Acclaimed By Many As The World S Greatest Novel, Anna Karenina Provides A Vast Panorama Of Contemporary Life In Russia And Of Humanity In General In It Tolstoy Uses His Intense Imaginative Insight To Create Some Of The Most Memorable Characters In Literature Anna Is A Sophisticated Woman Who Abandons Her Empty Existence As The Wife Of Karenin And Turns To Count Vronsky To Fulfil Her Passionate Nature With Tragic Consequences Levin Is A Reflection Of Tolstoy Himself, Often Expressing The Author S Own Views And ConvictionsThroughout, Tolstoy Points No Moral, Merely Inviting Us Not To Judge But To Watch As Rosemary Edmonds Comments, He Leaves The Shifting Patterns Of The Kaleidoscope To Bring Home The Meaning Of The Brooding Words Following The Title, Vengeance Is Mine, And I Will Repay As a daughter of a Russian literature teacher, it seems I have always known the story of Anna Karenina the love, the affair, the train the whole shebang I must have ingested the knowledge with my mother s milk, as Russians would say.My grandpa had an old print of a painting hanging in his garage A young beautiful mysterious woman sitting in a carriage in wintry Moscow and looking at the viewer through her heavy lidded eyes with a stare that combines allure and deep sadnessWho s thatI asked my grandpa when I was five, and without missing a beat he answered,Anna KareninaActually, it wasA Strangerby Ivan Kramskoy 1883 but for me it has always remained the mysterious and beautiful Anna Karenina, the femme fatale of Russian literatureImagine my childish glee when I saw this portrait used for the cover of this book in the edition I choseYet, Anna Karenina is a misleading title for this hefty tome as Anna s story is just the tip of an iceberg, as half of the story is devoted to Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy s alter ego Count Leo s Russian name was Lev Lev Levin , preoccupied with Russian peasantry and its relationship to land, as well as torn over faith and his lack of it, Levin whose story continues for chapters after Anna meets her train But Anna gives the book its name, and her plight spoke to me than the philosophical dealings of an insecure and soul searching Russian landowner, and so her story comes first Sorry, Leo Levin.Anna s chapters tell a story of a beautiful married woman who had a passionate affair with an officer and then somehow, in her quest for love, began a downward spiral fueled by jealousy and guilt and societal prejudices and stifling attitudes But I m glad you will see me as I am The chief thing I shouldn t like would be for people to imagine I want to prove anything I don t want to prove anything I merely want to live, to do no one harm but myself I have the right to do that, haven t IOn one hand, there s little new about the story of a forbidden, passionate, overwhelming affair resulting in societal scorn and the double standards towards a man and a woman involved in the same act Few readers will be surprised that it is Anna who gets the blame for the affair, that it is Anna who is considered fallen and undesirable in the society, that it is Anna who is dependent on men in whichever relationship she is in because by societal norms of that time a woman was little else but a companion to her man There is nothing new about the sad contrasts between the opportunities available to men and to women of that time and the strong sense of superiority that men feel in this patriarchial world No, there is nothing else in that, tragic as it may be Anything, only not divorce answered Darya Alexandrovna But what is anything No, it is awful She will be no one s wife, she will be lostNo, where Lev Tolstoy excels is the portrayal of Anna s breakdown, Anna s downward spiral, the unraveling of her character under the ingrained guilt, crippling insecurity and the pressure the others and she herself place on her Anna, a lovely, energetic, captivating woman, full of life and beauty, simply crumbles, sinks into despair, fueled by desperation and irrationality and misdirected passion And he tried to think of her as she was when he met her the first time, at a railway station too, mysterious, exquisite, loving, seeking and giving happiness, and not cruelly revengeful as he remembered her on that last moment. A calm and poised lady slowly and terrifyingly descends into fickle moods and depression and almost maniacal liveliness in between, tormented by her feeling of imagined abandonment and little self worth and false passions which are little else but futile attempts to fill the void, the never ending emptiness This is what Tolstoy is a master at describing, and this is what was grabbing my heart and squeezing the joy out of it in anticipation of inevitable tragedy to come In her eyes the whole of him, with all his habits, ideas, desires, with all his spiritual and physical temperament, was one thing love for women, and that love, she felt, ought to be entirely concentrated on her alone That love was less consequently, as she reasoned, he must have transferred part of his love to other women or to another woman and she was jealous She was jealous not of any particular woman but of the decrease of his love Not having got an object for her jealousy, she was on the lookout for it At the slightest hint she transferred her jealousy from one object to another. Yes, it s the little evils, the multitude of little faces of unhappiness that Count Tolstoy knows how to portray with such sense of reality that it s quite unsettling be it the blind jealousy of Anna or Levin, be it the shameless cheating and spending of Stiva Oblonsky, be it the moral stuffiness and limits of Arkady Karenin, the parental neglects of both Karenins to their children, the lies, the little societal snipes, the disappointments, the failures, the pervasive selfishness All of it is so unsettlingly well captured on page that you do realize Tolstoy must have believed in the famous phrase that he penned for this book s opening lineHappy families are all alike every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way Tolstoy is excellent at showing that, despite what we tend to believe, getting what you wanted does not bring happiness Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no than a grain of sand out of the mountain of happiness he had expected It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realization of their desiresAnd yet, just like in real life, there are no real villains, no real unsympathetic