Leo Tolstoy (Translator: Constance Garnett)
Fiction; Classic Literature
Edition: Signet, 960 pgs
Anna Karenina is the classic tale of a married 18th-century Russian woman who falls in love with another man, leaves her husband and child for him, then has to face the consequences of those actions. This was my first Tolstoy to finish (been reading War & Peace on and off for a little while now, but am not even close to finishing) and even though the English translation was choppy, I liked the basic story and admire Tolstoy’s determination to write about a subject so controversial at that time and so far removed from his own life, in that he’s trying to tell what is very much a uniquely woman’s story (a married person falling in love with someone else is not unique to women, of course, but the consequences are certainly different, particularly in the era in which Tolstoy is writing).
I enjoyed this book and it held my attention throughout, but it has some major flaws, the main one being that it’s like flipping back and forth between two entirely different novels. One is the story of Anna and her torment over her love for Kostya; the other is the story of Lev, a familial connection of Anna’s who spends many, many pages giving us every detail of his conflicting emotions over various philosophical, political and sociological points, none of which have anything whatsoever to do with Anna’s story. How are these two plot points related? Good question! I see NO real connection between Lev and Anna’s stories besides the very thin one of their being related by marriage. Supposedly, the character of Lev is based largely on Tolstoy himself, and if so, he should have saved it for his autobiography and not used Anna’s story as a platform for his personal ramblings. It’s not that Lev’s story wasn’t interesting. It was just a different book.
The parts that did relate to exploring the actions and emotions of Anna, her husband and her lover were fairly well done. Aside from the fact that there was too much of Lev’s story and it detracted from Anna’s, it also seemed like Tolstoy had to struggle to try and get into a woman’s head and heart to speak for her. For a man of any generation and culture to try and convey the emotions of a woman is a feat in and of itself, though (and the same goes for women writers who try to write from a male point of view) and he did it as well as can be expected.
I won’t give anything away, but let me just say that I’m also a little conflicted about the famous ending. On the one hand I can genuinely appreciate it as the outcome of one particular story that is not necessarily how someone else’s story with the same events would have ended, but I also can’t help but feel that it’s an almost misogynistic conclusion one might expect from a man of that generation and culture. That sounds so militantly feminist but I can’t help it! That’s just how it struck me. Still, one can’t deny its dramatic effect.
There is a new translation of AK out written by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and it’s been getting a lot of attention via Oprah’s Book Club and book reviewers. I’m not likely to re-read AK anytime soon, but I might pick up their translation of War & Peace to see if it flows better than the one I have. At any rate, everyone is saying that if you’re planning to read English translations of either Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, the Pevear/Volokhonsky versions best capture the original feel.