A review of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

Anna Karenina
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Kyril Zinovieff
Alma Classics
ISBN: 9781847493682, 912 pages

This is a wonderful new translation of Tolstoy’s great novel that should enthrall a new generation of readers. It is beautifully presented by Alma Classics, and includes an interesting preface and translators’ note, informative notes to the text and useful extra material on Tolstoy’s life and works.

It is entirely legitimate to ask ourselves why we should bother to read Anna Karenina. After all, it’s a novel written originally in Russian in the nineteenth century by an aristocrat about people falling in and out of love, when moral conventions and society’s strictures were different to what they are today, when divorce was rare and adultery could lead to social annihilation. What can it possiby have to say to us now?

Well, a great deal, as a matter of fact. Anna Karenina is a novel that beguiles and intrigues. The world it depicts and dissects remains fascinating in itself. Its characters are among the most memorable ever created. And the targets and outward forms of social disapproval may be different now to what they were then, but they nevertheless exist. The world is still an awfully harsh place to those who step out of line or who cannot enter into prescribed ways of thinking and feeling.

Anna Karenina and War and Peace are often described as very different novels, and that is true. However, they share fundamental themes. Both of them are about how it is we decide and make mistakes about whom and what we should love in life, to whom and to what we should give our loyalty, our belief, our faith. In War and Peace these themes are exposed amid momentous historical events; in Anna Karenina the scale is smaller, but history still intrudes.

It may surprise those who read Anna Karenina for the first time just how little the eponymous heroine appears in the novel. Anna and Vronsky almost take second place to Kitty and Levin and Dolly and Stiva. All three of these stories are concerned with marriage and love: their formation, their dissolution, their glories and perils. Anna’s fate is tragic; Kitty’s romantic; Dolly’s pathetic. All are deeply touching.

I have read Anna Karenina many times, yet I always fall in love with Anna on first sight, just as Vronsky and Kitty fall in love with her when they first see her. Anna is intelligent and charming and beautiful and wonderfully dressed and clearly fundamentally good. She has come to Moscow on a mission of mercy: she is here to comfort Dolly, whose unhappiness with husband Stiva’s faithlessness is understandably overwhelming. Anna eventually helps reconcile the two of them; she is all-conquering, often without meaning to be.

One of the reasons that Anna Karenina is such a great novel, one that we can read over and over again, and see different things each time, is that its characters are intensely human – so much so that they can feel more alive than we will ever be. They are as much prey to their emotions and circumstances as we are, yet we are given the inestimable privilege of access to their innermost thoughts by means of their inner monologue, their actions and what Tolstoy tells us about them (yes, like all great writers, Tolstoy is not afraid to tell as well as to show).

For instance, in part 1, chapter 9, Levin, preoccupied and cheered by the possible significance of Kitty’s ‘Au revoir’, takes part in this exchange with Oblonsky as they travel to lunch:

‘You like turbot, don’t you?’ [Oblonsky] said to Levin as they were arriving.

‘What?’ Levin repeated the question. ‘Turbot? Oh yes, I’m awfully fond of turbot.’

This amusing and seemingly insignifcant detail is charged with emotion: Levin is elated, and he has momentarily transferred his love for Kitty and his happiness at his future prospects to the contemplation of lunch. It shows us his delight, which has overspilled its boundaries; Levin’s optimism and pleasure in life cannot be contained.

Anna Karenina is full of such important details. For example, in part 1, chapter 17, as the train carrying Anna pulls in to the station, just before we meet Anna for the first time, we are told of ‘the luggage van with a yelping dog inside it.’ This little fact accomplishes a great deal: it shows there are other lives with other dramas and other levels of suffering besides Anna’s; it makes us wonder about the poor dog and enter into its distress; it introduces a note of melancholy and foreboding right at the start of our journey with Anna. The next chapter – the famously proleptic chapter when a man is killed by a train – amplifies the tentative note of alarm introduced by the yelping dog.

