Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Anna Karenina


Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who am I to pan the "Greatest novel ever written"? However, Tolstoy should have prefaced it as Mark Twain did Huckleberry Finn, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author".

My motives for reading it were to learn more of the culture of my adopted countrymen. Culture is like an iceberg; most of it is under the surface and unseen. As I read the Russian greats of the 19th century, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, I began to realize that much of the characteristics I see in the people around me were there long before Communism. In fact, Communism as practiced in the Soviet Union was really Socialism with Russian Characteristics.

Novels are a great way to explore the culture of a people as the author must understand it enough to paint realistic scenarios for his protagonists without appearing to do so. As well the issues of the day are well hashed over in the soliloquies of the mind of various characters.  Anna Karenina, written as a contemporary novel, is filled with insights into the character of the Russian nobility, the 1.5% as it were, in and around 1870.

 I was 2/3 of the way through the book before I took any interest in the characters and then mostly Levin and Katya. (My Maude translation calls her Kitty. Good God.) I especially found fascinating Levin's struggles to manage his estate, to motivate the relatively recently freed serfs to adapt new technology and his attempts to incorporate an understanding of their psychology into his management. In my observation, 140 years later the problem is still ongoing.

As to Anna and Vronsky, there is likely enough there to make a two hour movie (he wrote facetiously). The comedy is that if they had simply had an affair, instead of falling deeply in love, there would have been no problem as it was done all the time by the nobility. (They had nothing else to do, really). The tragedy is that her mental condition at the end which drove her to suicide is easily recognizable and treatable today. She was not the first and certainly not the last to be driven to suicide by obsessing on something imaginary which she could then not let go of.

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10 comments:

  1. I thought "War and Peace" was better, although I do like "Anna Karenina." The biggest problem with the latter, IMHO, is that Tolstoy's perspective shifts as he's influenced by current events so some of the later chapters don't quite match up with the early ones. One of the dangers of being published serially is that an author could have continuity and/or coherence problems -- and Tolstoy did.

    Next time you're feeling like indulging in a Russian novel, try "Dr. Zhivago." I read it right after reading a biography of Lenin -- it was enlightening.

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    1. I agree. War and Peace was a better novel or at least I enjoyed it more. Tolstoy published AK as a serial? No wonder it was so long. He was paid by the word?
      Tanya read Dr Zhivago when she was a young girl and has been after me to read it. It is on my list. Right now I am back beavering away at The Wealth of Nations.

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  2. "obsessing on something imaginary which she could then not let go of." I remember doing that a bit when I was young, but my descent into geezerhood and the curmudgeonly ways I have adopted have bailed me out of that kind of thinking. Sometimes it is really beneficial to be a bit cynical.
    "Independent People" by Halldor Laxness will give a similar insight into the psyche of the Icelanders.

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    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jono. Reminded me to check out your blog again. I signed up to follow it this time. You take some good pictures. Racoons have been working their way north for some time now and my cousin reports one having located at their farm in west-central Saskatchewan. Go figure.

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  3. I took Russian Literature in college (at age 40) and loved it - with the exception of Dostoyevsky which I consider a hack writer...he must have been paid by the word and it seems he never bothered to edit his work. Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is not only a good read but powerful writing. I also love Dr Zhivago.
    Just my opinion.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. Dostoevsky certainly is difficult to read. I got through Poor Folks because it was a very small book. I am a few chapters into The Brothers Karamazov and am unwilling to go back to it.
      Tolstoy wrote of the nobility, Chekhov of the Middle Class and Dostoevsky of the common folk. I like Chekhov best followed by Gogol.
      I started Gulag and could not finish. That much detail of man's inhumanity to man I cannot handle. Never finished Grapes of Wrath for the same reason.

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  4. I read Anna Karenina this summer and gave it the same rating as you did. it seemed part Harlequin romance in spots. Once in a while I thought Levin would have preferred the life of a serf (at least their home and family life) but he soon returned to his upper class ways. Anna's end is very sad. I do plan to see the movie.

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    1. Yes, Levin would have made a good Canadian farmer who did his own work. He was always more at ease when he was working along side his peasant labourers.

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  5. I read Anna Karenina as a teen-ager and identified with Anna. I re-read it about 4 decades later and could not believe how foolish she was being. Ah, blessed maturity and calmer hormones!

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    1. When All in the Family aired as a weekly series in the 70s, I identified with Meathead, then as a rerun 20 years later, I understood Archie perfectly.

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