Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy

My plan to finish Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, arguably the most romantic story in all of world literature, by Valentine’s Day fell a bit short. This, despite having begun the novel during the third week of January (the darkest part of winter being, of course, the ideal time to take on heftier literary tomes.) Indeed, according to my reading log, it took me 24 days to get through the book’s 853 pages. Please do not interpret this as an indictment on the book’s quality or on my abilities to read. It was a very busy few weeks.

Many consider Anna Karenin to be the greatest novel ever written, and now, having actually read it, I can attest that the reputation is probably warranted. The story—and its tragic ending—are well known by now: the titular heroine abandons her loveless marriage to take up a passionate affair with a younger cavalry officer named Vronsky. Anna is strong-willed and desirous, but also prone to paranoia and other forms of emotional unhinging. Put in the impossible position of choosing between her lover and her son (not to mention her place in Russia’s deeply hierarchical aristocracy), her predicament slowly unravels. The novel ends with what is probably literature’s best-known scene: Anna, in a fit of absolute despair and insanity, throwing herself under the wheels of a train.

There is much to be said about Tolstoy’s uncanny skill at diving into his many characters’ many psychological layers. Saying that even the most peripheral player in this novel is drawn in three full dimensions seems both obvious and inadequate. Anna Karenin is written from the sort of omniscient third-person perspective that has become increasingly rare in our literature, to its detriment. Tolstoy makes every examination—from Anna’s simple hatred of her husband’s jutting-out ears to the complex relationship between Levin (considered to be a stand-in for Tolstoy himself) and his love interest Kitty—believable and warranted. There is no fat to this text, despite its length. Everything fits into the broader theme.

What that theme is may vary from reader to reader, but for my money this is a novel ultimately about fidelity. Fidelity, that is, in the grandest and most multifarious sense of the term. We’re not talking simply about Anna betraying her husband or society betraying her back for her wanton ways. We're not even talking about Levin's undulating faith in himself and Kitty's love and loyalty to him. What we face in this book is the shifting plates of what fidelity means in a world overcome with change and upheaval (as Russia was during the time that this novel is set). Even the scenes that detail at length the agricultural history of Russia, as told through the lens of Levin as a rural landowner, fit into this greater dichotomy of fidelity to an ideal versus the ability to change with the shifting of one’s heart. It is, however, through the character of Anna herself where we see these ideas play themselves out most disastrously. Anna must learn that sometimes an act of infidelity can be the best, most moral decision one can make. And when that step is made, we must come to trust the new reality it creates, to become faithful to the choice we make. This is her chief failure—not to believe in the love she has built up with Vronksy—and it is, ultimately, the catalyst of her undoing.

Tolstoy has left us with not one but two landmarks of world literature. War and Peace may be an epic on a grand, geopolitical scale, but to my mind Anna Karenin is the superior work. It is more human, more tragic, and thus a much richer experience.

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