There are no villains  in Anna Karenina: Anna’s husband is stiff and pompous, but he is not evil. Stiva Oblonsky is reckless, self-indulgent and a spendthrift, but with it tremendously loveable.  Rather, people are more or less confused by themselves, by society, by the decisions they have to make, by their own hidden recessess and weaknesses. Appearance is often at odds with inner reality. At Kitty’s first ball, when she observes the unmistakable signs of Vronsky falling in love with Anna, she is crushed: ‘But despite the fact that she looked like a butterfly that had just alighted on a blade of grass, ready at any moment to spread its rainbow wings and fly away, her heart was aching with terrible despair.’

And immediately after all the beauty of the ball, chapter 24 opens with Levin thinking to himself: ‘Yes, there’s something disgusting, repulsive about me.’ The world of Anna Karenina is one of sharp contrasts of beauty and ugliness, pain and pleasure. Self-awareness is elusive: ‘Without himself realizing it, Karenin now sought opportunities to have a third person with him at his meetings with his wife.’

Later in the novel, the death of Frou-Frou and Vronsky’s guilt about it take on a wider meaning: he has upset the social balance, prefiguring Anna’s own death. And death haunts Anna Karenina: in part 5, chapter 20, the only chapter given a title in the whole novel is called Death. It is the certainty of death that propels Levin to extremes of thought and feeling, as he attempts to give meaning to a life he regards as absurd.

Outcomes, future lives, can sometimes be decided by an instant’s passing. In part 6, chapter 6, Koznyshov and Varenka are walking in the woods, picking mushrooms, and everyone is certain he will propose to her. Yet, when he is on the verge of declaring himself, he hesitates, and Varenka fills the silence with a superfluous sentence that irritates him, and the moment passes.

And listen to this about poor, sweet Dolly:

‘At home, because of her worries about the children, she never had time to think. But now, on this four hour journey, all the thoughts previously held back suddenly came crowding into her head, and she thought over her whole life as she never had before, and from the most widely differing angles.’

I have a great affection for Dolly. Despite her helplessness, her increasing disillusionment, she sees things that others do not see, and she feels Anna’s pain and is kind to her.

Tolstoy does some daring things in Anna Karenina, many of which would be frowned upon nowadays by the guardians of literary orthodoxy. He takes us inside the minds of multiple characters, often within the same short chapter and only in passing. Not once, but twice, we enter the consciousness of a dog. Tolstoy the narrator steps outside the story to tell us things the characters cannot know. He indulges in seeming digressions of inordinate length: lengthy passages about farming methods, social reform, the life of peasants. There are episodes of hunting that take place over days of diegetic time. Tolstoy does all these things, not because he didn’t know any better, but because he is a great writer of enormous confidence, gifted with a controlling intellect unafraid to experiment or to make full use of technique. ‘Forwarding the plot’ is not his major concern; it is character that interests him, and hence life. His most celebrated feat is the stream of consciousness passage right at the end of the novel, when Anna begins her final, fateful journey. Anna’s mind has become a movie camera avant la lettre, registering the things she sees from her carriage window through a lens distorted by grief and depression.

After Anna’s disappearance from the novel we are placed in the company of Koznyshov, a relatively minor character. This is a wonderfully daring and exhilarating change in perspective. Koznyshov meets Vronsky who, stricken with grief, has allowed his life to be swept up by the forces of history: he is on his way to fight for the pan-Slavic cause against the Turks. Yet Tolstoy shows how this particular historic cause is made up of drunkards and braggarts and supporters without a clue as to the true nature of war.

One could go on and on about Anna Karenina. Instead of listening to me, I recommend that you read it for yourself in this marvellous new translation. You will love it as I do.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a UK-based writer and reviewer of literary fiction, who also blogs about writing, film and anything else that takes his fancy. He copyedit Interventions, the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, and is currently a submissions reader for Red Line, an online literary journal. His novel, The Long Voyage Home, is doing the rounds of agents and publishers. He can be found at his blog http://jackmessenger.co.uk/, which can also take readers to all the usual social media places where he is keen to be followed and liked.