Reading Anna Karenina ….

….. was one of those things I was going to do one day for a long, long time.

I loved the idea of reading, but actually reading seemed a little scary. The book on the shelf looked so long, so profound, so serious. But in time the book and I moved closer. I blame the Classics Club, the Russian Reading Challenge, and a film that I knew I would feel guily about watching without reading the book first.

I began to plan, because I knew that choosing the right translation and the right medium would make all the difference.

I read passages from three different translations, and Aylmer and Louise Maude won. It was the result I had been hoping for, because they were contemporaries of Tolstoy, they knew him, they worked with him. And because I didn’t like what I’d read of  Pevear  and Volokhonsky’s working methods. Or Constance Garnett’s. But the Maude’s won it fair and square, they really did.

And that was lucky, because I knew that this was a book I wanted to listen too, and the best of the different audio versions that I tested was David Horovitch’s reading of the Maude translation. The pieces were falling into place.

Listening highlighted the quality of the storytelling, the characters, the prose, and the wonderful, wonderful rhythm of the words. That was something I would never have picked up if I’d read from a book. It didn’t take long at all for me to be smitten.

‘Anna Karenina’ is not really a plot driven novel, but it follows the arc of the lives of a number of people, all of the Russian nobility, who are tied together by blood, by marriage, by love.

Seven characters, three marriages …..

Anna Karenina by Hana Popaja

Anna Karenina by Hana Popaja

Darya “Dolly” Alexandrovna Oblonskaya is the wife of Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky, and the mother of his children. He is charming, he is is habitually unfaithful and Dolly has very nearly had enough. Stiva’s sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina reconciles the couple, but she does not follow her own advice. She meets Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky after she travels home by train the same train as his mother, and a love affair soon begins. Anna comes to hate her husband, statesman Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, but they are tied together by the son who she loves and he will not let go. Dolly’s sister,  Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya was in love with Oblonsky and her heart was broken. She had rejected Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin, an old friend of Oblonsky and he still loved her, but she had her pride …..

I was quickly pulled into the story, and I was fascinated by the lives and relationships I was to follow.

I might have loved Anna if I had met her when I was younger, but I am afraid that I found her infuriating. I loved her spirit, I loved her vitality, but I could not accept that she was so oblivious to anyone else’s feelings and while it might be wonderful to want everything – to live with your lover, to have your child with you always, to hold a high position in society – it is not always possible to have everything you want; life sometimes demands compromises.

I cared for the husband she rejected far more than I had expected. He was so serious, so conventional, so set on doing the right thing, but for all that he was not demonstrative his feelings did run deep.

I was curious to know how two people who were so different had come to marry, how they had lived, if not happily then at least in harmony before the crisis came. Oh to have seen a little of the previous generation, to understand more of what shaped these characters.

I’m aware that I’m saying ‘I’ a lot, but in the case of a book like this that has been so widely read, that has been studied and written about so much, it’s all I can do. Say what struck me as I read.

Even now, weeks later, I can’t pull all the images and ideas running around in my head together, and I don’t really want to try and risk spoiling that.

I loved the way that the story of Anna, Karenin and Vronsky was set against the very different story of Kitty and Levin, and I was happy moving backwards and forwards between the different strands of the story.

I became very fond of Kitty and Levin.

It was interesting comparing the three very different marriages.

I noticed how alike Anna and Stiva were. They were both charming, they both did as they pleased, they were both careless of the feelings of others and heedless of the consequences. Did I judge them differently because one was a man and one was a woman? I don’t think so, but I think one understood how society worked and the other didn’t.

The differences between Kitty and Anna were interesting too. One was sensitive to the feeling of others and one wasn’t. I could accept that, but I couldn’t quite accept that Tolstoy almost painted Kitty as an angel and Anna as a devil.

They were both fallible human beings. This is a book full of utterly believable characters and relationships. the depth and the detail of the characterisation.

That’s what I’ll take away with me. That and a head full of images.

…. Anna encountering Vronsky at the station …. Levin seeing Kitty on the ice ….. Karenin ill at ease as he visits a lawyer …. Kitty at her brother-in law’s death-bed ….

And most of all the final scenes of Anna’s story, which was one of the most compelling and moving pieces of writing that I have ever read.

And now I can say that I have read ‘Anna Karenina’, and that I’d like to read it again one day.

But first I am seriously thinking about ‘War and Peace’ ….

12 responses

  1. I read this book for the first time at a very impressionable age of 16 and I cannot say I grew fond of Anna since then despite repeated re-reads…I know what you mean by her vitality but somehow in choosing death over life….the character somehow failed me …I like Hester Prynne (another of our celebrated literary adulteress) because she chose to live despite all odds….I too really cared about the husband…though he was far from perfect, atleast he tried!!! of course I loved Levin!!!

  2. Congratulations!! Since I didn’t have time to study Russian in college, I took a “Russian for Reading” class (that is, learn just enough to make out the words using a dictionary} in my last semester. Our final exam was to write out a literal translation of 20 pages of text, and I did part of A.K. I always meant to go back to it (in English, of course!) but still haven’t. I did see the recent film with Keira Knightley and Jude Law but it was a little weird and didn’t draw me into the story. So read I shall!

  3. I have tried – and failed – three times with this book, reading different editions each time. You’ve almost convinced me to try again.

    • I just looked at the book without picking it up for years, but I found that going down the audiobook route made all the difference. It was less intimidating and it drew out the human story.

  4. I had a short Russian phase many moons ago during which I read Tolstoy, and several other heavyweights. I loved Anna Karenina. Finally enough I am probably more intimidated by the thought of re- reading it now than I was the first time around.

    • I can understand that – this was a book very much about meeting the characters for me, and that wouldn’t be quite the same second time around. But I liked Anna Karenina enough to want to go back some time, when the memories have faded a little.

  5. I only read this recently and I’m actually glad I didn’t read it when I was younger. Like you, I had so much less patience with Anna and Vronsky. But I felt such compassion for Karenin and also Dolly. The book is wonderful, and I agree about the translations – I loved the Maude, the prose felt right and as you say it was contemporary and they knew Tolstoy. I too am not comfortable with the P&V working method and also the Emperor’s new clothes hysteria that surrounds them. But yes – War and Peace is calling!

  6. I read this years ago and enjoyed it, but I’ve forgotten most of the details of the plot now so I should really read it again at some point. I remember finding Anna infuriating too – most of my sympathy was with Karenin and Sergei. War and Peace is a very different type of story but I enjoyed that one as well.

  7. I’m really interesting in what you say about loving Anna if you’d met her when you were younger because I did and was enchanted by her. However, thinking now about possibly going back and re-reading over thirty years later you make me question whether I would have the same reaction. It’s an added spur for picking up my copy again.

  8. Pingback: 10% Report: 100 Years of Books « Fleur in her World

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