Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Coming in at #54 on the BBC Big Read list is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This is the smaller of Tolstoy's big books, at only 817 pages (!). I first read this when I was 16 years old, about to start my A-Level in English Literature and whilst our family St Bernard was having puppies.
Sitting up night after night with the expectant mum-to-be, I read it quickly and was drawn to the tragic story of Anna and her fall from society grace. How different the reading was some 30 years later.
Special mention must go to @fictionaddictionangela over on Instagram who stuck with me through the reading of, and who I read War and Peace with last year. I confidently exclaimed 'we will be through this in no time' which is up there as such truths as 'Stand here Harold, those arrows will never get you' and 'This decorative horse will look lovely in our city of Troy'.
Anna Karenina seems to have everything - beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters impetuous officer Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalises society and family alike, and soon brings jealousy and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life - and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.
After reading War and Peace last year, I though this would be a walk in the park. How wrong was I? There are many similar themes running through the 2 books; a loving family, a passionate unrequited first love, a young man struggling to find his meaning in life; a love of nature and observations about the fascinating minutiae of Russian society.
But heavens this book is dense. I found an hour's reading yielded 25 pages or so. And in those pages was a substantial amount of detail. Consider how many thoughts you have in one single day. How they veer around like a drunken bumper car. How, if you've had a knotty problem or an issue with someone that every action, reaction and course of action will be considered and ascribed meaning. Now put all that into a novel and you will understand just how dense this novel is.
At one point @fictionaddictionangela messaged to say she was sick of all the mowing. If I never learn the many ways of harvesting hay, it will be too soon. At times this was more agricultural text book than 'The Archers' and I was bored.
Of course there are some wonderful moments - we see Russian society at its most political, it's bitchiest in its response to Anna. Anna, herself, is a wonderful character, beautiful and intelligent who eventually tears herself apart in considering the ways that Vronsky doesn't love her, ignoring that in fact he clearly does adore her.
But there are other elements of Anna's character that are not fleshed out - why does she pay no attention to her daughter? What causes self-possessed Anna to have such a crisis of confidence? This for me was never explained.
Instead Tolstoy chooses to focus on Levin, apparently a self-portrait and a man who thinks too damn much! Consider having won Kitty's affections and about to be married, has an introspective melt-down about the right shirt not being available and nearly calls the whole thing off. Thankfully he comes to his senses and spares the reader some 400 pages of soul-searching.
It has taken me nearly 3 months to read this book. At times I had to read something else for some light relief and then I received a postcard from @fictionaddictionangela saying:
Dear Lord, shoot me now!
Will this book ever end?
and so, I girded my loins, took a deep breath and finished it, relieved as I turned the last page.
Sometimes books lose their hold on you as the years pass. For me the spell of Anna Karenina has been well and truly broken.
A massive thank you for Angela for reading/suffering this novel with me as part of our Russian January. I've loved the laughs, the chats about ra-ra skirts and looking like a canary. Next year we are giving Mr Tolstoy a miss and will opt for something shorter and hopefully lighter.