Having never forayed into the world of Russian authors – aside from Nabokov’s Lolita (but then, it was written in English) – I was tempted by the new Penguin Deluxe edition of Tolstoy’s classic novel with its French flaps, pliable spine, and rough cut pages.
My sole assumption about the book was that it was the Russian Madame Bovary, a story of a young married woman named Anna who has an affair with a man named Vronsky, and upon his desertion, throws herself under a train. Kit and caboodle. This assumption was not false, but it was overly simplified. Tolstoy had much more on his mind than a simple morality tale of love and betrayal when he penned Anna Karenina, which he considered his first attempt at the novel (disregarding his magnum opus, War and Peace).
This novel has been well-read and beloved for over a century, and I doubt that I could say anything new to demonstrate my new loyalty to such a classic. But as a new devotee to Tolstoy, allow me to encourage those who haven’t been forced to read Anna Karenina in high school, to contemplate it. Let us be warned, however; the novel is 830 pages in the Penguin Deluxe edition and lacking one simple narrative arc, does demand one’s constant attention while reading. Tolstoy employs a host of characters, which are called by a variety of related names (Kitty: Katia, Katenka, Ekaterina, Katerina).
Anna Karenina is a family drama, chiefly concerning the personal lives of wealthy Russian nobles in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Each of the eight principle characters are related to each other by birth, marriage, or some other intimate knowledge. The novel begins with the now-famous aphorism “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The novel begins with Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, who is at odds with his wife, Dolly, after she has discovered his love affair with the French governess. Oblonsky hopes his sister, Anna Karenina, will intercede to his wife on his behalf. Oblonsky meets Anna at a Moscow railway station, where she meets handsome Count Vronsky, who happens to be a sometime suitor of Dolly’s youngest sister Kitty. Kitty, meanwhile, has turned down her longtime friend and suitor Konstantin Levin in favor of Vronsky (who will soon abandon her for an affair with Anna). Tied in knots yet?
In contrast to Anna’s fall, the reader encounters the day-to-day life of Levin, as he tries to forget Kitty, eventually woos and marries her, and engages in the daily life of a country gentleman. He idolizes his angelically pure wife, but is not immune to Anna’s charms. As Levin is now related to Oblonsky’s side of the family, the reader is able to hear of the affair and its consequences from the outside, allowing both an intimate and estranged view of events.
Anna’s plight is compounded by her cuckolded husband who decides to freeze out and control his wife by refusing her a divorce that will allow her to find happiness with her lover. Karenin holds their son as leverage and soon falls under the influence of a pious Christian noblewoman who infects him with a righteous sense of duty to redeem his adulterous wife. As Anna has no chance to fully escape the damnation she has received at the hands of her husband and of good society, she and Vronsky, though once very much in love, turn against each other, propelling her doom.
When he began writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s chief heroine was a caricatured and depraved older woman who seduces a young officer, leaving her husband as the source of the reader’s pity. As he wrote, Tolstoy began to shift his allegiance by comprehending Anna not as an aging whore, but as a young, beautiful, spirited woman, trapped between her own desires and the social mores of the day.
One would imagine the novel’s title character to be its chief protagonist, but Tolstoy’s true hero is arguably Konstantin Levin. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya recognized Lev to be a mirror of Tolstoy. Lev is a nobleman wholly caught up with ideas of farming and agricultural improvement, and though not a philosopher, is always pondering his own questions. The novel concludes, not with Anna’s death, but with avowed atheist Lev’s revelation of God and life’s purpose.
What purpose, one must wonder, does Tolstoy have in contradicting these story lines – a woman embarking on a love affair and leaving her responsibilities and good name behind her; and a sincere and overly passionate man who experiences life and learns the value of work, innovation, love, and divine revelation? Perhaps, as one source suggests, Tolstoy desires to explore human weaknesses in all forms, or perhaps he wishes to show the falseness of the individual within the context of the falseness of society. Perhaps it was simply his instincts and novelistic impulse.
A note on translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky form a team that is the hot, newest commodity in terms of Russian translation, having translated the Brothers Karamozov and War and Peace. They have succeeded at not only winning the PEN/ Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize, but at translating dead Russian authors into vital prose, and being published in attractively marketed books. Win-Win-Win! Additionally, these translators (one American, one Russian) live together in Paris. Truly a perfect life: gazing at each other over Tolstoy’s Russian manuscript in a little house in Paris covered in vines.