Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (audio)

This is a very long book, and I am trying to keep this from being a very long review. In a nutshell, I did not find it the life-changing masterpiece that I hoped it might be. (This is alarmingly often true of the very big name classics, it seems. Maybe too much hype?) However, it had some redeeming features, especially early on.

I will refrain from much plot summation (to keep my review shorter!); you can find that online if you like (for example, here’s Wikipedia). But, quick plot points: Levin is in love with Kitty, the youngest daughter of a good family. He proposes and is rejected, because she is expecting a proposal from Count Vronsky. However, just then the married Anna Karenina comes to town, Vronsky is taken with her, and abandons Kitty. Now we have a sad Levin, a sad Kitty (rather ruined, in fact, with her marriage prospects suddenly bleak), and Vronsky chasing Anna. Slight spoiler: he succeeds, and they become lovers, cuckolding Karenin (her husband). There are other characters, other couples mostly, with their own marital issues. Levin is a landowner with a restless intellect; he is probably the character most actively questioning his society’s unwritten rules, debating new ways of running his land and his peasant laborers, etc. One thread of the book follows discussions of society in various forms. The real spoilers follow in white text (highlight to read) if you want to follow it through: Levin does eventually marry Kitty. Anna has Vronsky’s baby, and goes to live with him after leaving her husband, but they are relatively ostracized by the society they were accustomed too, especially Anna; she is increasingly jealous and insecure, and finally kills herself. Levin finds God. There, that’s my quick plot summary. I have left out a great deal.

I struggled with this book for one main reason: I couldn’t find a sympathetic character. I thought I had one here and there, but they failed me time and time again. Kitty & Levin both overcome obstacles; but they never move past the tragedy of Kitty’s losing Vronsky – they continue to let his shadow lean across their lives, and I got sick of that. For all their observing their own happiness, I was unconvinced. Jealousy plays a large role in their relationship. Anna and Vronsky, too, call themselves happy but the jealousy and the quarreling just went on and on; I was annoyed. I went back and forth: poor Anna, she needs her man, he took her out of her home and life and now he leaves her home alone and lonely! And then again, poor Vronsky, this woman is a total drag! It comes back to the same point: I found none of these characters particularly sympathetic, and I did not have the patience for the woe-is-me drama. Tolstoy seems to use lots of superlatives. I think this is what contributed to my feeling of high drama (rolls eyes).

On the other hand, the ideological musings and discussions Levin indulged in failed to perk up my ears, as well. I would have been interested in working through some of these theories, but I never felt that we got any concrete experimentation with them; rather, Levin thought to himself or mentioned to his gentlemanly peers, and then plodded on. I don’t know why this made me impatient, when Jurgen’s struggles and ideologies in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle hold me so rapt, but so I found it.

I remained engaged, entertained, and concerned for the characters, and caught up in what I’m calling Tolstoy’s high drama, for a time. I would say more than half of this tome. But it dragged on too long; he lost me. I couldn’t care for that long. The characters who started off as semi-sympathetic, or potentially sympathetic, or at least interesting, dragged on into repetition and selfishness that eventually bored me; I would have found them, the story, and the writing style more interesting if he had wrapped up a little sooner. And I do not fear the chunky epic novel, either; I’m capable of enjoying books of this length when they keep me engaged.

While I’m on the subject of length, though, I wonder if the audio format was perhaps the wrong choice here. I read faster than the narrator reads aloud. It would have taken me less time to read this one in print, and maybe that would have allowed me to get through it without becoming exasperated. A reader feeling the need to rush through a book is not a particularly strong endorsement, though.

In fact I was tempted to quit. Towards the end I was very frustrated, with Anna in particular, as she descends into jealousy and insanity. I recognize the misogyny in this book (for example, see my earlier Tuesday Teaser), and perhaps it should be interpreted as a compliment to Tolstoy that it was so convincing: Anna increasingly struck me as weak and nagging. I realize the difficulty of her “position” as it is referred to, and her shortage of options. But her continued complaining rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to stop listening to this book; but as I completed disc 27, then disc 28, of 30 (!) cds, I knew I’d come too far to turn back. I had to know how it ended – not because I cared about Anna’s fate, you see, but because I was curious to know if Tolstoy was going to finally engage or impress me, or if his finish pulled something off that I had been missing all along.

And I’m afraid he didn’t. Back to the white text here so you can avoid my spoilers (highlight to read): Anna’s suicide almost relieved me. She was suffering, and she was complaining, and I’m glad she put us both out of our misery. See? I’m sure I missed the point here, but I can only report my own reaction. And as for Levin’s finding of the faith… it happened a little bit too fast for me, although the scene with the lightning was certainly interesting. And to be fair, I’m not your ideal audience for finding-God endings, as I’m a confirmed atheist and just fine with that fact.

I regret that I wasn’t more excited by this one, especially considering the weeks it took me to get through it; but I can’t say I regret those weeks. Now I know. The real question is: is there any chance I’ll enjoy War and Peace, or should I cut my Tolstoy-losses now??

Rating: 4 fancy dresses.

3 Responses

  1. Interesting re. classics not living up to their reputations — I think when writers addressed infidelity and other issues like that back in the day it was much more powerful because it was so seldom acknowledged (though no doubt just as common). Somewhere, awhile ago, I read something explaining how no-fault divorce had essentially ruined the novel — if you can get out of a bad marriage, where’s the drama? And suspense writers have a similar problem with cellphones — if people can communicate with each other, how do you set up all the missed signals? Anyway interesting stuff and I always think it’s worthwhile to read those classics just so you know what people are talking about. I read Anna Karenina a long time ago. Never have had the fortitude to take on War and Peace. Or Moby-Dick, for that matter.

    • Hi Nan! You make an interesting parallel with cell phones in suspense novels, hm. You know, I love a lot of classics, including some much older than this one (hello Homer!). My problems with the classics are far from universal. I think part of the issue comes with heightened expectations. It took me quite a bit of reading and not liking “important” books to find some level of comfort with publicly saying so. It’s like, everybody knows Tolstoy is wonderful, so I’m outing myself as a dunce by saying I don’t, or something. But the fact is, most books are wonderful to somebody, and no book is wonderful to everybody, so I’m trying to just own my own reaction. On the other hand, it’s always possible I’m missing something. And by all means, if I’m missing the big key to Anna (or Dorian Gray or whatever), please, share it!

      I did get through Moby-Dick and definitely missed the boat there, too. 🙂

  2. […] My library copy of the audio came on 22 CD’s. Off the top of my head, I can only remember Anna Karenina being longer; but where that was a painful experience for me (sorry, Tolstoy fans), this was […]

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