I had been looking forward to reading this novel for some considerable time. I am intrigued by Russian literature and love 19th century novels.
I had one major issue with this novel. Its length. Dear God, where was Tolstoy’s editor? People had more leisure time and read more then, I get it, and this certainly would have kept you going through the winter, but I found reading it when I was tired was not ideal, and my patience was sorely tested on occasion.
In saying all of that, I can completely see why it is a classic. The writing is sublime, the descriptions of both fatal events and turning points in the novel are breath taking in their brilliance. “He stepped down, avoiding any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking.”
As a writer, Tolstoy was a master. Of that thee is no doubt. As an entertaining read, I would say you need a lot of time and a lot of patience.
I can’t even begin to do a resume of the plot, so I will focus on the main characters. Anna Karenina is a wonderfully complex character who has the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong man – the dashing Vronsky. Is she a heroine or a tragic figure? I believe she is a bit of both. Beautiful, enigmatic and passionate, she is never dull. Her passions rule her life and her jealousy is her ultimate undoing. The descriptions of her increasing jealousy were some of my favourite scenes in the book. Who hasn’t at times become paranoid, fearful and jealous when they are passionately in love? However, the lengths to which she goes, and her increasingly bizarre behaviour as her life spirals out of control, led me to wonder if she had actually gone insane.
I apologize – without having read the book, none of that probably makes any sense. Suffice to say, she seeks a divorce so she can marry her lover Vronsky, but she is unsuccessful, leading to her being ostracized from society as well as losing custody of her son. She is a victim of society’s rules in Russia in the late 1800s, but she was well aware of how society works and made the choice to proceed anyway. In that sense I admired her courage but also felt she had brought her troubles to her own door. Overall though, I am a sucker for a passionate love affair and certainly understood why she left her husband.
My second favourite character in the book was Levin. A deep-thinking landowner, who is willing to work his land alongside the peasants in one scene, while holding his own in the highest society in the next. Levin is a thoughtful, kind, intelligent man and I loved his story, but could have done without the never-ending descriptions of Russian society, and the differences between life in the country and life in the city.
This novel has everything you would expect from a sweeping Russian novel – family betrayals, love affairs, a commentary on society, poverty, wealth, jealousy, politics, life and death. All the themes are covered.
Overall, I am delighted to have read this novel, but if I was to read it again (which I probably never will) I would read it when I had the time and space to reflect a bit on it. An ideal holiday read.
So I have come to the final book in my ‘list of betterment.’ It is ‘The Ginger Man’ by J P Donleavy. An Irish classic. I will enjoy reading this one over the festive season along with something a bit lighter too. Happy Christmas and thank you to all of you who have followed and commented on my blog. It is growing slowly but surely!!