Love…it means too much to me

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett

Phew, I made it to the end! This is a big book and it took me a month to read. But it wasn’t a slog. I found Tolstoy’s writing much more accessible than Dostoevsky or Dickens, his contemporaries.

I had a rough idea of the story before I started this book, but hadn’t realised that the story of Anna is not the only plotline. As its famous opening line suggests, the novel follows a few interlinked families, and Anna is not the focus of the first nor the last chapter. We open in Moscow with her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, who is in trouble with his wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), after cheating on her with the nanny. Only the arrival of Anna from St Petersburg manages to calm the household down.

At the same time, Oblonsky’s close friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin has come to Moscow to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), but unfortunately while he has been away at his country estate, Kitty has taken up a flirtation with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dandy young cavalry officer from St Petersburg. In confusion between her two suitors, she turns Levin down. But just a few days later, at a society ball, Vronsky meets Anna and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious to all.

“It was as if tears were the essential lubricant without which the machinery of mutual relations between the two sisters could not operate effectively – after the tears the sisters did not talk about what preoccupied them, but they understood each other even though they were talking about other things. Kitty understood that she had deeply wounded her poor sister with those words she had uttered in a fit of pique…but that she was forgiven. For her part, Dolly understood all that she had wanted to know.”

Anna has never loved her husband, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, but as she falls for Vronsky she realises that she finds Karenin actively revolting. The one thing keeping her in her own home is her beloved son Seryozha. She is a passionate woman consumed by finally having found love. But she is also an intelligent woman, fully aware of every nuance of the limited options available to her. And she reads a lot, in several languages, which endeared her to me.

The novel continues to follow all these people over the next few years, exploring facets of Russian politics as well as society. Levin is a very serious man who debates farming practices and communism with his friends and his two brothers but finds society and organised politics tiresome. He is at his happiest at his country estate talking to his farmhands, which is in stark contrast to Vronsky who thrives in society, loves racing horses and enjoys the game of politics.

“ ‘Love,’ she repeated to herself [and] added: ‘The reason I don’t like that word is because it means too much to me, far more than you can understand,’ and she looked into his face. ‘Goodbye!’ ”

There are a few incidents at the start of the novel that are repeated or reflected later. All of Moscow knows about Oblonsky’s infidelity and looks to Dolly for a reaction. Similarly, St Petersburg lights up with gossip about Anna and Vronsky, but it is clear from the start that Anna is going to be judged more harshly than either Oblonsky or Vronsky. Plus of course there’s a certain incident with a train at the book’s opening…

I did occasionally find Levin’s ruminations on the role of the peasant not only overlong and dull, but also outright offensive at times (he believes vehemently that to educate the poor is pointless). And honestly, the final chapter annoyed the crap out of me, for reasons I can’t explain without spoilers. But there is also a long section about a childbirth that is funny, suspenseful and more honest than any other 19th century novel I have read on the subject (as far as I know – to be clear, I don’t have firsthand experience, only many many vicarious conversations with family and friends).

“What he felt for this little creature was not at all what he had expected. There was nothing jubilant or happy about this feeling; on the contrary, it was an agonizing new fear. It was the consciousness of a new era of vulnerability. And this consciousness was indeed so agonizing at first, and the fear that this helpless creature might suffer so intense, that he failed to notice the strange feeling of absurd joy and even pride he experienced when the baby sneezed.”

For the most part I enjoyed this book. I found the characters interesting and well-rounded. There are passages that truly spoke to me – about death, love, happiness and misery. It’s insightful and it’s haunting.

First published 1873–77 in The Russian Messenger.
This translation published 2014 by Oxford University Press.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by Oxford University Press to show me their beautiful new series of world classics.