Monday, May 30, 2011

Anna Karenina: Tolstoy Translates To Today

Anna Karenina (published in the mid 1870s) is a bit like a 130-year-old, still-in-use country house — the foundation is still solid and it still can be a wonderful escape. It's only the decorations and adornments that may seem a little outdated. But even so, they do little to distract you from the bigger picture: That it's a beautiful historical construction, whose purpose is just as relevant today.

If Tolstoy had been a 21st century American, he may well have been a staff writer for a sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld — pointing out the foibles and absurdity of everyday life, drawing out relationships between characters with a keen eye, especially as they rise and fall on the happiness continuum, all the while dealing with some rather big-picture issues; the meaning of life, i.e.

In fact, to me, the most interesting aspect of an incredibly interesting, fun novel is how these characters — especially Anna and Levin, the two protagonists, each struggle with metaphysical questions in different ways and how their choices, the results of those choices, and the search for truth (Levin decides life has no meaning but then sees Kitty, Anna feels her freedom stifled and wants to make Vronsky pay or he'll "regret it") combine to send them on roller coaster rides of happiness. One finds his answer (after a few precarious moments) and continues his ride, the other ends up underneath the train.

The supporting characters translate to today just as well, too — Stepan Arkadyich, Anna's brother, absolutely slayed me. He's that super laid-back, easy-going friend everyone has who's always trying to bring everyone together, who solves huge problems with his connections rather than with hard work, and who justifies anything he may have done to piss someone off by tossing off a "Sorry for partying, dude."

And, of course, everyone knows a Vronsky — he's the popular, athletic guy who is the first one you call when you have an extra ticket. But he's also got a bit of a dark side (to borrow from a State Farm commercial). He's got a different lady for each day of the week, but isn't willing to commit to any of them — mostly because they exasperate him. He doesn't truly understand them, especially when they begin to go crazy with jealousy.

Only the long discussions of politics and peasants, of foreign wars and farming methods — not critical to the plot's foundation — make it clear to the reader how old this novel really is. Still, this is a must-read for any literature fan. Contrary to somewhat popular belief, this is not a hard novel to read. (I mean, Oprah made it her summer pick a few years ago!) It's a straightforward story, and if you use an edition that lists the principal characters with all their names and nicknames, you've negotiated the only really major impediment to understanding the novel. I'm very happy I finally read it, but sad I put it off for so long.

Now, if somebody would just make a movie...

(I'm kidding, of course. Anna Karenina is one of most filmed novels of all time — at least 10 different versions exist. A British version from 1948 stars Vivien Leigh, who also had played Scarlett O'Hara nine years earlier in Gone With The Wind. A post for another time, perhaps, but Margaret Mitchell was clearly influenced by Tolstoy in some of her own themes and characters in Gone With The Wind. But if you've read this far, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know.)


  1. YEAH! One of my top five novels of all time all time all time. (And I hear they are making a movie. Starring Keira Knightley?! WTF?!)

  2. I love it that you had to post that note at the bottom. :)

    I think this is a great way to review a classic by the way. I love the comparison to society today. And of course, the similarity/relevance is quite true. Great post!

  3. I agree that Gone with the Wind has definite similarites with Anna Karenina. I read Anna a few months back and was struck by how modern the character thoughts and dilemas seemed.

  4. This is actually my number one favourite book of all time. I absolutely LOVE this review. I love your observations of the nuance of this novel. And my biggest surprise reading this (my first Tolstoy) was his gift at describing people and their mannerisms.

    I have not met many people who liked it as much as I did. Your post was awesome!

  5. Not to rain on everyone's parade, but I don't really get the love of Anna Karenina. I think it might just be the style - I prefer novels with a more narrow focus, rather than the all over the place feel I get with AK, in which I never feel truly attached to any of the multitude of characters. I'm having the same issue with Middlemarch right now, which is why I just think it's the style I have issues with. Oh well, we can't all like everything (though I truly did want to like this one!).

  6. I have the same edition! It's on my TBR list, and I hope to get to it soon - I've heard so many great things. Thanks for a great review.

    Side note: My copy has the same cover. I saw it in a bookstore with some friends. I turned to my buddy Luke and said "Hey. Look at this cover. What do you think? Boobs or ass?" His response was "Uhh, Kate? I think those are knees." Doh.

  7. Thanks, that was hilarious and gave me a totally new perspective from which to ponder this book.

  8. I've never seriously considered reading this. I think anything Russian has a big DIFFICULT sticker on it, in my head, which it sounds like I should remove. I should pick this up.

  9. Ohh man, one of my favorite books of all time. I absolutely adore Levin. Also, haha to Kate's comment - I've had that same conversation about this cover a few times

  10. @Amanda - Keira Knightley, huh? Interesting casting decision. She strikes me as way too sunny to play Anna.

    @Trisha - Thanks! I guess the similarities to today are why we're still reading the very-long 19th century Russian novels, right?

    @Tiny Library - Yeah, the dilemmas (real or imagined) the characters create for themselves (especially Anna) happen all the time these days. Tolstoy was a man ahead of his time - or just incredibly keen about human connections...or both.

    @Lisa - Yeah, characters (male ones, at least) are constantly scratching their sunburns or tilting their heads or another mannerism that indicates a lot more than telling us that a s/he is nervous or anxious or whatever. It's great storytelling!

    @Jennifer - Uh oh - a hater! ;) Well, I'll agree with you that Tolstoy casts his literary net quite broadly in AK. Whether you like stories like that is certainly a matter of taste, but personal attachment to characters does not a great or poor novel make, in my humble view. If you can't "connect" with the characters, it's more your fault than the author's.

  11. @Kate - Hilarious! I'd put precisely zero thought into what the cover image really was - but your comment adds further evidence to the idea that girls have much, much dirtier men than we males do - especially in light of IngridLola's comment below yours. ;)

    @Becky - You're welcome - glad this added something for you.

    @Ben - I'd never seriously considered AK or War and Peace either until talking to several other folks who'd read them - talk about demystification of some pretty wrong ideas about them. I don't know about War and Peace for sure (though I'm soon going to find out), but AK is not the least bit difficult. As I said, the hardest part is keeping the characters straight because they all go by several names.

    @IngridLola - Levin was fantastic - enjoyed him a lot. But I think Stiva is my favorite - just because he's a little like me! And thanks for furthering the boobs/ass/knees discussion. ;)

  12. Nice review, Greg. I like that you touched on the novel's relevancy today. I still haven't read this one, but it's certainly moving up my TBR.

  13. I would love to read a post about Gone with the Wind and Anna Karenina- have you written one?