Tuesday, August 23, 2011

R - Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, By Leo Tolstoy

So you want to read something with some weight to it? I think I can help you out there. I just finished reading A.K. a couple days ago - of course I started it about a year ago - and it is a book that I can recommend to anyone who loves long, involved plots with lots of characters and an overwhelming amount of detail. In the best Russian novel tradition it includes lots of sitting around and brooding about stuff and deeply passionate, albeit somewhat irrational, inter-personal relationships.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in the 1870's and it first appeared in serial form in a literary magazine. The ending was not published in the serial so the first time the entire novel appeared was when it was published in book form. When you consider that the paperback version runs some 960 pages you realize that the literary magazine was evidently a pretty hefty thing - of course they did spread it out from 1873-1877, so that helped a bit.

Many critics consider Anna Karenina to be one of, if not the, best novel ever written. It is also widely considered to be the greatest of the "realist" fiction novels. Fyodor Dostoevsky lauded it as did many others at the time of its publication. Even today there are many who recommend it highly.

OK, enough of all that stuff, on to my opinions.

As you can see on the left, I read this on my Kindle (greatest electronic gadget ever, BTW), which saved me from having to lug around a 20 pound novel for months at a time. The translation I read was done by Constance Garnett in 1901. I have no idea how accurate a translation it is, but I had no gripes. I like Russian novels for their weight and their brooding thoughtfulness, so I entered into this project with a hopeful and positive attitude. I was not disappointed.

Anna Karenina begins with one of the all-time great first lines "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." From that point on it moves quickly to introduce us to the main characters and their situations. For approximately the first third of the book it is really a pretty easy read, but it does begin to get challenging as you go on. The greatest challenge (and greatest reward as well) is that Tolstoy moves into a lot of events and detail that enhance the characters but don't really advance the plot. This is, of course, the nature of the realist novel. It chronicles the life of the characters and allows the plot to build over time. You could probably make a condensed version that left out a huge amount of that detail, but it would be devoid of the richness that makes the people real.

Tolstoy also uses the novel as a platform to exercise his own opinions regarding the state of the peasants, the decay of the government, the ultimate disaster of immorality and the challenge of righteousness. The unfortunate truth is that it is very hard to really grasp the soul of this novel without multiple readings, something that few of us will do. But despite its size and all the weight of brooding detail it is fundamentally an engaging story and a thought-provoking development of it. Don't read it if you are prone to depression, but otherwise I can endorse it with a thoughtful, brooding, look.

Besides, Tolstoy has a great beard! And that's a good enough reason to read it.

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