Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I brought Anna Karenina with me on our flight to San Francisco last weekend, thinking that only being in a confined space with no other options would bring me to read more Tolstoy. Even though a course in nineteenth-century Russian literature had completely convinced me I liked none of it, I still felt obligated to read Anna Karenina at some point in my life, and I arbitrarily decided that this was the time.

And I am forced to admit that it is a much better book that I was expected. Dare I even say that it might be one of my favorites? Who ever would have thought a Russian, Tolstoy no less (one of the least-liked authors I read that semester), would have written a book that I have been reading with joy? Because that is exactly what I have been doing, despite even the slightly controversial Constance Garnett translation.

Tolstoy’s insights into marriage are like layers of tiny revelations to me. Having never been married, of course, I couldn’t really say whether he was right. And of course, things have changed pretty significantly since 1873. But I keep feeling, as I read on, that I’m being made privy to some kind of secret knowledge about marriage and love, and I am struck by how accurately and beautifully Tolstoy manages to describe the range of emotions people experience during moments like weddings and childbirths and, yes, the dissolution of a relationship. And yes, I do know the ending, because it’s pretty darn hard not to when a book is as discussed and loved as this. And yet, despite knowing what is going to happen, I still feel engaged enough to want to know why, to know how Tolstoy brings about this chain of events, and how he describes these characters’ reactions. I guess I finally have to concede that there is something worthwhile in these old, dead Russian mens’ stories.

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