“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
(First publication: 1877 / This edition: Penguin Classics 2013)
Taken with french-pressed coffee and flowers Mom got for me 🙂
I have nothing to forgive and forget, I have never stopped loving you. (p.398)
Anna Karenina…First of all…I feel like I deserve a pat on the back or something for finishing this. I know there are longer and heavier (literally and figuratively) books, but this was one from the top on my book bucket-list (others are “Brothers Karamazov”, “The Magic Mountain”, “War and Peace”, to name a few). So…Yayyy 🙂 (*celebratory dance*standing ovation*champagne toasts*)
I’m going to be rambling so much about this book—and not really just on the story itself (haha).
I read my first Tolstoy just about two months ago actually—my best friend had given me “Family Happiness” as an early birthday present, and I fell in love with Tolstoy’s writing. So because of that, I became more motivated to tackle “Anna Karenina”. Then it took me a while of doing research and taking (3-4) trips to the bookstore before I bought this one. I was told by a few that the best translation would be the one by Louise and Alymer Maude, but there was only one copy by them in Kinokuniya—but the cover wasn’t appealing. (Yes, guilty of judging books by their covers.) And…aside from this Penguin Hardcover Classics one, there really was no other covers and editions that were aesthetically appealing! Why?? It’s such a famous book! I even checked on Book Depository, but the Penguin Hardcover Classic one was already my top-choice and I was too impatient to wait another 2-3 weeks. So materialistic and picky and impatient, UGH. BUT, in my defense, this Penguin Hardcover Classics is actually the “best” choice, because:
- The translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which I read that they’re sometimes accredited as being the best. (and they translated many other famous works too) I don’t know Russian but I think they did a great job—it was easy to read.
- Since it’s such a long book (837 pages, 8 parts), having a sturdy and strong hardcover copy made it more convenient for me to hold, read, underline, etc—since I always read it sprawled out on my bed. The paper quality is good for underlining. The pages are bigger/wider too, so the texts aren’t all squished like I’ve noticed in other editions.
- It is a splurge and I usually don’t spend this much on a book (and there were other editions that are half or even a quarter of the price), BUT since it’s such a masterpiece and a timeless classic, you should plan to keep it forever anyway. It’s a good investment, haha.
- The Vintage Books’ cover looks pretty nice too, but I think this Penguin one’s the prettiest. Just look at it!
So I’d recommend this hardcover edition for anyone that’s looking for a copy. 🙂
NOW. On to the story…
(Contains spoilers…so this is more of a discussion part for those that have read it. For those that haven’t read it, just skip down a few paragraphs 🙂 )
First of all…. Wow. How I would love to live in Russia in the late 19th century, on my own farm with a lot of land, surrounded by woods where I can walk my hounds and where I can get fresh honeycombs, and ride horse-drawn carriages to go have tea with my friends. Tolstoy’s writing is so beautiful and he really plunges you into the time and atmosphere. He makes me romanticize about era in Russia and wish I was there. I think that is what I love most about reading “Anna Karenina”. I’ve read some Russian literature but I’d never felt so immersed in the culture and lifestyle as I have with this one. The scenes, the people, and the atmospheres are all so descriptive, I felt like I was actually watching a film rather than reading words. His way of writing limns a world of beauty.
I did enjoy the story itself—especially the first 5-6 parts. There was so much going on and everyone’s problems and dramas kept me excited. Just as Count Vronsky did, I fell in love with Anna Karenina at the beginning—an elegant, sophisticated, and charismatic woman. I could feel her power and her dominating aura. I fell in love with Konstantin Levin and his homely, gentlemanly ways, and empathized with him when he grew lovesick for Kitty Scherbatsky. I felt Darya Oblonsky’s exhaustion with her husband and house full of children. I enjoyed Stepan Oblonsky’s smooth, witty, and sociable character. There are many more characters and I ended up liking them all, in one way or another. Even if it seems like what they are doing is strange or immoral, Tolstoy explains their ways of thinking so you come to understand their background, personality, and reasons for doing what they do. The psychology and behaviors of everyone becomes clear, sooner or later.
There was one character I didn’t particularly liked though. I said that I fell in love with Anna Karenina…at the beginning. Towards halfway through, I ended up hating her. The elegant and sophisticated look seems like just a façade since all of it disappeared as she was driven more and more into lunacy—but for the most selfish reasons. I think some ways, she can be compared to Madame Bovary—casting aside her familial responsibilities whenever she wants to. My “hatred” for Anna Karenina reached its climax when she “suddenly” left her son with her husband, Alexei Karenin, even though negotiating with Alexei Karenin seemed impossible—she should’ve been more patient and controlled her “desires” and “passions”. Just like Madame Bovary. And I got very annoyed of her when she was going mental with jealousy and possessiveness on Count Vronsky—I would’ve felt so suffocated if I were him. She became an exhausting character to read about, and I tended to zone out when she went on her rants.
