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This edition from Modern Library Classics was translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett with a revision by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova. The prose reads very easily, in clear, accessible English for today. (But don't worry: It's not "The Good News Bible does Tolstoy.") While the book is long, and by looking at a calendar and my new paperback's rumpled cover and scuffed binding, I could tell I'd been reading it a long time, it felt as if it were passing quickly. Tolstoy's narrative moves easily from stage to stage -- there's no feeling of contrived suspense or narrative manipulation. The lives of the characters progress naturally, and what Tolstoy tells the reader, the reader believes and doesn't question (this reader didn't.)
The story focuses on just a few main characters, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (and her husband Aleksey Alexandrovich Karenin), Count Aleksey Kirilich Vronksy, Konstantin Dmitrich Levin and Kitty Scherbatskaya. These individuals propel the story, and it is their lives and relationships that we follow most closely. Supporting characters include Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, his wife Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya and Levin's brothers, a small cast for a grand Russian novel.
On the back cover, a quote about the novel, attributed to Matthew Arnold, says that we are "not to take ANNA KARENINA as a work of art; we are to take it as a slice of life." I think it is really both.
The theme of the novel centers on relationships, and those relationships in 19th Century Russian artistocratic society of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Anna Karenina is an elite, beautiful woman married to a powerful government official, Aleksey Karenin, with whom she has a son, Seryozha. She falls in love with and has an extended affair with the rich, dapper Count Aleksey Vronksy, and has a child with him, a daughter. Their story follows her inability to ask for or later receive a divorce from her husband, and her increasing unhappiness in the relationship with Vronsky, as she is bannished by society and resents the freedom he has as a man to move in his old circles. Her jealousy and insecurity grow throughout the course of the novel, rendering her nearly mad.
The other relationship, which serves as a contrast and foil for Karenina and Vronsky, is that of Levin and Kitty Scherbatskaya. Levin is a somewhat older man than the young and beautiful Kitty, daughter of one of Moscow's many princes. He is an aristocratic farmer and cares for his family's vast agrarian holdings in the country thoughtfully and meticulously. At the beginning of the novel, he has been courting Kitty, but had returned to the country for awhile. When he returns to ask her to marry him, he sees that she is infatuated with Vronksy, whom he doesn't trust. Vronsky meets Anna Karenina at a ball and stops calling on Kitty, breaking her heart. After a long separation, Kitty and Levin meet again and she agrees to marry him, happily. Their storyline follows their marriage and the birth of their son, Dimitry.
It is definitely true that this novel is most definitely a slice out of life. The characters are incredibly realistic as is the pace and plot of the novel. But the artistry lies in Tolstoy's effective setting of one relationship against another. It's not as black and white as it might be in a lesser writer's hands. The "good couple" Levin and Kitty have difficulties in adjusting to each other and in their relationship. Levin, like Anna, is jealous, but unlike Vronsky and Anna, he is motivated by love and generosity to overcome his angry feelings for the benefit of a harmonious home. Other aspects of the two different relationships are set off by one another. A very compelling character is made of Aleksey Alexandrovich Karenin, whom Anna despises, but who undergoes a convincing and sad degeneration of self as Anna leaves him and he maintains custody of the son that she loves. (He gets caught up with a society woman who has converted to a fundamentalist, ecstatic Christianity and gives him advice, ultimately leading him to allow a French faux-mystic to decide the fate of his marriage to Anna.)
The novel has a well-known climax, which I won't reveal if you don't know it, but it has beautifully written and rich "falling action" which allows the reader to come through the shock and pain to what Levin discovers beyond the love of the family life he craved.
This is definitely a masterwork, completely readable and worth the time spent on every page.
At time of reading, I found the novel okay. The characters came alive on the page, and many of the scenes in the novel were beautifully delineated. But I found the pace too slow, and was bored by all Levin's socio-political musings on Russia at that time.
Months later, and I find that the book still resonantes in my mind. I find myself still thinking about Anna and her fate; about that excruciating moment where Karenin approaches total forgiveness and then veers away; about Dolly, Kitty and Oblonsky. About how different the world of Anna Karenina is from my own, in some ways, but still so relevant. And the differences are illuminating.
In this novel, Tolstoy manages to weave together a whole world of stories and people and events. I can't really describe it other than saying that it is a very very human story. Greater than the sum of its parts.
Don't read this book if you think you might become impatient 'getting through' it. It deserves better that that. But if you're reading these reviews wondering whether it's worth taking all that time to read one of the world's reputed classics, then my anonymous 25-year-old word, for what it's worth, is that yes, it definitely is.
Everything you've heard and read about ANNA KARENINA is true. It is one of the finest, subtlest, most exciting, most romantic, truest, most daring, charming, witty and altogether moving experiences anyone can have. And you don't have to slog through pages and chapters to find the truth and beauty. It's right there from the first, famous sentence: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
This new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is wonderful and deserves your attention even if you already have a favorite version of the book. Pevear and Volokhonsky are considered "the premiere translators of Russian literature into English of our day." Working, as I do, in the Theatre, I hope they take on some of Turgenev's plays.
Anyone who believes in the power of Art, especially Literature, must buy and read this book. I promise it can change your life. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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