My deep affinity for Russian literature is often hard to explain, or even to understand myself. The Russians will lay bare the worst aspects of fallen humanity, even their “heroes” are shown to be flawed and weak, and yet there are always glimpses of hope and grace and redemption.
I’ve been averaging about 75 total books each year for the last few years, and yet it took me five months to read the 700+ pages of Anna Karenina. Currently, I’m reading Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset with my book club, and I easily anticipate finishing those 1000+ pages in the two months we are taking to discuss it. However, I don’t think I can blame the lack of a deadline for my slow pace with Anna. I also can’t blame a lack of interest or pull towards the book; I’m not adverse to putting aside a book that I don’t find engaging. Tolstoy was a master and there is a reason that Anna Karenina is considered one of the greatest works of literature of all time; as a reader, you’re immersed in the lives and emotions of these characters and it can be quite a lot to take in at times. I was also reading the book over the winter holidays and in the final months of planning my wedding, so I had a lot of my own emotions and circumstances going on as well. Yet I kept reading. I am a glutton for that depressive Russian spirit.
Initially published in installments from 1875 to 1877, Anna Karenina was first published in book form in 1878. To set the world stage a bit: Charles Dickens had only just died in 1870, Queen Victoria was going strong with 26 years left of her 63-year-reign, Mark Twain was just beginning to publish his novels in America, Dostoevsky had already published Crime and Punishment a decade before, and Tolstoy himself had already written and published War and Peace. I wish I knew enough about Russian politics of the time to give a few helpful notes, but I’m afraid that’s a topic you’ll have to look up for yourself. I’m just here for the literature.
I actually made an attempt to read Anna several years ago. I got about 150 pages in before giving up because it seemed like nothing was actually happening. I still had the fast-paced, action-orientated expectations of modern fiction and wasn’t prepared for the slow, in-depth, character-orientated storytelling of traditional novels. In works like Tolstoy, Jane Austen, or George Eliot, you basically live the ordinary, everyday lives of their characters; which, on an emotional level, are very much like our own ordinary, everyday lives. This type of fiction is brilliant and necessary, because it allows the development of empathy and understanding when we can glimpse lives different than our own and yet still common place. So much of modern fiction is pure escapism; exceptional lives and circumstances, which may be entertaining but don’t necessarily help us to understand the world we actually live in. When I made the attempt to read Anna this recent time, I had more experience as to what to expect, and I was also in the midst of so much Life happening around me that I could actually relate to the characters and what they were experiencing.
The other thing that can skew expectations on the first encounter is that Anna is only barely the primary character. The book is fairly equally divided between the story of Anna’s adulterous love affair and descent into social ostracization and the story of Konstantin Levin’s pursuit of love and his agricultural life in the country. Anna and Levin, while having many social connections in common, only cross paths themselves once, briefly, in the course of the entire book. The first time I attempted to read the book, I found the interruptions with Levin’s story annoying, as it was Anna I was there to read about. This time, however, it was Levin’s story that actually kept me reading and it was Anna’s that I had to cringe my way through as she descended further into her sins.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This opening line of the novel could be contemplated for ages. It’s unhappy families that we write books about, it’s tragedies that are reported in the news, it’s the unfortunate events that happen to our neighbors and friends that we talk and gossip about. We love a good scandal. Are we really that sadistic? Or is it that we are trying to learn from the mistakes of others in the hopes that we might avoid similar fates? Why do we read about other people’s lives in the first place, people that aren’t even real or that we will never actually meet?
As I said, Anna Karenina is considered one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time, and that’s a statement that I am willing to endorse. It might not be an easy read if you are used to more modern storytelling, but it’s worth the effort.