Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Anna Karenina

Book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (my copy translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Prompt: Read a book that your friend loves
Pages: 817

I'll admit - reading this book took a lot out of me.  For someone who normally enjoys reading, and who reads a lot, this book took a lot of time to read.  A lot.  As in the better part of a year.  It's 817 pages full of Russian culture, politics, and social maneuvering.

I generally prefer books that move along at a clip.  So when I had to read a chapter entirely about a horse race, or five (!) chapters about a local Russian election, it drove me up a wall.  I admit to telling a coworker that I wanted to take those five chapters on Russian politics and shove them down Tolstoy's throat until he choked on them.

But in all seriousness, Anna Karenina is the story of the eponymous bored aristocratic wife and mother and her fall from grace after she embarks on an affair with the dashing cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky.  Tolstoy deftly paints a thorough picture of 19th century Russia.  And, I'll admit, I could picture the characters and the setting despite knowing very little about Russia in general, much less 19th century Russia.

To be honest, I get why the book is named after Anna, but I really felt like Kitty (Anna's sister-in-law's sister) and Levin (Anna's brother's friend) were the real heroine and hero of the book.  I found much more to emulate in their characters than in Anna's or Vronsky's.  And it makes sense - Levin is modeled after Tolstoy himself, so it is natural that Tolstoy would paint himself in the most sympathetic light.  Characters like Anna, Vronsky, and Stiva (Anna's brother) are clearly characters Tolstoy encourages people not to emulate.

But even if Tolstoy rebukes Anna's actions, he still encourages the reader to have sympathy for her.  She's in kind of an impossible situation (even if it is one of her own making) and cannot get out of it.  And it doesn't help that the hypocritical society shuns her while still accepting people like Stiva, who engages in some of the same behaviors as Anna, though not to the same extent.  Granted, Stiva doesn't run away from his spouse as Anna does, but he clearly treats Dolly, his wife, just as badly - if not worse - than Anna treats Karenin, her husband.  But Stiva faces no ill consequences from society - in fact, he is rewarded for it in some ways.  Further, Vronsky is still accepted in society while Anna is not, ostensibly because he was not married before taking up with Anna.  Call it chauvinism, hypocrisy, whatever you will.  But Tolstoy makes clear that society sometimes serves as judge, jury, and executioner against people who are deserving of compassion, not ostracism.  Perhaps if Anna had been shown more compassion - by Vronsky, by her husband, by society, by so-called "friends", she wouldn't have ended up as she did.  Her actions are inexcusable.  But you can still show grace, even if you don't condone the actions.

Final recommendation: If you have the determination (and the time) to read 800 pages of 19th century Russia, do it.  It's an interesting read, despite how much I complained about it.  I wouldn't have anyone below high school read it, just because of some adult themes (nothing explicit).  They probably wouldn't have the patience to get through it anyway.

A note on translations: there have been reams of paper spent on discussing and comparing translations.  I'll try to be brief here.  I picked the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation for several reasons.  First, I believe that having a Russian and an American work together on the translation would make it stronger, having a native speaker in both languages.  Secondly, their translation of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov won the Pen/Book of the Month translation prize.  Thirdly, their translation of Anna Karenina was critically acclaimed, winning the PEN Translation Prize.  If you are interested in reading more, a quick Google search will reveal dozens of (if not more) articles, each comparing different translations and making the case for their preferred one.

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