Friday, November 2, 2007

A Book Review: Anna Karenina

Disclaimer: I am no expert on Russian Literature! Or literature in general, for that matter. I just like reading the classics!

I finally finished Anna Karenina. Wow! If you haven't read it, (and find yourself with an obscene amount of free time on your hands) I highly recommend it. The story probably won't go down as one of my favorites, however, it is probably the most beautifully crafted piece of writing I have ever read. What I love most about this book, or perhaps about Tolstoy himself, is how he put words to the most secret of feelings, the ones you don't even acknowledge to yourself. During an argument or an interior monologue, I would find the thoughts and emotions shockingly familiar, although I never could have articulated them with such precision. At times it was delightful, at others, devastating. He delicately brings the truth of our emotions into the light, and reveals how vulnerable and deceitful they are.

The story is about a woman, Anna, who trades her loveless marriage for a passionate affair, but in the deal loses her position in society, her freedom, her son, and eventually her mind. Equally significant to the story is a man named Levin. Although these two characters are connected by family and friends, they do not meet each other until the last chapters of the book, each being relatively inconsequential to the other. It is not until the last pages that you understand why Tolstoy has paralleled the lives of these two characters. Both were on a self-defining journey. Both in despair, both convinced of the meaninglessness of life, but the climax of their struggles brought them to very different conclusions. Redemption for one, death for the other.

There are layers upon layers to this novel: Russian politics, social structure, agricultural philosophies (particularly thrilling), love, adultery, motherhood, faith, hypocrisy, redemption. It was a difficult book. Not knowing anything about Russian history, politics or culture, I struggled to grasp the full significance of the complex setting. On top of that, it was a very emotionally hard, sad novel. Ironically, I would agonize over the pain the characters were feeling and causing, but I never loved the characters, as I loved...Elizabeth Bennet, for example. I found them to be awkward, selfish, silly, prideful, arrogant, or indifferent. Imagine my state if I did love them! Nonetheless, I'm glad I read it. I like that I experienced what history has marked as excellent. It is indeed. I am eager to read more of his work, but I think I'll go for something lighter this time. Mansfield Park, perhaps?!

If you have read Anna Karenina before, I'd love to hear what you thought!


Jenny said...

What a very sharp review. Ooh Mansfield Park. I love Jane Austen. Thanks for the review. Persuasion is a wonderful Jane Austen book and equally well adapted movie.

Cynthia said...

I really liked the book. Your characterization of the characters is perfect. Such a love, hate relationship with them - I could hardly put it down!