Leading me to my next point…
Why is this story called “Anna Karenina”? I think it should be called “Konstantin Dmitrich Levin”! He’s my favorite character and he’s the hero of this story. I love everything about him. He’s such a caring and loving man, devoted to his family, his work, and his people. He’s so down-to-earth but does not hate or discriminate those that have different views or priorities. His devotion to Kitty is admirable, and I’m glad that they had a happy ending. What a romantic story! I also enjoyed his philosophical rants, even though it drove him into depression for a bit. I just have this impression that he’s like this caring, active, and hard-working teddy bear, haha 🙂 He is like the second protagonist of the story, so I really think he stands out even more than Anna Karenina. They are so contrasting, but it’s clear that Levin’s the smarter, more stable, and more selfless one—the hero for all the involved families.
Prior to reading, I heard that “Anna Karenina” would be a sad story, with Anna Karenina dying in the end. I thought I’d be feeling sorry for this woman; that something so terrible must have happened to her that she died in the end. I just wish it wasn’t because of not being able to control her jealousy and then going into delirium. Despite her strong, powerful appearance, she’s actually so weak. I felt sorry for her in a pitying (and annoyed) sort of way—not an empathizing way.
And more on Tolstoy’s writing…I love the way he portrays feelings so in depth and you actually relate to what he’s describing. For example, when he talked about Count Vronsky’s frustrations with trying to get back into society, despite people condemning his relationship with Anna, he wrote: (from Vronsky’s perspective) “It was impossible to begin talking about anything without the conversation turning to Alexei Alexandrovich; it was impossible to go anywhere without meeting him. At least it seemed so to Vronsky, as it seems to a man with a sore finger that he keeps knocking into everything, as if on purpose, with that finger.” (p.530) There were many times where Tolstoy described feelings with analogies like that, and I found them witty, humorous, and relatable. Tolstoy’s got style. 😉
For those who haven’t read it…
I enjoyed this book, but the story didn’t blow my mind as much as I was hoping it would. If anything, I feel like I was getting a history or anthropology lesson on Russia in the late 19th century era, but in the form of a (long) fiction book—with lots of drama and perspectives from people of different social classes. I’m happy I read it because I enjoyed it—I’d read it again to time-travel and immerse myself into that Russia. The story just wasn’t as intense as I thought it’d be—I think “Madame Bovary” (my review here) would be a better choice, with a similar type of plot.
I’d still recommend this book though. Anna Karenina’s not the most memorable character, but you will read about Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, and I think he’s really something. 🙂 And of course, Tolstoy is an amazing writer, and this really is a masterpiece. What a treasure for Russia—it makes me want to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg so badly!
Some tips for those who haven’t read it…
- There are a lot of parts about agriculture, politics, and religion. I even spaced out and drifted off sometimes, but if you can focus, you’ll learn so much about that era in Russia and a lot of it is actually interesting (well, the parts I paid attention to anyway)
- The names can be pretty confusing, but you’ll get the hang of it. This edition has the characters’ list at the beginning, so that’s helpful. I made a cheat-sheet though, because it was easier than flipping the book back and forth. I recommend you do the same before reading, just to get a little familiar with them. A little preview of what I mean by “confusing”:
- Read it in long sessions and devote your time to it. The book’s pretty long and there are many “slow” bits. I think if you pause and leave it off for too long, it’ll become a “boring” read. I read it every night before bedtime, for about 2 weeks.
i’ve repeated this a few times already but…the writing is just so beautiful. Russia is so beautiful. The farms are so beautiful. The woods are so beautiful. The trains are so beautiful. Working from dawn until late evening in the fields is so beautiful. Pregnancy is so beautiful. Traveling 4 hours by horse-drawn carriages to a house just some miles away is so beautiful. The Russian children are so beautiful. Everything is just so beautiful.
So read it! 🙂
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
I think that in order to know love one must make a mistake and then correct it. (p.139)
He soon felt that the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires. (p.465)
‘But these women exist in reality…and these women are terrible. Woman, you see, it’s such a subject that, however much you study her, there’ll always be something new.’
‘Better not to study then.’
‘No. Some mathematicians said that the pleasure lies not in discovering the truth, but in searching for it.’ (p.162)
One would have to know her and love her as I do to find that sweetest inner expression of hers. (p.477)
In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me. (p.788)