by Leo Tolstoy
The Russian Messenger, 1878
Does anyone dare to write a review of Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina?
Only the academics dare parse it perhaps. And yet, a book group I belong to has chosen this tome to read. Picking it up again after so many years, it felt hefty! It is hefty in ideas as well as in characters; the very best kind of book that captures the world in which the characters live as well as their own personal dramas.
For the modern reader, the head hopping distracts. Tolstoy puts the thoughts of the characters within quotation marks ( or perhaps that was the translator) and lets us into the thoughts of a footman, say, in the same paragraph as those of a major protagonist. But these are just stylistic options, no more important than changes of clothing style in the course of the history of literature.
A fascinating aspect of the book, considering that we know what happened to Russia after 1917 is that in 1877, when Tolstoy completed this book, educated people were discussing political reform in terms that seem contemporary. Education, the delivery of health care, agricultural methods, the care or ruling of indigenous peoples were all fodder for discussion forty years before the Revolution. After that, it seems, political discussion ceased except on well-worn tracks.
In this magnificent book Tolstoy manages to evoke the timeless differences in relations between men and women. He shows their different behaviors. He also creates a dinner party scene in which the situation of women is discussed. While the world described has long since vanished, and women today have access to education, to supporting themselves through a career, to choices about childbearing, in some ways nothing has changed. Men still have the power. Is it any wonder that teenage girls today have high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts? Tolstoy’s Kitty, who acts and thinks like an impressionable teenager, sinks into a depression after realizing that the caddish Vronsky prefers another woman. That woman, Anna Karenina, faces a dreadful fate because of her indiscretion. The reader guesses this fate from the beginning, because Tolstoy leads the reader so skilfully through the web of her relationships, each depending on the other, each person in that relationship with their own belief system, their own prejudices and assumptions. This classic, with its long slow description of places, weather, furniture, dinner parties, racing meets, clothing, political attitudes and the perils and passions of romance, is still a masterpiece.