characters that cause obstacles for our heroes, the villains whom it feels good to hate No, everyone, in addition to their pathetic little ugly traits also has redeeming qualities Anna s husband, despite appearing as a monster to Anna after her passionate affair, still is initially willing to give her the freedom of the divorce that she needs Stiva Oblonsky, repulsive in his carelessness and cheating, wins us over with his gregarious and genuinely friendly personality Anna herself, despite her outbursts, is a devoted mother to her son at least initially Levin may appear to be monstrous in his jealousy, but the next moment he is so overwhelmingly in love that it s hard not to forgive him And I love this greyness of each character, so lifelike and full.And, of course, the politics so easily forgettable by readers of this book that carries the name of the heroine of a passionate forbidden affair The dreaded politics that bored me to tears when I was fifteen And yet these are the politics and the questions that were so much on the mind of Count Tolstoy, famous to his compatriots for his love and devotion to peasants, that he devoted almost half of this thick tome to it, discussed through the thoughts of Konstantin Levin Levin, a landowner with a strong capacity for compassion, self reflection and curiosity about Russian love for land, as well as a striking political apathy, is Tolstoy s avatar in trying to make sense of a puzzling Russian peasantry culture, which failed to be understood by many of his compatriots educated on the ideas and beliefs of industrialized Europe He considered a revolution in economic conditions nonsense But he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury. I have to say I understood his ideas this time, but I could not really feel for the efforts of the devoted and kind landowner striving to understand the soul of Russian peasants Maybe it s because I mentally kept fast forwarding mere 50 years, to the Socialist Revolution of 1917 that would leave most definitely Levin and Kitty and their children dead, or less likely, in exile the revolution which, as Tolstoy almost predicted, focused on the workers and despised the loved by Count Leo peasants, the revolution that despised the love for owning land and working it that Tolstoy felt was at the center of the Russian soul But it is still incredibly interesting to think about and to analyze because even a century and a half later there s still enough truth and foresight in Tolstoy s musings, after all Even if I disagree with so many of his views, they are still thought provoking, no doubts about it If he had been asked whether he liked or didn t like the peasants, Konstantin Levin would have been absolutely at a loss what to reply He liked and did not like the peasants, just as he liked and did not like men in general Of course, being a good hearted man, he liked men rather than he disliked them, and so too with the peasants But like or dislike the people as something apart he could not, not only because he lived with the people, and all his interests were bound up with theirs, but also because he regarded himself as a part of the people, did not see any special qualities or failings distinguishing himself and the people, and could not contrast himself with them. It s a 3.5 star book for me Why Well, because of Tolstoy s prose, of course because of its wordiness and repetitiveness Yes, Tolstoy is the undisputed king of creating page long sentences which I love, by the way love that is owed in full to my literature teacher mother admiring them and making me punctuate these never ending sentences correctly for grammar exercises But he is also a master of restating the obvious, repeating the same thought over and over and over again in the same sentence, in the same paragraph, until the reader is ready to cry for some respite This, as well as Levin s at times obnoxious preachiness and the author s frequently very patriarchial views, was what made this book substantially less enjoyable than it could have been By the way, there is an excellent 1967 Soviet film based on this book that captures the spirit of the book quite well and, if you so like, has a handy function to turn on English subtitles first part is here, and the second part is here I highly recommend this film.And even better version of this classic is the British TV adaptation 2000 with stunning Helen McCrory as perfect Anna and lovely Paloma Baeza as perfect Kitty. In the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time You ve heard a lot about the place before you go Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books You can t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you You expect to like it You want to like it But you don t want to feel like you have to like it You worry a little that you won t But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax Maybe that simile reveals about me than I d like My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters out of the book s 239 devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something happen and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work Of course, the book is about Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty and Dolly and poor, stupid Stepan Arkadyich It s about their love and courtship and friendship and pride and shame and jealousy and betrayal and forgiveness and about the instable variety of happiness and unhappiness But it s also about mowing the grass and arguing politics and hunting and working as a bureaucrat and raising children and dealing politely with tedious company To put it accurately, it s about the way that the human mind or, as Tolstoy sometimes says, the human soul engages each of these experiences and tries to understand itself, the world around it, and the other souls that inhabit that world This book is not afraid to take up any part of human life because it believes that human beings are infinitely interesting and infinitely worthy of compassion And, what I found stirring, the book s fearlessness extends to matters of religion Tolstoy takes his characters seriously enough to acknowledge that they have spiritual lives that are as nuanced and mysterious as their intellectual lives and their romantic lives I knew to expect this dimension of the book, but I could not have known how encouraging it would be to dwell in it for so long.In the end, this is a book about life, written by a man who is