Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Review by Roseanna Brown
Five weeks ago I set myself a challenge. I was standing in Oxfam, absent-mindedly browsing the books, and there it was. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, a gloriously huge hardback tome, quite out of place in the sea of battered paperbacks. For years it had existed on my to-read list, that mental bookcase of novels I absolutely, definitely, no excuses, must read. The timing was perfect – adverts for the new film adaptation were everywhere, and it looked good; too good to miss. So there was the motivation I needed: I would read the book, and only when I’d finished it would I let myself see the film.
At the beginning, the challenge felt too big. There were 784 pages, tiny words printed on paper so thin it was almost tracing paper. The last book I read was written in the 1990s, so going to one written over a hundred years previously meant it took a while to adjust to the language and writing style. It wasn’t long though, until Tolstoy’s story of love, faith, sacrifice and – ultimately – tragedy, forced these problems away, leaving my nose pressed firmly to the spine, hungrily devouring page after page.
The novel explores the interwoven lives of the 19th century Russian aristocracy. Anna is married to Karenin, a statesman, and seemingly has everything – except a happy marriage. Her chance meeting with the young, dashing Count Vronsky changes her life, and impacts the lives of everyone around her. In a parallel storyline, Tolstoy follows the life of Levin (a character he largely based on himself), who wants nothing more than a simple rural life. Well, almost nothing – he is also madly in love with Kitty, a beautiful young girl who has rejected him.
The story is narrated by an omniscient voice who switches effortlessly between the consciousness of a vast array of characters (at one stage even detailing the thoughts of a dog). The character development is pretty close to perfect – and let’s face it, 800 pages allows for a lot of development! In my opinion, Tolstoy’s greatest achievement in the novel is his representation of humanity, which is by far the most human I’ve ever read. The most sympathetic characters, the ones we’re supposed to like, are still shown to be capable of unpleasant thought, and the more ‘villainous’ characters are allowed moments of redemption, if only temporarily.
And there is the real beauty of Anna Karenina, and what makes it a true literary classic: here is a story told by an author who has been dead for over a century, a story set in the 1800s in another country, in a society so different from our own, yet whose characters we can relate to as strongly as if they were our best friends, whose feelings we feel just as we feel our own. I can’t urge you enough to read this book for yourself, and see. As for the film – I’m off to watch it now, with the highest of hopes.
Anna Karenina front cover, Penguin.