50bookchallenge #35/50: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Such a fan as I am of the Russ­ian authors, it’s sur­pris­ing even to me that I wait­ed so long to be acquaint­ed with Tol­stoy. Anna Karen­i­na was a long and chal­leng­ing read, but in the end very rewarding.

As the open­ing lines indi­cate, this is a book about fam­i­lies. It’s real­ly sev­er­al sto­ries con­nect­ed togeth­er by being about the same set of peo­ple. For most of the way through, Tol­stoy is sly. He drops hints about his cul­ture and edi­to­ri­al­izes only infre­quent­ly, and then only through the opin­ions of his char­ac­ters. One is left with the task of sort­ing through the val­ues and ideas of a gen­er­a­tion long since passed and a cul­ture from the oth­er side of the plan­et. Most of the book is focused only on the seri­al­ized soap-opera dra­ma of the lives of a set of very real and very vivid characters.

One thing I noticed ear­ly on is the Russ­ian obses­sion with things for­eign. Again and again in order to appear aris­to­crat­ic, Tol­stoy’s cast mem­bers imi­tate the West­ern Euro­peans, import their goods, and speak their lan­guages. Con­stant­ly the nobles are switch­ing to French or Eng­lish and occa­sion­al­ly Ger­man, osten­si­bly to speak with­out the ser­vants under­stand­ing, but also to impress one anoth­er. I got the impres­sion that Tol­stoy mourned the lack of nation­al pride, or rather the lack of local pride in his day, for I believe he was no great lover of nationalism.

In the final sec­tion, the last six­ty pages of this thou­sand page nov­el, Tol­stoy kicks into high gear and we hear debates about war and paci­fism and Chris­tian­i­ty, and nar­rates a pow­er­ful spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing in one of the char­ac­ters. Very lit­tle hap­pens, com­pared to the courtships and wed­dings and exiles and rec­on­cil­i­a­tions from the first 940 pages, but we see very pow­er­ful char­ac­ter rev­o­lu­tion and Tol­stoy speaks to us through Lev­in’s med­i­ta­tions on reli­gion and right action, and faith with agnos­ti­cism. Just as I was tir­ing of the sto­ry, Tol­stoy caps it off with some of the vital stuff that made him such a hero to Gand­hi. Yet with­out the first sev­en parts, this med­i­ta­tion would have been worth­less. Not only would we not care what Levin believed, we would not have seen why he both­ered ask­ing the big questions.

So now I under­stand why so many have admired Tol­stoy. This was an incred­i­ble, mon­u­men­tal, and pow­er­ful novel.

3 Replies to “50bookchallenge #35/50: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy”

  1. Ever read Tol­stoy’s mem­oir
    Ever read Tol­stoy’s mem­oir Child­hood, Boy­hood, Youth? In it he admits that as a col­lege stu­dent he was him­self a hor­ri­bly stuck-up lit­tle French-speak­ing snob.

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