profoundly in love with life Reading it makes me want to live. WARNING This is not a strict book review, but rather a meta review of what reading this book led to in my life Please avoid reading this if you re looking for an in depth analysis of Anna Karenina Thanks I should also mention that there is a big spoiler in here, in case you ve remained untouched by cultural osmosis, but you should read my review anyway to save yourself the trouble.I grew up believing, like most of us, that burning books was something Nazis did though, of course, burning Disco records at Shea stadium was perfectly fine I believed that burning books was only a couple of steps down from burning people in ovens, or that it was, at least, a step towards holocaust.If I heard the words burning books or book burning, I saw Gestapo, SS and SA marching around a mountainous bonfire of books in a menacingly lit square It s a scary image an image of censorship, of fear mongering, of mind control an image of evil So I never imagined that I would become a book burner That all changed the day Anna Karenina, that insufferable, whiny, pathetic, pain in the ass, finally jumped off the platform and killed herself That summer I was performing in Shakespeare in the Mountains, and I knew I d have plenty of down time, so it was a perfect summer to read another 1,000 page novel I d read Count of Monte Cristo one summer when I was working day camps, Les Miserable one summer when I was working at a residential camp, and Shogun in one of my final summers of zero responsibility A summer shifting back and forth between Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Pinch, Antonio and the Nun which I played with great gusto, impersonating Terry Jones in drag in Comedy of Errors, or sitting at a pub in the mountains while I waited for the matinee to give way to the evening show, seemed an ideal time to blaze through a big meaty classic I narrowed the field to two by Tolstoy War and Peace and Anna Karenina I chose the latter and was very quickly sorry I did.I have never met such an unlikable bunch of bunsholes in my life m kayI admit itI am applying Mr Mackey s lesson You should see how much money I ve put in the vulgarity jar this past week Seriously I loathed them all and couldn t give a damn about their problems By the end of the first part I was longing for Anna to kill herself I d known the ending since I was a kid, and if you didn t and I spoiled it for you, sorry But how could you not know before now I wanted horrible things to happen to everyone I wanted Vronsky to die when his horse breaks its back I wanted everyone else to die of consumption like Nikolai And then I started thinking of how much fun it would be to rewrite this book with a mad Stalin cleansing the whole bunch of them and sending them to a Gulag in fact, this book is the ultimate excuse for the October Revolution though I am not comparing Stalinism to Bolshevism If I d lived as a serf amongst this pack of idiots I d have supported the Bolshies without a second thought.I found the book excruciating, but I was locked in my life long need to finish ANY book I started It was a compulsion I had never been able to break, and I had the time for it that summer I spent three months in the presence of powerful and or fun Shakespeare plays and contrasted those with a soul suckingly unenjoyable Tolstoy novel, and then I couldn t escape because of my own head I told myself many things to get through it all I am missing the point, Something s missing in translation, I m in the wrong head space, I shouldn t have read it while I was living and breathing Shakespeare, It will get better It never did Not for me I hated every m kaying page Then near the end of the summer, while I was sitting in the tent a couple of hours from the matinee I remember it was Comedy of Errors because I was there early to set up the puppet theatre , I finally had the momentary joy of Anna s suicide Ecstasy She was gone And I was almost free But then I wasn t free because I still had the final part of the novel to read, and I needed to get ready for the show, then after the show I was heading out to claim a campsite for an overnight before coming back for an evening show of Caesar I was worried I wouldn t have time to finish that day, but I read pages whenever I found a free moment and it was looking good Come twilight, I was through with the shows and back at camp with Erika and my little cousin Shaina The fire was innocently crackling, Erika was making hot dogs with Shaina, so I retreated to the tent and pushed through the rest of the book When it was over, I emerged full of anger and bile and tossed the book onto the picnic table with disgust I sat in front of the fire, eating my hot dogs and drinking beer, and that s when the fire stopped being innocent I knew I needed to burn this book I couldn t do it at first I had to talk myself into it, and I don t think I could have done it at all if Erika hadn t supported the decision She d lived through all of my complaining, though, and knew how much I hated the book and I am pretty sure she hated listening to my complaints almost as much So I looked at the book and the fire I ate marshmallows and spewed my disdain I sang Beatles songs, then went back to my rage, and finally I just stood up and said M kay it I tossed it into the flames and watched that brick of a book slowly twist and char and begin to float into the night sky The fire around the book blazed high for a good ten minutes, the first minute of which was colored by the inks of the cover, then it tumbled off its prop log and into the heart of the coals, disappearing forever I cheered and danced and exorcised that book from my system I felt better I was cleansed of my communion with those whiny Russians And I vowed in that moment to never again allow myself to get locked into a book I couldn t stand it s still hard, but I have put a few aside.Since the burning of Anna Karenina there have been a few books that have followed it into the flames Some because I loved them and wanted to give them an appropriate pyre, some because I loathed them and wanted to condemn them to the fire I don t see Nazis marching around the flames any either I see a clear mountain night, I taste bad wine and hot dogs, I hear wind forty feet up in the tops of the trees, I smell the chemical pong of toxic ink, and I feel the relief of never having to see Anna Karenina on my bookshelf again Whew I feel much better now.