#54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is a novel by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. Tolstoy clashed with its editor Mikhail Katkov over political issues that arose in the final installment (Tolstoy’s unpopular views of volunteers going to Serbia); therefore, the novel’s first complete appearance was in book form.
Widely regarded as a pinnacle in realist fiction, Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina his first true novel, when he came to consider War and Peace to be more than a novel.
Fyodor Dostoevsky declared it to be “flawless as a work of art”. His opinion was shared by Vladimir Nabokov, who especially admired “the flawless magic of Tolstoy’s style”, and by William Faulkner, who described the novel as “the best ever written”. The novel is currently enjoying popularity, as demonstrated by a recent poll of 125 contemporary authors by J. Peder Zane, published in 2007 in “The Top Ten” in Time, which declared that Anna Karenina is the “greatest novel ever written”. It was # 54 on the BBC’s Top 100 Books of 2011 list and #31 on the BBC’s Top 100 Books of 2012 list.
The book was long, and while it wasn’t as dry of a read as War and Peace was, it was still very drab. Here are a few quotes that I pulled out that I felt were influential:
‘Well, you should leave philosophy alone,’ he said. ‘The chief task of philosophy in all ages has consisted precisely in finding the connection that necessarily exists between personal and common interests. But that is not the point, the point is that I must correct your comparison. The birches are not stuck in, they are planted or seeded, and they ought to be carefully tended. Only those nations have a future, only those nations can be called historical, that have a sense of what is important and significant in their institutions, and value them.” (Page 247, para 2).
‘I have no opinion,’ she said, ‘but I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.’ (Page 614, para. 2)
‘That’s our Russian apathy,’ said Vronsky, pouring water from a chilled carafe into a thin glass with a stem, ‘not to feel the responsibilities imposed on us by our rights and thus to deny those responsibilities.’ (Page 633, para. 1).
I really enjoyed this fellows review, and hope that you can relate:
I grew up believing, like most of us, that burning books was something Nazis did (though, of course, burning Disco records at Shea stadium was perfectly fine). I believed that burning books was only a couple of steps down from burning people in ovens, or that it was, at least, a step towards holocaust.
If I heard the words “burning books” or “book burning,” I saw Gestapo, SS and SA marching around a mountainous bonfire of books in a menacingly lit square. It’s a scary image: an image of censorship, of fear mongering, of mind control — an image of evil. So I never imagined that I would become a book burner.
That all changed the day Anna Karenina, that insufferable, whiny, pathetic, pain in the ass, finally jumped off the platform and killed herself.
That summer I was performing in Shakespeare in the Mountains, and I knew I’d have plenty of down time, so it was a perfect summer to read another 1,000 page+ novel. I’d read Count of Monte Cristo one summer when I was working day camps, Les Miserable one summer when I was working at a residential camp, and Shogun in one of my final summers of zero responsibility. A summer shifting back and forth between Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Pinch, Antonio and the Nun (which I played with great gusto, impersonating Terry Jones in drag) in Comedy of Errors, or sitting at a pub in the mountains while I waited for the matinee to give way to the evening show, seemed an ideal time to blaze through a big meaty classic. I narrowed the field to two by Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I chose the latter and was very quickly sorry I did.
I have never met such an unlikable bunch of bunsholes in my life (m’kay…I admit it…I am applying Mr. Mackey’s lesson. You should see how much money I’ve put in the vulgarity jar this past week). Seriously. I loathed them all and couldn’t give a damn about their problems. By the end of the first part I was longing for Anna to kill herself (I’d known the ending since I was a kid, and if you didn’t and I spoiled it for you, sorry. But how could you not know before now?). I wanted horrible things to happen to everyone. I wanted Vronsky to die when his horse breaks its back. I wanted everyone else to die of consumption like Nikolai. And then I started thinking of how much fun it would be to rewrite this book with a mad Stalin cleansing the whole bunch of them and sending them to a Gulag (in fact, this book is the ultimate excuse for the October Revolution (though I am not comparing Stalinism to Bolshevism). If I’d lived as a serf amongst this pack of idiots I’d have supported the Bolshies without a second thought).
I found the book excruciating, but I was locked in my life long need to finish ANY book I started. It was a compulsion I had never been able to break, and I had the time for it that summer. I spent three months in the presence of powerful and/or fun Shakespeare plays and contrasted those with a soul suckingly-unenjoyable Tolstoy novel, and then I couldn’t escape because of my own head. I told myself many things to get through it all: “I am missing the point,” “Something’s missing in translation,” “I’m in the wrong head space,” “I shouldn’t have read it while I was living and breathing Shakespeare,” “It will get better.”
It never did. Not for me. I hated every m’kaying page. Then near the end of the summer, while I was sitting in the tent a couple of hours from the matinee (I remember it was Comedy of Errors because I was there early to set up the puppet theatre), I finally had the momentary joy of Anna’s suicide. Ecstasy! She was gone. And I was almost free. But then I wasn’t free because I still had the final part of the novel to read, and I needed to get ready for the show, then after the show I was heading out to claim a campsite for an overnight before coming back for an evening show of Caesar. I was worried I wouldn’t have time to finish that day, but I read pages whenever I found a free moment and it was looking good.
Come twilight, I was through with the shows and back at camp with Erika and my little cousin Shaina. The fire was innocently crackling, Erika was making hot dogs with Shaina, so I retreated to the tent and pushed through the rest of the book. When it was over, I emerged full of anger and bile and tossed the book onto the picnic table with disgust. I sat in front of the fire, eating my hot dogs and drinking beer, and that’s when the fire stopped being innocent. I knew I needed to burn this book.
I couldn’t do it at first. I had to talk myself into it, and I don’t think I could have done it at all if Erika hadn’t supported the decision. She’d lived through all of my complaining, though, and knew how much I hated the book (and I am pretty sure she hated listening to my complaints almost as much). So I looked at the book and the fire. I ate marshmallows and spewed my disdain. I sang Beatles songs, then went back to my rage, and finally I just stood up and said “M’kay it!”
I tossed it into the flames and watched that brick of a book slowly twist and char and begin to float into the night sky. The fire around the book blazed high for a good ten minutes, the first minute of which was colored by the inks of the cover, then it tumbled off its prop log and into the heart of the coals, disappearing forever. I cheered and danced and exorcised that book from my system. I felt better. I was cleansed of my communion with those whiny Russians. And I vowed in that moment to never again allow myself to get locked into a book I couldn’t stand; it’s still hard, but I have put a few aside.
Since the burning of Anna Karenina there have been a few books that have followed it into the flames. Some because I loved them and wanted to give them an appropriate pyre, some because I loathed them and wanted to condemn them to the fire. I don’t see Nazis marching around the flames anymore either. I see a clear mountain night, I taste bad wine and hot dogs, I hear wind forty feet up in the tops of the trees, I smell the chemical pong of toxic ink, and I feel the relief of never having to see Anna Karenina on my bookshelf again.
Whew. I feel much better now.
….. and so do I 🙂