Is there anyone who doesn’t know the basic story of Anna Karenina? Beautiful and beloved society lady, married to older statesman, starts a scandalous affair with a young, handsome and wealthy cavalryman. It really doesn’t end well. The book is over 800 pages long. Quite a lot of it doesn’t even feature Anna, or her husband Karenin, or her lover Vronsky. If the book was truthfully named, it should probably be called Konstantin Levin tries to revolutionise Russian farming, but Tolstoy (or his publishers) were wise enough not to name the book that.
Seriously though, so much of this book is about farming. I get that Levin is the true hero. He’s kind, and virtuous and treats his dependents well. The objection of his affection rejects him in favour of the flashy Vronsky, who in turn rejects her when he becomes determined to seduce and win Anna Karenina. Much of the rest of the book is about political machinations. I studied literature at university, I get that the winters in the 19th Century were long and cold and books were the chief source of entertainment, but dear God, the book is a slog to get through. While I can see that it’s well written and gives an impressive insight into pre-Revolutionary Russia, the main reason I actually persisted and actually finished the book this time (I’ve previously started and abandoned it three times since I was about 15), was partly, BECAUSE I’ve been planning to read this damn book since I was in my early teens, and also because it qualified in no less than FIVE of my various reading challenges. Now I’ve read it, and I never have to do it again.
I have friends who adore this book. While I was struggling to get through it (making myself read at least a hundred pages a day), I also watched the most recent movie adaptation. When you focus on the main story of the Karenins, and the Levins and the Sherbatskys, I can see why it’s a gripping story. It really is a truly tragic love story, and while I initially detested Vronsky, I came to pity both him and Karenin. I just don’t have the patience for all the other guff, with the farming and the politics. Those bits were frequently skim-read, and bored me to tears. I also feel compelled to point out that, in the past, I suspect it was the fact that my mother’s copy of this book is quite an old translation. This fairly recent English translation was beautifully done, and the language was in no way heavy or difficult to get through. Feel free to comment and explain why I’ve completely misunderstood the greatness of this book – I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts. I’m just glad I finally got the book ticked off my TBR list for good.