream-of-consciousness. Let’s have an extract: this is Anna travelling along in a carriage thinking to herself:

“I implore him to forgive me! I gave in to him, confessed myself in the wrong. What for? Surely I can live without him?” And leaving the question unanswered she fell to reading the signboards. “Office and warehouse … Dental surgeon … Yes, I will tell Dolly everything. She doesn’t like Vronsky. It will be painful and humiliating, but I’ll tell her all about everthing. She is fond of me and I will follow her advice. I won’t give in to him. I won’t allow him to teach me … Filippov, pastry cook – I’ve heard he sends his pastry to Petersburg. The Moscow water is so good. Ah, the springs at Mitishchen, and the pancakes! …” And she remembered how long, long ago, when she was a girl of seventeen, she had gone with her aunt to visit the Troitsa Monastery. “There were no railways in those days. Was that really me, that girl with the red hands? How many of the things I used to think so beautiful and unattatinable have become insignificant since then; and the things I had then are now for ever beyond reach! Could I have believed then that I could fall so low? How proud and self-satisfied he will feel when he gets my note! But I will show him … How nasty that paint smells! Why is it they’re always painting and building. Dressmaking and millinery”, she read.

It goes on a lot longer than the Dostoevsky; but it must be admitted, both writers use the technique to show a disordered human mind – a mind pushed to emotional extremes – rather than the everyday state we find ourselves in.

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14 thoughts on “Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Since I’m reading this later in the year, I’m going to reduce expectations accordingly. Of course, I’m tempted to believe that you’re just playing the blogging equivalent part of the unreliable narrator when you recommend that Dostoevsky book over any other book Russian or otherwise. It killed my will to finish it less than 100 pages from the end, Mr. Obooki!

  2. R: Yes, it’s probably good to go in with reduced expectations. Believing a novel is the greatest ever written is only ever going to lead to disappointment. (Well, except of course in the case that it was the greatest ever written, thus nullifying my point). If you’re interested in Russian farming techniques though, you may come out with a different opinion.

    Oh, there are good parts – of course there are. He’s good at complex analogies – in a sort of old-school epic-verse kind of way. It starts really well too, so for at least the first 100 pages you’ll probably be wondering what I’m on about.

    I assure you, you can give up 50 pages from the end of this one.

    T: I was myself fairly indifferent to Anna Karenina – I didn’t dislike her or not. Though if I met her, perhaps I wouldn’t be as indifferent – Tolstoy seems to imply this, but unfortunately doesn’t demonstrate it.

  3. I took this on a trip but in my case I got stuck because of that. The surroundings just clashed too much with the novel. And there was that scene with the peasants…drag… And I felt the book has the wrong title. It should either be called Vronsky or Lewin or… I have still at east 400 pages.

  4. There might be something in that: it was far too sunny on my holiday – lots of blue skies – and there aren’t so many blue skies in Anna Karenin.

    The thing about the title is perhaps true: an awful lot of the book doesn’t involve Anna; although I suppose she does instigate a lot of it.

    I think I’d have struggled a lot more if I hadn’t read it so quickly. Somehow, I can’t see myself ever having a go at War and Peace now

  5. Oh dear! I can’t think of any other novel I love as much as “Anna Karenina” – unless it’s “War and Peace”! For me, it is perfection: I wouldn’t want a word changed.

    Cut out the “irrelevant bits”? Nothing is irrelevant when the author’s vision encompasses everything! Aristotelian precepts of unity? Pah! – rules are for lesser authors! Anna would have been happy if a divorce had been granted? She goes from happiness to unhappiness in one jump? She has *never* been happy, and is incapable of being so! Right from the start, she is not mentally stable, and events exacerbate the instability. Her brief “happiness” with Vronsky was due to her screening herself from reality for a while, but when reality could no longer be screened off, the dark shadows could not be kept at bay. Karenina inconsistent? No – people change over time, and with circumstances.

    Ah well – there’s too much to go into here. But when Kirsty Young finally does come to her senses & invites me on to Desert Island Discs, and asks me the one book i’d choose apart from the Bible & Shakespeare, I’d be torn between this book and War and Peace and the Sherlock Holmes stories.

  6. Most people I know liked War and Peace much better and said it was a quicker read. I bought it last year. Just in case… But when it arrived I was still a bit shocked to see how very, very long it is.

  7. AOG: I’m aware the things I write, like any literary critic, are just flawed rational attempts at justifying why the novel happened not to appeal to me; perhaps I should just say that at times I was bored and laboured to push on, and leave it at that.

    On the other hand, I wanted to start, here with this novel, in this review, trying to look at the question of why, for me at least, certain things work in certain novels and certain things don’t – what it is, perhaps, that I find successful in novels. As such, like Aristotle himself, I don’t believe in such things as Aristotelian precepts of unity: what interests me is why a lack of unity or irrelevancy in one novel (Anna Karenina) should not appeal to me, whereas in other novels (Tristram Shandy) I don’t mind it or find it enjoyable. (Perhaps, of course, it’s simply that Sterne’s digressions entertain me, whereas Tolstoy’s do not – they are amusing, Tolstoy’s are not).

    Hence too my initial speculation that I didn’t enjoy it as much because I read it too quickly – or because it was sunny.

    I read a Sherlock Holmes story too over Christmas and didn’t think much of it.

    C: “A quicker read”? – I’m really not sure I could read it in less than 8 days.

  8. I wouldn’t take my comments too seriously. I just felt duty-bound to stand up for old Leo! 🙂

  9. I read it as a youth and didn’t think much of it. Tore through it on the Kindle last year and couldn’t put it down. A shocking cliche, I suppose, but the stuff which seemed melodramatic 40 years ago reads like near-documentary now. I found Anna’s stream of consciousness particularly affecting. You really ought to read War and Peace. A rattling good yarn.

    Happy New Year, by the way.

  10. AOG: Oh no, I know your comments are serious. I’ve read your Anna Karenina posts after all. What fascinates and puzzles me about literature is how people can agree on the quality of so much literature, and yet there are still some books which divide them completely.

    MM: Happy new year to you, too. – And your right, there are times when I take a wonder round my estate and end up talking to my peasants, when Tolstoy seems like a documentary of my life too.

  11. ‘War and Peace’ is a great read, and a little more rounded than AK. I’ve just finished a reread (in a leisurely fifteen days), and I enjoyed it greatly 🙂

  12. I guess I should read it then, just to see whether I’m like this Myshkin fellow. But I won’t be reading it in 15 days; maybe spread over several years, and some time in my old age.

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