Friday, October 24, 2008

Anna Karenina

At the conclusion of Karenina's 800 plus pages, I add my name to Tolstoy's long list of admirers. What a thinker! Like a talented photographer, Tolstoy has an eye for realism and his writing inside the heads of his characters is perfection. For a book where nothing really happens (besides wealthy people hanging out in various places...and a few people dying) to still manage to have such a fascinating effect on readers takes a certain kind of genius. So many times, while reading, I thought to myself, "Nothing is happening. How did Tolstoy get away with writing this and why are we all convinced it's one of the greatest novels of all time?" Continued reading converted me, as it has the masses, but it reminds me of an old movie, where the story stands alone, without being propped up by special effects and dramatic music. It's good - naked.

These are my take-away overall impressions. But, there were some very frustrating moments that happened along the way. Sometimes, my eyes blurred as I waited for Levin, a wealthy land-owner who has no understanding or appreciation for insincerity and falseness (characteristics that run rampant among his aristocratic peers), to finish his conversation with the peasants or friends about farm management. The amount of time Tolstoy dedicated on a Russian painter living in Italy, and his opinion about art and technique and style seemed wholly unnecessary to me. Almost like Tolstoy introduced the portrait, knowing he'd need it later in the story for contrast, but couldn't simply write leave it at that. Instead, he had to include whatever obscure experience or knowledge he had about art too...throw it into another character. I felt, a bit, like I was being taken on a ride.

Obviously, I am a modern reader, and need my greatest-novels-of-all-time written modernly! Imagine, me...little reader from nowhere, thinking, "This Russian guy needs an editor!"

I include the critical thoughts along the way, because I don't think I'm alone in thinking Anna Karenina is, perhaps,a little bloated. However, bloated or not, this is an incredible, incredible book. Embarrassingly incredible. Like, how in the world does Tolstoy see the ridiculous inside everyone's head? How does he know how insecure a man like Levin is - a man, who from the outside, appears to have everything? How does he understand how a woman can be instantly irritated and irrational from something that her lover has said, or...more frequently, has not said?

It's not only the realism that makes this book famously good. It's the artful way he makes his case against falseness. Through one of his dual protagonists, Levin, he cleanly paints his case with soft, muted colors - conversations, thoughts, and actions - that reflect,ultimately, a very likable character. Levin does the right thing, usually thinks the right thing - so his thoughts are beautiful, enjoyable thoughts. If Levin hates falseness - well...I will hate falseness too!

Then, on a canvas located directly beside the pretty picture, he paints Anna, with dramatic boldness - including the vividness but also the awful, the disturbing, and chaotic result of a woman, who, every bit as passionately, hates falseness too. Whereas Levin is ultimately rewarded for his inability to accept hypocrisy, Anna, a woman we know isn't really bad, but who makes choices that aren't sympathetic either, is punished for it.

It may seem bizarre to review a book named Anna Karenina and only now mention her. I was surprised that this isn't more her book. Her story, along side Vronsky's, is certainly the most intense and tragic, but the novel's overall point isn't limited to her infidelity, or about her choice to leave her husband and child (which is what I thought it was going to be about. Even my husband, when he saw I was reading this said, "Oh. Reading the adultery book, huh?").

In fact, it's about a group of Russia's aristocratic upper class, and their motivations and justifications about the way they live their lives. Their stories are all tangled together and each of their decisions and actions create shock waves throughout the group. Tolstoy shows how, even within a privileged group such as this, where access to information, money, justice etc., supposedly is the same, how differently they think and choose to behave. There's the brilliance. I read a quote from another famous author who said that if the world could speak on it's own, it would sound like Tolstoy. Exactly.

Thousands of reviews have been written about this book, and I certainly have nothing new to add, but, if you have hours and hours of spare time or a penchant for 19th century Russian socioeconomic exposés or simply enjoy the thoughts of a great mind - read this book.

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