Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878). Nearly a thousand pages of love, intrigue, disgrace, politics, philosophy and farming. Set in nineteenth century high society and spanning Moscow, Petersburg and a raft of unpronounceable Russian districts, the novel follows the title character as she falls in love with Count Vronsky, and follows that love as it takes her away from her husband, her son and her sanity. Anna Karenina’s story is balanced by that of Levin, a man more comfortable on his farm than in the city, but whose life and loves drag him into society and forces him to ask the big questions and come up with big answers.
Apparently this is the best book of the 19th century. How they can judge that before it’s been given a GBR rating, I’ll never know. But there you go. They had a chat and decided it. Best book.
It’s not universally loved though. On seeing I was reading it, one family member (who shall remain anonymous, dad), simply pointed out “that’s a bit of a girls book, isn’t it?” I guess that’s not necessarily a put down, but it definitely was.
I do kind of feel like my thoughts on this are fairly irrelevant. I mean, this is a book that broke moulds. Girly or not, there’s no doubt it’s a “great book.” And from a “great author” too. You might not know much about Anna Karenina, but you’ve heard the name. It’s one of those that has a permanent place in literary history.
But a book can’t be read with that weight on it. It’s words on a page, like any other. And for it to be a great book now, it needs to be judged against the same criteria as everything else.
I loved a lot about the book. There’s a bunch packed in. Some of the characters are really and truly amazing. And there are big themes too. A bag full of them. From the introduction of modern farming methods in nineteenth century Russia at one end of the scale, to the meaning of life at the other. Some hit the mark better than others, but when Tolstoy hits the nail on the head it stays hit. The last hundred pages or so in particular are dynamite. One of the central characters, Levin, spreads out his thinking on the meaning of life, the “what’s it all for then?” question, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing because it’s clever and complex, it’s amazing because Tolstoy tackles the question within the confines of a novel, but most of all it’s amazing because Levin has become a real person over the course of 800-odd pages, and so by the end you really care what he thinks.
There are some fairly significant down sides too though. This is a massive book, which is fine. Massive books can succeed, often spectacularly. But they need to remain tight. I found a lot of Anna Karenina fairly loosely packed. There were big sections that I really didn’t care about. There was a lot of scene setting and a lot that I didn’t see the point of. I’m sure there was a point, but I often had to work too hard to find it, and regularly failed.
And the sketching of the characters was hot and cold. Some of them were skipped over and melted into a fairly large and interchangeable cast of extras. And the central ones sometimes got squashed under the weight of literal explanation. Their every thought and reaction and feeling was explained overtly and loudly. You got to know them and understand them because you were told about them, rather than being given the opportunity to watch them.
It’s possibly a harsh criticism – I’m sure it’s a characteristic of nineteenth century writing, and I can’t blame Tolstoy for leaving one or two moulds unbroken. But I’ve been brought up in the twenty-first century, on a diet of novels where the author is at pains to stay in the background and let us get to know the characters in the same way as we’d get to know real people, by watching them and drawing our own conclusions from what they say and do. When Tolstoy spends a hundred pages loudly explaining the thought process of someone and exactly how they feel about every little thing, it jars.
Oh, and I wanted to mention the “love” aspect a little. Anna Karenina is known as a love story. And love is definitely a big presence. But it’s such a teenage love that it sometimes trips into ridiculousness. The jealousies and dramatic emotion too often comes off a bit Hollyoakes. Not always. There were bits that got me. Bits that hit home and made me take a minute. But they were in the minority.
This is all sounding a bit negative, isn’t it? I don’t mean it to. Like I said, there were some glowing patches of brightness in here. Some lightning bolts. Some flashes of brilliance. Especially that last hundred pages. But there were plenty of troughs amongst the peaks too.
This is a massive book in a hundred different ways. I didn’t study it. I read it. Like I’d read any other book. I’m sure there are levels it should be appreciated on that I was entirely blind to. But in the GBR world, it’s all about enjoyment. Not literary merit. Not importance. Not historical significance. Enjoyment.
Ouch. That’s Tolstoy, and he just got a six. Time to start re-evaluating a few things.
Next week, something completely different.