Thoughts on Anna Karenina November 3, 2013Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books.
Tags: Anna Karenina, books, Tolstoy
I’m continuing with my project of reading all those great books I had always meant to get to, by listening to them on CD during my daily commute. I’ve read through Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Great Expectations this way, among many others, and enjoyed them all.
So I was expecting to likewise enjoy Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. It’s been called the greatest novel ever written, and it certainly has the makings of what could have been a masterful novel. It has one of the greatest openings of any novel I’ve read: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Brilliant. Then it sets up three different, but linked families: First, the Oblonskys, with a jovial, personable, philandering husband, and a long-suffering wife exhausted by bearing and raising child after child. Then the Karenins, with a fussy, officious, and boring husband and his wife Anna, Mr. Oblonsky’s sister, a passionate emotional woman who adores her son, but finds none of her other emotional needs met by her marriage. She finds what she is looking for in Count Vronsky, the dashing but shallow beau of Mrs. Oblonsky’s sister Kitty. The third family is Kitty and her suitor Levin, their awkward courtship and the early days of their marriage as they work through problems with communication and jealousy.
So far so good. Tolstoy writes with great attention to small details, and lengthy internal monologues, which is a style well suited to writing about relationships. As this mammoth book progressed, I kept expecting each relationship to resolve, either for good or bad, with some insight from the author about what brought about that result. And I expected that some of the minor plotlines he had brought in would become relevant, and perhaps bring additional insight about the main plotlines.
But nothing of the kind happens. Tolstoy brings in several subplots, such as a section about Levin’s brother almost proposing to a really nice girl, but chickening out at the last minute. This plot is then dropped, and we hear no more about it. Anna’s last attempt at obtaining a divorce from Karenin is thwarted by interference from a French clairvoyant, but there had been no lead up to this clairvoyant character or anything like him at any time before that. There is also a long section about political wranglings about provincial elections, that I could find no point to at all.
The Oblonskys’ story resolves early, with Mrs. Oblonsky having been persuaded to just live with her husband’s philandering, and there no change is his behavior at all.
Anna’s story, the most famous, of course ends with her death. She has tried to deal with the double standard in Russian high society that accepts her brother’s infidelity, but totally condemns her own. And the archaic Russian legal system of the time makes divorce, while not totally impossible, unworkable for Anna due to custody issues. Additionally her fiery temperament and personal jealousy prevent any kind of stable family relationship from forming with Vronsky. In the end she finally throws herself in front of a train. From there I was expecting that we would see the repercussions of this, not just on Vronsky, but on the other characters as well. But we don’t. Instead of letting us see the effect of Anna’s death on Vronsky through the usual internal monologue, the author has Vronsky leave the narrative rather abruptly, joining a hopeless war in Serbia, where he will likely be killed. This story doesn’t end so much as just stop.
The most unsatisfying resolution for me, though, was for Kitty and Levin. I had been quite enjoying their tale, up until the birth of their first child. While Kitty endures a horrible and difficult day of labor and delivery, we are treated to Levin’s internal monologue, which was one of the most frustrating bits of writing I have read in recent years. First, I found it completely self-indulgent, with Levin focusing on his own feelings, not hers:
But when he came back from the doctor’s and saw her sufferings again, he fell to repeating more and more frequently: “Lord, have mercy on us, and succor us!” He sighed, and flung his head up, and began to feel afraid he could not bear it, that he would burst into tears or run away. Such agony it was to him. And only one hour had passed.
But after that hour there passed another hour, two hours, three, the full five hours he had fixed as the furthest limit of his sufferings, and the position was still unchanged; and he was still bearing it because there was nothing to be done but bear it; every instant feeling that he had reached the utmost limits of his endurance, and that his heart would break with sympathy and pain.
But still the minutes passed by and the hours, and still hours more, and his misery and horror grew and were more and more intense.
The birth of my first child involved twenty hours of intense back labor, most of it with no anesthetic, so I am feeling zero sympathy for Levin’s misery and “pain” here. The second part of my dissatisfaction with Levin and Kitty’s story also begins in this scene. Levin had been an unbeliever up to that point, finding it challenging to maneuver through the ceremonial religious expectations of Russian culture while staying true to his own conscience. I can sympathize with this, and I found Levin the most likable character for the first part of the book. But in this childbirth scene, Levin somehow, out of the blue, starts praying to god. This is the old “You may claim you don’t believe, but just wait until something bad happens, then you’ll see!” claim that believers make, and it’s not accurate, nor is it good storytelling. The book had suddenly gone from an interesting complex novel to “Sh*t Christians Say”.
The resolution of Levin’s story is even worse. Instead of letting us see how, through having a child, Levin and Kitty achieve trust and good communication and form a stable family (or how they don’t), which is what the book had apparently been leading up to, Levin suddenly has a full and complete conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity. No more focus on relationships, no more details about how families are happy or unhappy, Part 8 of the book descends into sermonizing and, for some unknown reason, Serbian politics.
So for me this book started out as a potentially masterful novel and ended as a big sprawling mess. Anna Karenina was first published in installments as a magazine serial, and I can see where this might have contributed to the problem. Even so, my understanding is that Tolstoy’s editor would not print the last section, and it only appeared in the final published novel. If I were his editor, I think I would have done exactly the same thing.
Even though I found this book disappointing, I am still planning on tackling War and Peace. At this point, though, it may be more so I will be able to say “I’ve read War and Peace” than from expecting that I will love it. You never know, though. I didn’t really like A Tale of Two Cities, but really liked Great Expectations. So perhaps Tolstoy will surprise me the way Dickens did..