Sunday, December 16, 2012

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This Book! Folks, this book is hands-down the best book I've ever read. I don't know why Russian authors continue to intimidate me so much because every time I read them (Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment  in 2010, The Idiot The Brother's Karazamov and Nabokov's Lolita earlier this year) they continue to astonish me with their accessibility and depth of insight and understanding of me as a reader. Tolstoy (in Anna Karenina, at least since it is the first book of his I've read) gets inside you like no other author. The characters are real; the scenes are real; the emotions, the clothes, the train, the opera, the weather, the food, the farms . . . all real. Rather than just simply reading about them, I was there. I think it must be Tolstoy's enthusiastic use of inner monologue that wins me over. No matter how much good or bad (both very subjective words) people do in life, they -we- are all struggling. The thing is, in real life one can't ever know a person well enough to really appreciate what they're going through in any given situation; we have a hard enough time understanding ourselves, let alone someone else. But by putting the reader so thoroughly inside each character's person, Tolstoy gently forces us to accept each character's nature as it is. In any relationship one has to be prepared to take the good with the bad; it's deciding where to draw the line, picking your battles, so to say, that makes things messy.

It's interesting that its title is only one of many characters and story lines in the book. As much as I wanted to get to know Anna and Alexei and Vronsky, I also wanted to know more about Kitty and Levin. I loved following their courtship and early married life, the changes they went through, the growth. It was a refreshing juxtaposition to Anna's deteriorating circumstances. I also found it interesting that infidelity seemed to be fairly common and accepted as long as no one brought attention to it in public. Even though Dolly had it out with her husband Stiva about his dalliances with the nanny, she eventually turns a blind eye to it focusing more on their children and allowing her husband to go ahead and do whatever. Dolly was also the only one who supported Anna when everyone else shunned her. Forgiveness is quite a prevalent theme throughout all the story lines. We see Kitty forgive Levin his pre-marriage relationships, which I kind of rolled my eyes at because she had, after-all, been snooping through his diary. Come on, Kitty, that was PRE-marital, remember? Give the guy a break. And then there is Alexei's forgiveness of Anna when she's dangerously sick. Not that that leads anywhere as far as his treatment of her after she gets better; it's somewhat of an empty gesture so I don't even know if it counts. And then Levin forgives Kitty for her pushy insistence on tagging along to visit his dying brother, something that really bothered me about her. It all came across as being selfish and needy on Kitty's part at the worst possible time but she ends up being such a stable, helpful, and supportive presence for both Levin and Nikolai that I couldn't help forgiving her too.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this book but it's such an incredible work of literature it's hard to wrap up in any kind of meaningful way. The quotes, too, are hard to pare down to *only* those that are lovely or relevant or significant. Really, it's the whole book. Tosltoy wrote Anna Karenina from the heart and it shows.


Anna Karenina has beauty, social position, wealth, a husband, and an adored son, but her existence seems empty. When she meets the dashing officer Count Vronsky she rejects her marriage and turns to him to fulfill her passionate nature - with devastating results. One of the world's greatest novels, Anna Karenina is both an immortal drama of personal conflict and social scandal and a vivid, richly textured panorama of nineteenth-century Russia. (back cover)

But in sleep, when she had no power over her thoughts, her situation presented itself to her in all its ugly nakedness. One dream visited her almost every night. She dreamed that they were both her husbands, that they both lavished their caresses on her. Alexei Alexandrovich wept, kissing her hands and saying: 'It's so good now!' And Alexei Vronsky was right there, and he, too, was her husband. And, marvelling that it had once seemed much simpler and that now they were both content and happy. But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she would wake up in horror. pg150

The majority of young women, envious of Anna and long since weary of her being called righteous, were glad of what they surmised and only waited for the turnabout of public opinion to be confirmed before they fell upon her with the full wight of their scorn. They were already preparing the lumps of mud they would fling at her when the time came. The majority of older and more highly placed people were displeased by this impending social scandal. pg 174

He was angry with everybody for their interference precisely because in his soul he felt that they, all of them, were right. He felt that the love which joined him to Anna was not a momentary passion that would go away, as society liaisons do, leaving no traces in the life of either one of them except some pleasant or unpleasant memories. pg 184

This child with hie naive outlook on life was the compass which showed them the degree of their departure from what they knew but did not want to know. pg186

'I'm unhappy?' she said, coming close to him and looking at him with a rapturous smile of love. 'I'm like a starving man who has been given food.' pg191

If Konstantin Levin had been asked whether he loved the peasantry, he would have been at a loss to answer. He loved and did not love the peasantry, as he did people in general. pg238

He constantly observed and came to know all sorts of people, muzhic-people among them, whom he considered good and interesting people, and continually noticed new traits in them, changed his previous opinions and formed new ones. Sergei Ivanovich did the contrary. pg238

A file of carts moved across the field. Levin counted the carts and was pleased that they were bringing out all that was necessary, and at the sight of the meadows his thoughts turned to mowing. He always experienced something that especially touched him to the quick during haymaking. pg241

Though it was a chore to look after all the children and stop their pranks, though it was hard to remember and not mix up al those stockings, drawers, shoes from different feet, and to untie, unbutton and retie so many tapes and buttons, Darya Alexandrovna, who had always loved bathing herself, and considered it good for the children, enjoyed nothing so much as bathing with them all. To touch all those plump little legs, pulling stockings on them, to take in her arms and dip those naked little bodies and hear joyful or frightened shrieks; to see the breathless faces of those splashing little cherubs, with their wide, frightened and merry eyes, was a great pleasure for her. pg 265   [I love the tenderness in this passage. You can tell Tolstoy, with thirteen children to his name, knew of what he wrote here.]

