Arya of Winterfell’s #CBRV Review #26: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

annaPerhaps this is saving the best for last.  Certainly my biggest feat in reading this year, I started Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the summertime and didn’t finish until December this year.  Again, it’s a SOLID three stars.  Nearly a four.  There’s some good stuff in this tome and it was the pacing of the story (if you come across an abridged version, I figure it might make good sense) and the opportunity to read so many other novels with, shall we say, more modern pacing simultaneously that slowed me down with my first foray into Russian literature.  For me, I did not enjoy tagging along fly-on-the-wall style to all the meetings with Oblonsky and Karenin.  I did enjoy the exploration of marriage and the three case studies offered in Anna & Karenin, Dolly& Stiva, and Kitty & Levin.  I compared this element of Anna to similar explorations of marriage in Austen, but enjoyed the darker elements Tolstoy exposes moreso.

A couple of fave quotes from Anna are here:

ElCicco #CBR5 review #40: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


I read this novel for the first time 20 years ago when I was living in Moscow. Back then, we didn’t have internet access, laptops, or cell phones, and over there, I didn’t have TV or radio either. What I had was a stack of novels (in English) left behind by other Americans and War and Peace was one of them. I would read it at night and I remember absolutely loving it. I decided that it was time to reread and see if my impressions from 20 years ago would hold up. Here goes.

War and Peace is a sweeping epic Russian soap opera with lots of boring commercials. The novel focuses on three noble families — the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs — and their lives during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1813). An historical novel, it includes real historical figures such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and General Kutuzov. The fictional part of the story is great stuff, genuine soap opera fare: rich beautiful people trying to make good marriages and/or spoil others’, girls attending their first balls, guys hanging out and getting in trouble with the law, infidelity, duels, financial ruin and desperate deals. One of the main characters is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously wealthy (and deathly ill) aristocrat. Pierre is constantly searching for the meaning of life (through gambling, drinking, whoring and eventually the Free Masons). Helene Kuragin is the gorgeous socialite/gold digger with questionable morals. Is she beautiful but stupid (the words of her husband) or is she very clever (society’s view)? Prince Andrew Bolkonsky is heir of an esteemed noble family but unhappy in his marriage and eager to leave it behind through military service. Andrew’s sad sack sister Princess Mary is kind but plain. Suitors are willing to overlook that given how incredibly wealthy she is. Mary is also deeply religious and roundly abused by her father, but in her kind and self-deprecating way, she forgives dad and continually offers her suffering up to God. Natasha Rostov is the lively and lovely daughter of a noble family that is falling on hard times. Her brother Nicholas feels constrained by his family obligations and looks forward to military service and a life of camaraderie and honor in the Hussars. A couple of my favorite characters are Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. They are the cads, the rakes, the amoral young men leading lives of dissipation and hedonism. Their scenes are riveting reading. They’re truly bad men.

As a social commentary, War and Peace shows the lives of the rich in all their glamor and ugliness. These are people who reside in St. Petersburg and Moscow when not on their country estates, who speak mainly French and spend a lot of time making advantageous connections for themselves and their children. They attend salons and learn what witty things to say and sport the latest fashions. They gamble a lot and lose more than they can afford. And it is from this pool of people that government and military leaders are chosen, with merit not often playing much of a role in that process.

What throws readers off this novel, in my opinion, is Tolstoy’s coverage of the wars and his long-winded explications of military strategy and history. When Tolstoy follows Prince Andrew and Nicholas Rostov into battle in 1805 and then again in 1812, putting these characters into the action, the descriptions of the battles come alive and we care about the end result (even though you know how it all ends historically speaking). But Tolstoy goes on for hundreds of pages giving the histories of other battles, Napoleon’s exploits in Europe, political history and, in the epilogues, explaining what has been wrong with the way historians do their work. It. is. boring. And I say this as an historian of Russian history. God knows I tried to stay in there through it all, but by about book 10 (15 books and 2 epilogues in this monster), I started to skim the stuff that didn’t directly involve our main characters. And those poor people endure some horrible stuff — deaths (of favorite characters, dammit!), the evacuation of Moscow and the burning of the city, imprisonment. Not to mention the incompetence of their own rulers and generals. The one thing that sticks with me out of the political/military history stuff is that the Tsar was a ditz and his generals were too busy trying to get favor for themselves to really pull it together for Russia. Thank heaven for the Russian winter, strained supply lines, disgruntled French soldiers and Kutuzov’s ability to get the Russians out of Moscow before Napoleon arrived.

So overall, while I mostly enjoyed reading the novel, I think I enjoyed it less than I did 20 years ago. Perhaps not having access to so many diversions back then played a role or perhaps living in the city where much of the action occurs made it more immediate for me. It is a great, sweeping story, full of romance and, in typical Tolstoy fashion, it does end with some of our characters finding meaning not in the material things of life but in their faith in God. And not being so shitty toward the serfs. It still really annoys me that my favorite character died though.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #58: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #11: The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

TKSIf you’re on a train and conversation turns to a sensational recent murder, and one of your fellow passengers tells you he was the murderer in question, what do you do? Shuffle as far away as possible and pretend to be absorbed in your Sudoku book, or drink the dude’s tea and listen to his bonkers take on the problem of sex?

This is a Russian novella, so of course you sit down and listen to him. He’s got a great plan for solving society’s rot: remove sex. That’s right, no more beast with two backs, no more how’s yer father, no more hubba-hubba-way-hey. Let’s just stop it with the shagging.

Weirdly enough, having recently become acquainted with James M. Cain’s tortured heroes grappling with self-justification of hideous acts, there was something similar that resonated in this story. The way the murderer transformed his struggle against inner desires and outward pressures into a moral and philosophical stance has the impeccable logic of the sociopath, and it leaves a deep impression of a pathetic, weakened mind. It’s also hilarious, which is probably not what Leo was going for.

Doris Lessing’s great introduction to this, the oddest of Tolstoy’s creations, provides amazing context to the writing of it. I don’t have it on hand or I could quote her imagining of Leo and the Countess’s grim sex life, and the resulting inferno of guilt that the bearded one lived with. I read it as a way to extend a great drunken chat I’d had with a friend over Russian lit and it worked for that, though afterwards I really just wanted to get back into some nice old Turgenev.