Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Ah, the Russian novel. Full of worthy philosophising, internal torment or potential bleakness on every page, this is not an endeavour to be taken lightly. I have thrice started on Russian novels without any success at completion. Perhaps Dostoyevsky was too deep, I thought. Perhaps I needed a love story. Passionate, tragic people in love. Another Heathcliff and Catherine. I can do that. 

Hmm. It seems not without a lot of help from my friends. On this second attempt (the first, a few years back where a very kind friend lent me her book and I didn't quite make it to the appearance of the heroine of the title, but kept the book for an embarrassingly long time to try and try again...), I needed 3 other friends to read along. 2 parts per week, it was at a gruelling pace but I am very happy to say that I have now finished a Russian novel. I am no longer a literary wimp. 

And what did I think of it? 

I would love to say that my efforts were richly rewarded. That necessary sleep was sacrificed because the story swept me away or I could not bear to part from the pair of lovers. But that would be a lie. I read because I had to. I had a deadline. 

No doubt, it was a worthy novel. It was dense. Of characters, of places, of ideas and ideals, the breadth of human experiences. A perfect social novel that explored a time, a place and a people through a carousel of multiple cast members, in the best tradition of Victorian literature. But I could not like it.

Tolstoy famously started his novel with,  
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 
Happiness was an elusive thing for all the characters, and it was through his characters that we search for the meaning of life. No one is ever truly happy. Perhaps the happiest of the families in Tolstoy’s masterpiece was Levin and Kitty, and they provided the only lightness in the book, and for only a few amusing chapters in the middle at that. But even they were not immune to the mysteries and unhappiness of life, love and marriage. While Stiva acted like a guilty little boy, not quite as contrite as he should be, his unhappy wife, Dolly, struggled on and tried to bury her unhappiness by focussing on her children. The most unhappy, unsurprisingly, were the main couple, Anna and Vronsky. However, though I knew the unhappy end that was to come, I did not expect the tragic foreshadowing from the start of their meeting. 

This was a difficult read. Not because of the language though Tolstoy's grand philosophical concepts needed deep interpreting. It wasn’t his essays on farming, or the conversations depicting uncertainty between the old and the new Russia, nor Levin’s socialist struggles with his place in society, or that the plot centred on an extra-marital affair. Tolstoy packed a lot in his novel. His observations about people, both individually and as a society were insightful and most accurate. The central themes of the novel were big and important: What is forgiveness? How does one find faith? What is the measure of love and can love be too much to bear? 

But the difficulty lies in the main characters themselves. Selfish, entitled, and purposely blind, the impassioned characters who took action acted foolishly harming mostly themselves, whilst passivity dominated the others who allowed fear and an unwillingness to face the situation with moral conviction to rule. Everyone’s frozen despair hung over the novel like the icy Siberian winds. This was perhaps Tolstoy’s genius, that he wrote extremely unlikable characters that were at once fragile and wilful, frustrating yet pitiable. Of all who suffered, the jilted husband, Karenin, was perhaps the foremost example. Though he remained weak, despised and unbending, the slow stripping of his character revealed the tenderness of a broken heart. 

Tolstoy did not give clear easy answers. His internal monologues, so modern in its stream of consciousness style, revealed, to an extent, the motivations of these frustrating people, especially Anna and Levin, the parallels of the story. At many points I wanted to throw the book away (metaphorically!!) or incur violence on most of the characters. It is a testament to the undeniable power of the book, that we can feel so strongly one way or another for all of them. But in spite of this, I could not like the book because I could not like its protagonists, nor the motivations and actions that propelled the plot.

3 trains out of 5.  My head hurts.


  1. Yet another thoughtful review, austengirl!

    Love reading your reviews! You should make this blog permanent :) (yea, I know, amongst every other things you are currently undertaking!)

    1. Thanks Tien - it's been quite fun actually writing these reviews so far but aargh...I've lost precious reading time! Must get cracking with the next book for upcoming bookclub and the readathon! As you said, amongst my many other 'projects' we'll see :P

      I think you are amazing for reading and posting up sooo many reviews! Don't know how you do it. You are Superwoman!