When she thought of Vronsky, she imagined that he did not love her, that he was already beginning to be burdened by her, that she could not offer herself to him, and she felt hostile to him because of it. pg288

....but he did not have full freedom of thought, because he felt painfully awkward. He felt painfully awkward because the sister-in-law sat facing him in a special dress, put on for his sake, as it seemed to him, cut in a special trapezoidal shape on her white bosom. This rectangular neckline, despite the fact that her bosom was very white, or perhaps because of it, deprived Levin of his freedom of thought. pg328   [This passage actually goes on for the better part of a paragraph and is quite funny in its discombobulating fluster. Poor Levin! You've got to feel sorry for the guy.]

Old, yes, but you know, once you understand it clearly, everything somehow becomes insignificant. Once you understand that you'll die today or tomorrow and there'll be nothing left, everything becomes so insignificant! I consider every thought very important, but it turns out to be as insignificant, even if it's carried out, as tracking down this she-bear. So you spend your life diverted by hunting or work in order not to think about death. pg376

The men went to the dining room and approached the table of hors d'oeuvres, set with six kinds of vodka and as many kinds of cheese with silver spreaders or without, with caviars, herring, various tinned delicacies and platters of sliced French bread. pg383

Alexei Alexandrovich listened, but her words no longer affected him. pg394

Levin often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged. pg396

For a long time he could not understand what she had written and kept glancing in her eyes. A darkening came over him from happiness. He simply could not pick out the words she had in mind; but in her lovely eyes shining with happiness he understood everything he needed to know! And he wrote three letters. But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: 'Yes'. pg398 [I absolutely loved this flirty little word game that Levin and Kitty played. It was so sweet and funny I couldn't help grinning the whole time I was reading.]

He was nine years old, he was a child; but he knew his own soul, it was dear to him, he protected it as the eyelid protects the eye, and did not let anyone into his soul without the key of love. pg526 [Indeed]

Varvara Andreevna, when I was still very young, I made up for myself an ideal of the woman I would love and whom I would be happy to call my wife. I have lived a long life, and now for the first time I have met in you what i have been seeking. I love you and offer you my hand. pg564

But during the game Darya Alexandrovna was not happy. She did not like the playful relations between Vasenka Veslovsky and Anna, which went on all the while, and that general unnaturalness of grown-ups when they play at children's games by themselves, without children. But, so as not to upset the others and to pass the time somehow, she joined the game again, after resting, and pretended to have fun. All that day she had had the feeling that she was playing in the theatre  with actors better than herself and that her poor playing spoiled the whole thing. pg634

Memories of her home and children arose in her imagination with some new radiance, some special loveliness she had not known before. That world of hers seemed so precious and dear to her that she did not want to spend an extra day outside if for anything and decided to leave the next morning without fail. pg641 [This is Dolly after she's been away from her children for a time. She is pining like only a mother can.]

She ordered all the books that were mentioned with praise in the foreign newspapers and magazines she received, and read them with that concentration that one only finds in solitude. pg643


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I was reading this review with a massive smile on my face, because I love the book as much as you do :)

Laura said...

Aw, I love all the quotes- When I read it I was SO into it that I didn't manage to write down any of my favourite bits (well, except for one bit. But that was right near the end where I was slightly emerging from Russia) so I loves it!

And maaan, I kind of hate Anna in a lot of ways, and I LOVE Levin and Kitty. Forever.

Trish said...

Sam - It's such an incredible book! I had no idea.

Laura - The whole book is quotable, really. Even the ones I got around to writing down were only about half of the ones I thought were exceptional enough to record.

And, yeah, Anna . . . Man, she really painted herself into a corner, didn't she?

Maria Di Biase said...

After I've red this review I want to read this book immediately! Ty

Trish said...

Start from Scratch - I hope you get a chance to read this! Take time to savour it if you do.

Heidi’sbooks said...

It's one of my all time favorites. I still haven't started Crime and Punishment. But, it is a priority in the new year. I think once I get started I'll love it. It's just getting started that has been the problem.

Trish said...

Heidi - I think that's why it's taken me so long to get around to AK. It's the STARTING of it that I'm afraid of, kind of like jumping in the pool. Once you're in it's great, though. The quiet days after the holidays will be a good time to settle in to some Dostoyevsky.

JoAnn said...

Oh Trish, you've convinced me that's it's time to reread Anna Karenina. We're planing to see the movie this weekend and, knowing how much I loved the book the first time, it's sure motivate to pick it up again.

Trish said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie too even though I'm sure it will have a different feel to it. I can imagine this will be a fabulous book to reread - there is just so much in there!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Now you have done it. I'm adding it to my list of Must Read Books for next year.