Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, 1873
I had heard a lot about Russian authors. Leo Tolstoy is a name taken with a lot of respect in Russian literature. When I was young, I had read a few short stories of Leo Tolstoy. It was in very early years in my schooling. He introduced me the long form of stories. I had not reached even to a novel. His were long stories. I read them in Marathi. Ever since I was intrigued by his style of writing. So when I thought of experiencing a slice of Russian Literature, Leo Tolstoy came to my mind again.
As I was going through Leo Tolstoy’s works, I had two options. War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In one of the forums, someone advised that you have to read a Russian book to enjoy a Russian book. The nature of storytelling and has a distinct style and you have to be accustomed to that style before you can enjoy it. My prime interest was War and Peace, but giving some value to that advice I started with Anna Karenina.
Anna Karenina is a story of Russian families which belong to the upper strata of the society. The likes who do not directly work, and have servants taking care of their day-to-day activities. Such a class then has an ample free time to spend in other pursuits. They have luncheons, high teas, horse races and what not. Anna Karenina is the wife of a wealthy aristocrat. She falls in love with someone else. An extramarital affair ensues. This book keeps her at the center and along with the story, various attributes of Russian lifestyle come to light.
Close to a thousand pages, the book is huge. It is that huge of a high society drama. That is not always something worth cherishing for a guy like me, yet I am grateful. I learned about Russian writing style thanks to this book. As it turns out, it is too plain. The ornamentation is at the bare minimum. The use of metaphors and another linguistic beautification is always very restrained. For the most part, I found the depiction too straightforward and dry.
He so well knew that feeling of Levin’s, that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two classes: one class — all the girls in the world except her, and those girls with all sorts of human weaknesses, and very ordinary girls: the other class — she alone, having no weaknesses of any sort and higher than all humanity.
There is a certain directness in writing that may not be to everyone’s liking. It takes some time to get used to. Once you are familiar with the style is not taxing. Owing to the lack of ornamentation, the language lacks beauty. But it fills it up with simplicity. The weight is on content and not the presentation.
Time and again, there are some quotes which make the novel work of an experienced person. It shows the signs that the author knows the nuances of life not just by observation but experience as well. Simple lines have profound meaning and those come in the most unexpected junctures.
it’s worse for the guilty than the innocent.
one-half of his abilities is devoted to deceiving himself, and the other to justifying the deceit.
Lines likes these show the clear understanding of human psyche. A novelist writing about drama needs to have an insight into human psychology and Tolstoy definitely has that. The book is not limited to the personal tale. Although the drama elements are central to the book, it makes observations on the Russian life in late 19th century. Those parts feel almost disjointed from the primary narrative. There is a whole chapter about how one of the prominent characters goes to mow grass with worker peasants. It is a huge chapter and makes you feel that you have moved from the story completely to a dry report on agricultural practices. There are times when it happens, the narration runs in a tangent to the story. I guess, these tangents have recorded the culture of Russia during that time period. That makes the book much more valued that it should be. In addition to those tangents, the book also comments about some of the political aspects and how an average citizen looks at it.
Levin had often noticed in discussions between the most intelligent people who after enormous efforts, and an enormous expenditure of logical subtleties and words, the disputants finally arrived at being aware that what they had so long been struggling to prove to one another had long ago, from the beginning of the argument, been known to both, but that they liked different things, and would not define what they liked for fear of its being attacked.
When I was around 30–40% into the book, one of my friends who has watched the movie spoiled the ending for me. Yet I was compelled to continue. She told me about the story of Anna. It didn’t matter much, because strangely, I could never get much connected to Anna. Although the book bears her name, the story is much more than just her. I lovingly followed another important character in the book, Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin. For me, the book is more about him than Anna. He is a person who has grown up in the countryside. He has a deep connection with the village and its people. He feels himself a contributing member of the society. He is opinionated about many aspects, but he does not shy away from them. He acknowledges his shortcomings, those frustrate him and still he carries on. His insecurities and his achievements are human. You can actually see the character transform. There is a direct conflict of his upbringing and closeness of the countryside with the ways of the city dwellers. His entire character arc is rich and gets you invested.
As I was reading this book, I was going through a lot of highs and lows on the personal front. The drama in the book was a constant companion. Probably, that is why I am much drawn to Levin. His insecurities, his troubles, his feeling mattered as that of a friend. That made me happy.
As I mentioned earlier, the book is huge and that is because of a lot of elements tangential to the story. The book is worth a read but in bits and pieces. I liked it owing to my emotional state while reading through it, but if I neutralize that effect then I would not be able to give it more than 3 stars. It was a big project to read a Russian classic as it was my first and I am glad I have completed it.
Have you read it? What do you think?
Originally published at harshalbhave.in on April 19, 2016.