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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy   

November 17, 2017


I remember when I put this book on my list—I saw it on my coworker’s desk way back in 2002. He said it was the best book he’d ever read and was reading it for the second time. Of course, I’d heard of it and had seen it on the great novels lists, but had never had the inclination. I finally got around to it.

I listened to it as an audiobook, and I’ll admit it was because I saw there was a new edition with Maggie Gyllenhaal reading it (I would listen to her reading a phone book).

It’s a great book, but it is an undertaking. It’s very long and dense, and after starting it I bought the Cliff Notes just to keep the names of all the characters straight. But the characters are excellent, the plot extensive and the world rich and textured. The settings come to life as much as the characters. Dialogue around the news of the time (Russia in the mid-19th Century), Napoleon and the wars raging, local politics, the fairness of the current economic system all seem exotic but strangely modern and relevant. There is a sense that human themes do not change that much over time, nor the themes that make compelling stories: Love and loyalty, dreams and desires and danger.

We love Anna (and I particularly liked Levin as well) because they are fully-rendered characters with motivations we can relate to, despite the century and a half separating us. They are complex, and even the lovable Anna has tragic flaws. If there is anything that feels archaic, it is the omniscient narrative point of view that takes us in and out of the heads of the characters. We often know their motivations because Tolstoy tells us. But combined with the panoramic descriptions, it leaves us a sense that Tolstoy understands every nook and cranny of this world (including the minds of his characters) and is giving us a tour. It is a testament to Tolstoy’s epic mind.

After finishing this Anna Karenina, I read the Tolstoy chapter of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals and was disappointed to read that Tolstoy was not as likable as some of his characters. He was a man whose ego matched his talents, writing in his diary, “I have not yet met a single man who was morally good as I…” and “I am a remarkable man both as regards capacity and eagerness to work.” He had a god complex, and his friends abandoned him for it. Most frustrating from our vantage point, he didn’t really want to be a writer. He believed art in general a misuse of God’s gifts and only went through three periods of artistic productivity, two of which produced two of the greatest novels of all time. Jerk.

I’m glad I read Anna Karenina before the chapter on Tolstoy—it’s sometimes hard to separate the art from the artist. Nonetheless, Anna Karenina is a masterful book, rightly deserving of its place in the global literary cannon.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 18, 2017 4:47 am

    I agree, ‘it’s a great book, but it is an undertaking.’ Interesting facts about Tolstoy. Thanks for sharing.

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