Friday, August 17, 2012

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

genre: adult fiction

I feel lucky that, for me, Anna Karenina was a completely blank slate.  All I knew: that it was Russian and that it was really long.

This means that I went into it with no expectations, only a conviction to finish and a hope to find it a meaningful experience.

This book is many things, clearly.  Overwhelmingly, I think, it is a story of relationships - two of which make up the bulk of our experience.  The first is Anna and the unfortunate adulterous love triangle of her society life - her choices, her fears, her attempts to reconcile herself to her self-inflicted predicament, her desperate craving to not only be loved but loved enough to convince herself that what she has is worth the price she paid to get it.

The second relationship the book really delves into is that of Levin and the girl he loves.  Levin's internal struggles are as intense as Anna's but with a different focus.  Beyond the path of his love and marriage, Levin is a farmer and landowner and so he wrestles with his feelings towards the working peasants, his role as a brother in his immediate family and as a part of a confusing and evolving political system.  Through all this, he is also trying to sort through questions of a spiritual and eternal nature, the answers of which, for him, influence everything.

There is much philosophizing on the part of Levin and his comrades.  Sometimes there had to be skimming.

Anna Karenina is also a sweeping portrait of a country and its high society - the intricacies of class and station, what ideas and peculiarities were the rage at the time and how differently those ideas could be interpreted.  Many of the interpersonal relationships struggle with trust and fidelity, while at the same time, family bonds can completely dictate one's actions despite one's opposing duties. So many different kinds of love are either shared or dysfunctional: parents for children, spouses for each other or for a lover, adult siblings for each other, in-laws and friendships.

I'm trying to pinpoint what kept me reading despite the sometimes lengthy economic, agricultural or political discussions. I think it boils down to this: Anna and Levin are so human.  Their separate storylines shed so much light on our own weaknesses and our ability to do great good if we can let ourselves overcome them.  The typical Russian swinging of emotions from love to hatred to boredom and back again ever reminds me to be aware of how I am letting my own perceptions and schema influence my judgement of a situation.

And, frankly, it is beautifully written.  Tolstoy expertly catches so many of the moments and feelings between people who love each other, both the glorious and beautiful as well as the jealous and destructive.  I loved the view that he gave me of his world: the parlors and racetracks, the sickrooms and fields of grain.  I feel like I have vicariously lived part of a 19th century Russian life - with all its pain, passion and beauty.

Would I tackle it again?  Probably not.  Am I glad that I did and took the time to write down my thoughts about it?  Absolutely.


bermudaonion said...

Kudos to you for reading this. I'm intimidated by it. Maybe one of these days. . .

Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

Totally impressed! Wow...
It won't happen in my lifetime!

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