In which you have been wondering where I am and I return triumphant having read a literary classic
So…did you miss me? Thanks for sending out the search parties, I really appreciate it. Astonishingly, I have a good reason (or two) for my absence. I swear you haven’t been missing out on reviews, because I actually only read one book since my last post—the epic Anna Karenina. My other excuse? Well, I started a new project. Check it out at UltimateBridesmaid.com. I’ve been blogging bridesmaid advice, party-planning tips for bridal showers and bachelorette parties, invites, dresses, DIY and much more!
But now, back to business. And yes, I know I have some mad catching up to do to keep up a decent total this year. I am aware and will read accordingly.
Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
What it’s about: First, we need to blame this on the boyfriend. He’s responsible for some other pretty long books I’ve read (see J.R.). This time we decided it would be fun to have a book club of two and pick a book that was strikingly absent from our English-major repertoires. We landed on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Russian epic on love, class, commerce, Communism, religion, et al. But, even though it took me a couple months, the time was worth it.
I first have to recommend the translation I read: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The boyfriend read an older edition and occasionally we would directly compare passages to see how the translations differed. I almost always preferred my version, finding it clearer, more nuanced and lyrical and, in my opinion, truer to the spirit of the characters and the work. The book often reminded me of Dickens in its scope and attention to character. It’s almost impossible to explain what happens, because Karenina is really a work about life, in particular the lives a group of interrelated nobles in nineteenth-century Russia.
The nominal center of the book, Anna, leaves her husband for the dashing officer Vronsky and spends the next 800 pages or so dealing with what this means for her as a woman (loss of social status), a mother (loss of her child), and a Catholic (loss of eternal life). Unable or unwilling to obtain a divorce, Anna becomes a sort of social pariah, a kind of nonentity who can’t be accepted into the circles she once frequented but is nonetheless still alive and in need of a place in the world. In contrast to Anna is Levin, whom I personally could make a case for being as important a character as Anna. It certainly seemed to me that he received almost equal page time. A gentleman with a farm in the country, Levin is a classic case of head versus heart. He is preoccupied with solving the Russian problem of profitable farming and dealing with the peasant class, but also feels he’ll never find true happiness without a wife and children. His ambitions to improve society are directly at odds with his romantic quest, and he finds himself asking that eternal question: What is the meaning of it all?
My favorite parts of the book focus on human interaction: love, betrayal, hate and just how we muddle through this thing called life. Nineteenth-century Russia is a place at a turning point. For the upper class, it is still all about etiquette and “rightness,” but the old ways have begun to disappear. While there is a general loosening of decorum and tradition, there’s no accepted path forward. So, for example, while it’s known that arranged marriages are out of style, it’s not quite known how things “should be done” now. This makes for an interesting exploration as different generations deal with the fallout of society rethinking its organization. We see this not only in the sphere of marriage, but in class, politics and religion as well. Unfortunately, Tolstoy does tend to go on about these subjects in intimate detail. There are long passages on farming, Russian local government, and religion, which were at times a struggle to get through. But I was always able to pick up on the other side and occasionally found a buried gem—a beautiful passage or interesting maxim to take away. Like Dickens’ work, it’s the kind of book that takes a long time, that you struggle with at times, but you’re ultimately happy you made the commitment when you finish.
Would I recommend? Certainly. Anna Karenina is an ambitious read, but it’s fulfilling, fascinating in its density and brilliant in its scope. A must for literature buffs and those who like to peek behind the curtains into the lives of others.