There’s something mysterious about that little Russian social novel. There’s an intangible quality, a feeling in the air every time I open it. Tolstoy writes with a knife: he cuts to the heart of the matter, drags you into every moment with diamond clarity. He gives that psycho-social panorama to his scenes that I’ve only seen in other A-Listers like Flaubert, Eliot, Woolf, Joyce and Wallace, but, mechanically speaking, he writes so much worse than them. Pick any passage in the novel– the man is goddamn blunt. But no novel has ever sucker-punched me or held me under its spell the way this one has. It’s been five years and I’m still reeling.
In grade 10 my aunt gave me a book I’d never heard of before– “oh yeah, he’s the guy who did War and Peace, right?” Aunt replies, “this one’s much better.” And from its “happy families” opening line, I was hooked.
Finished in 1876, Anna Karenina is the key social novel of the late 1800s. All of the conventions are there– massive in scope and complexity, being full of surprises yet equally full of the completely mundane, the fallen woman, the young/old divide, the city/country divide, examinations of social ill, and a presentation of every emotion on the human spectrum (life/death/marriage/divorce/despair/joy/bureaucracy– you get the idea). At the same time, the novel is so much bigger–so much grander– than your average novel in the 19th Century: this is Tolstoy we’re talking about here, he either goes big or goes home.
One of the unique aspects of the novel is that the first hundred pages are really a separate mini-novel. Oblonsky is a man of the world who can’t get a break: his wife always seems to find out about his mistresses! Can’t she just let him be and give him his fun? Well, this time she’s set on leaving him, oh what will he do? Time to call in his noble sister Anna Karenina to settle things.
The novel presents a more convincing window into domestic life than any novel I’ve read– all the joys, the miseries, the contradictions of its characters are on display every page. Tolstoy approaches descriptions with blithe and unfaltering honesty: Oblonsky admits to himself his wife is aging; his wife, Dolly, admits the same, and in doing so admits how distressingly behaved her children are. From page two, Tolstoy’s characters are hopelessly failing everything they’ve promised they would do, and for the next eight hundred pages you’ll continue to watch them screw up and screw up and screw up again– and love and hope and pray that next time will be different. In showing them for what they are, they become just like any of us. Most great novels create shivers of recognition in its readers: in Anna Karenina you’re freezing from the resemblance.
Every scene fleshes itself out, but connecting each of these scenes are pathways and events linked together; the eighty characters form an ecosystem of Russia that breathes like no other world. The events in the country and the city talk to each other in murmurs, so you’re always aware of the invisible bonds connecting humans in the work. Time passes like it does in no other novel: over the five years of the events, people die babies are born; husbands that are unfaithful may remain unfaithful, but steadfast decisions or vows to lovers may grow weak or die as they grow old; a drinking problem might become destitution, or a nagging thought at the back of the brain might become unbearable.
So from the first hundred pages, Tolstoy’s already presented the fundamental incongruities of married life in the microcosm of a single incident. What he does in the next seven hundred is the macro: a fulfillment of everything wrong and everything great about what happens when people get together and when people fall apart. Two peripheral characters now take the main stage: Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin. In society’s eyes Anna has everything– beauty, a wonderful boy, a wealthy-as-hell husband, social grace and a refined intelligence– while Levin has nothing– little wealth, an empty estate, middle-aged without a wife, a farmer who in society says all the wrong things to offend all the right people. Anna tells Dolly to stay with her husband regardless of how unhappy she is, while Levin gives his heart to the young Kitty, who instead falls in love with the dashing Vronsky. The two parallel storylines will progress as Levin’s fortunes rise and Anna’s falls.
Because Anna is completely and utterly miserable. In my mind Anna Karenina is the perfect novel of the developed world; showing that you can have everything, everything in the material world and still be desperately unhappy. Anna’s despise of her husband and all her friends doesn’t become apparent until she falls desperately in love with Vronsky. Swept off her feet, Anna abandons everything for him– husband, home, son– placing any and every chance of happiness in her all-consuming passion for the young cavalry officer.
