Book Review: Anna Karenina

Reading this book has been something of a long-term literary project for me: after picking up a copy of it back in 2011, I attempted many times to get past the first few chapters, but failed time and time again. That was until the start of this summer, when I found that I was able to really get into the plot of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, and because of other time commitments, I have only just finished it. Like most people, I read Anna Karenina in one of its many English translations, translated by Constance Garnett. The quality of the English prose is generally good, with occasional slips in spelling. To what extent it is an accurate translation of the original Russian, I cannot comment; reading this work in the language in which it was written is certainly an aim for the future.

The blurb on the inside cover of my translation describes this as a psychological masterpiece; not simply psychological, but highly philosophical in my opinion. Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, one of the two principal characters, is regarded as a semi-autobiographical character, representing the views of Tolstoy himself. The journey of thought undertaken by Levin, and possibly even the author himself, was the thing which fascinated me the most about Anna Karenina. What Levin looks for is self-fulfilment: he seeks a way of doing good in a manner that he is most comfortable with on an internal level, and some justification for this. His initial conflict is between a focus on abstract causes, which his half-brother Sergey Ivanovich Koznishev favours, and the option which he eventually decides on: improving the conditions of those who are less fortunate than him, a wealthy landowner who has inherited his estate, through personally investing his time and and money into the peasants who work his land. Eventually, he regains his faith in the Christian beliefs which he had held as a child, having decided for himself what he sees as acceptable conduct rather than leaning on the views of intellectuals such as Koznishev.

The initial philosophical conflict encountered by Levin resonated with me so much that it eventually became the main source of my interest in Anna Karenina. This battle is one, which, in my opinion, is still relevant now. It is not entirely uncommon in the modern day to hear someone describe in great detail the very nature of a problem without ever really getting to the heart of how it might be solved. No positive action comes from this theorising, and eventually the problem may not be solved. On the other hand, there is Levin’s approach, which is to personally invest his time for the benefit of both himself and others. Despite his arguments with Sviazhsky and other landowners in the area about the nature of and solutions to the agricultural problems they all face, he is clear about his modus operandi and devotes his time to ensuring its proper function as part of his wider quest. His focus is on the action that he can perform to improve the situation, rather than ruminating about the problem. This is a model that I have become entirely in favour with, and one which I think is summed up most concisely by the following translation of a quote by Cicero: ‘Knowledge and contemplation of the world of nature would be feeble and unfulfilled if no positive action were to flow from it.’ This is but one of many maxims that may be used to describe the path which Levin chooses.

Another figure of interest is the hard-working and morally principled but emotionless Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin, the husband of the title character Anna Arkadyevna. At first, the fact that he seems to put his work over his personal concerns seems admirable, but his unbending desire for moral order is ultimately the cause of his rather subtle downfall. For me, he represents the fine line between allowing one’s emotions to detract from one’s work, and becoming entirely emotionless and insensitive to the needs of others, such as his wife, whose love for Vronsky he never seems to comprehend. Like his wife, he is one of many objects of pity in this tragic tale, but Anna’s downfall is altogether more painful. Her emotional turmoil is almost constant, and after her retrospectively fateful conversation with her husband after Vronsky disgraces himself at the summer races, she is in freefall, with no hope of anything other than the sorry end that she meets. In the way that she is brought low by her love, there are similarities with Virgil’s Dido, one of the great tragic figures of the Classical period, but again, the way Anna falls is far more tragic. The drawn-out inevitability of her suicide, which is far more terrible than anything I have encountered in Classical literature, is again reminiscent of Dido, although I have a feeling that the parallels may be coincidental rather than intentional.

Other characters bring different personae to the plot: Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, greatly lightens the mood with his relaxed approach to life, one which is quite removed from Levin’s seriousness. Alexey Kirillovich Vronsky, the army officer with whom both Anna and before then, Levin’s eventual wife Kitty, fall in love with, is in some ways the exact opposite of Alexey Alexandrovich, as he gives up a highly promising career in the army for his relationship with Anna, whereas Karenin always puts his career first. The setting created by Tolstoy also has its inherent contrasts: Moscow is portrayed as the more serious and traditional city, whereas Petersburg is the home of the excesses and morally suspect relationships that seem to be increasing amongst the elite; Levin’s estate is presented as much more simple than Vronsky’s palatial home. All in all, a must-read for those who haven’t already done so.

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