By Leo Tolstoy
(this review contains spoilers if you haven’t read the novel)
I read a great 1957 edition of the novel with excellent illustrations by Roland Topor. The work by Tolstoy was very good as well.
The final excerpt from Bukowski’s ‘The Captain is Out to Lunch…’ collection has Bukowski stating ‘Screw you, buddy! And I don’t like Tolstoy either.’ I have always considered that maybe Tolstoy could be a bit fatuous but many people have recommended Anna Karenina to me. After the recent ‘Sting Debacle’ where I found that Lolita was an amazing read and I shouldn’t have tarred it with the Sting brush of insipid mediocrity simply because he did a ‘shout-out’ to Nabokov, I decided to read Tolstoy. The strength of the novel is the fact that the characters are nearly all ambiguous, they have both negative and positive qualities and Anna herself is the principle embodiment of this discord. I don’t think she is quite the feminist role model that many have made her out to be as she is inconstant and at several points shows her dependance on the patriarchal system she wants to escape from. But does she want to escape the patriarchal system? It could be said she simply wants Vronsky’s love and that is the primary motivating factor and when she is not sure of this she kills herself. Hardly the actions of an independent woman. But still in other instances she is: her appearance at the opera when all society has spurned her is very courageous and her ongoing lack of compromise in dealings with her husband when he holds all the cards.
The other characters all contain a variety of sometimes conflicting qualities and there is none that you can empathise with fully. This is a strength of the novel and one that I didn’t expect – I thought things would be far more definite. The only negative is the way Levin is converted at the end – it just seems a little trite. His conversion, where Tolstoy states that he will still do things that offend people, be irritable and sin etc… but he will at last have found a meaning can be seen as summing up the novel. All the characters are the same – they are human and imperfect but Levin is saved because he has found meaning. It’s unclear whether the only meaning that can be found is Chrtistian because Anna’s husband finds meaning in spiritualism after she has left him. Levins brother in his novels, Vronsky in the new war. I think these are interpretations that are present although Tolstoy seems to come down only on the side that that only Christian faith can provide the substantial meaning. As a member of wealthy Russian society he would have to be seen as stating and promoting this. I think the overiding themes are that of the ambiguity of humanity – both good and bad and the search for meaning. As you can see from this short analysis this is a complex novel and it raises many good questions which I continue to think about after finishing. The main talking or thinking point is how to consider Anna, who is understandably the pivotal force of the novel.
I definitely recommend reading Anna Karenina if you haven’t already. It isn’t too difficult a read and took me less than a week. But, Tolstoy is not Dostoevsky, obviously.