“Everything is finished; I have nothing left but you, remember that.”
When people see Anna Karenina, they think of long-winded social passages and trudging pastoral scenes. But Anna’s story is as passionate a love story as any– as violent as Wuthering Heights, as hopeless as Romeo and Juliet.
As society turns on the lovers and Anna is denied seeing her son, her love becomes ever more frantic and volatile, until her biggest enemy is herself. Tolstoy’s writing is never stronger than in the last couple hopeless chapters of Anna’s narrative, with Anna alone among her thoughts, as she finds every excuse to despise her lover and the perverted world in which they find themselves. It’s a riveting stream of consciousness fifty years before that phrase was ever coined, spiralling towards that final resolution. And that final famous moment which I won’t spoil here? Jaw-dropping, sickening, overwhelming and encapsulating. Tolstoy’s powers to transport and inhabit supersede themselves here. It’s a moment in reading I’ve never had before or after.
So that’s Anna Karenina. But she only takes up half the space of a novel named after her. Another unique thing about the novel is the parallel storyline. Levin’s storyline is the balancing act– here’s where you get the pastoral scenes. It’s his chapters which famously puts people off; while Anna’s romping around Europe throwing vases at people, Levin sits at home and broods about how much his life sucks. One famously lambasted scene depicts Levin mowing the lawn for twenty pages. Yeah, I know, I get it. It’s a novel that takes some patience.
But rewards you for it. As Anna’s storyline gets darker, it almost becomes too much to bear all at once, only to suddenly jump to Levin and his blossoming romance with Kitty. The novel’s final vision is not one of despair; just life, and life only. Levin’s son is born moments before Anna’s final chapters. In a scene of overwhelming joy and fear, Levin leaps from Moscow’s rooftops. Life and death juxtaposed. Meanwhile, the scene Kitty falls in love with him– with them writing anagram-confessions as people chatter about Anna around them– is one of the most undermined and gorgeous love scenes in all of literature. So yeah, the farming scenes pay off (I promise!)
Tolstoy was inspired to write the novel after witnessing the mangled body of the mistress of a wealthy Muscovite. He planned on making the work a fearsome moral tale about immorality and the dangers of sex: Anna a scheming dirty woman who got what came to her. But the moment he put her down to pen, he became as enraptured by her as her lover. Exploring into her world, he realized it was society around her– and their expectations of what a woman should be– who were the perverted ones, society who tore her apart. Anna lives in spite of and beyond the timeframe she’s placed. She becomes a symbol of all those who dream of something more; all those looking for happiness in all the wrong places. She’s her most lovable when she’s the least likable, and in wishing she speaks beyond the centuries.
The famous story is that Levin is Tolstoy, but I think both characters are just the halves of his psyche. Anna is his passion, Levin his reason. The one cannot exist without the other. Those characters have carried me through ever since (sometimes I’m probably a little too ‘Anna’ for my own good, yet Levin is always there with his critical sarcastic edge.) In Vancouver, Winnipeg, or Paris, they’re there with me.
I used to think that stories were about plot, and that books– though enjoyable– had nothing more to tell us than movies, music, video games could. Anna Karenina changed everything. It’s not about setting or plot: it’s the characters that inhabit the world, the characters dragged along by the fate of the turning page. A novel’s not worth shit if it’s not people who inhabit its pages. And it was Anna Karenina that taught me what a novel can do that no other medium can. The rust of those train tracks, the roar of the engine: you’re there– body, mind, soul.
The study of western literature has its origins in the theological study of scripture: scholars studied the scripture in order to reveal its heavenly secrets, and thus lit-studies are seen the same way today. It makes sense, then, that Anna Karenina is the first novel I ever really peered into– tried tearing apart to reveal the secrets of what makes it so much greater and truer than anything else I’ve read. Because the novel is to me what the Bible is to others: showing the way, giving me at least an idea of what the hell this is all about. You might think my faith in this book goes way to far, but I wouldn’t want to be a writer if I didn’t believe it was true.