Getting Started with Anna Karenina

When I posted about Madame Bovary a few months ago, I remarked on the oddity of reading a very famous book for the first time–it is, I said, “intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time. . . it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.” My posts on Madame Bovary show me trying to come to terms with “the thing itself,” trying to see for myself just what kind of thing it is. What a foolish thing to attempt, after one reading. How presumptuous! And yet there it was, and there I was, reading it, and a blog post is not, after all, a pronouncement but an encounter. What a relief, for an academic, not to even pretend to be definitive! In that case, too, what a good conversation ensued. If one way to measure the worth of a book is by the quality of the conversations it inspires, Madame Bovary (for all that I didn’t actually like it) is way up there.

One of the many comments that stayed with me from those conversations is Tom’s observation that “I consider Anna Karenina to be a novel of comparable merit that works as a blend of the Eliot & Flaubert approaches, that wants to keep the meaning generated by the full, precise physical world while also finding ways to comment.” Anna Karenina is of course one of those novels I always meant to read, and yet, as with Madame Bovary, somehow I had always deferred actually reading it. You couldn’t make a better pitch for it than Tom did, though, and so I confessed my Anna-less state to my supplier and he set me up with the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which I am now about 100 pages into. But if it’s presumptuous to say anything on a first reading, what could I possibly dare to say after my first reading of just 100 pages?

Not much, actually. For one thing, I’m eager to read more tonight, so I don’t want to use up all my remaining energy here. For another, I hardly know what I think yet. I’m just observing a few things at this point, feeling my way along. My very first observation is that the novel is briskly paced — that surprises me. It is possible that only someone who reads a lot of 19th-century fiction, for work and for pleasure, would think this, but here’s a bit of very scientific evidence on my side. When I was trying to choose what book to read next, I took a stack of options in with me when I joined my daughter for our ritual reading time before her ‘lights out.’ I read her the first few sentences of each of them, and then she and I each scored them out of 10. Of all my options (and they included The MasterThe Line of BeautyA Time of Gifts, and Winter’s Tale), it was Anna Karenina that got the most points. (Mind you, the overall results were somewhat skewed by Maddie’s giving the opening of A Time of Gifts a scornful zero. She and I will take that up again another time!) With Anna Karenina, we knew right away what was happening and who was involved, and we were caught up in the buzz of activity and the stress of the domestic conflict. So far, at my modest 100 page distance, that first impression has held up. There is a light layer of exposition and commentary, but most of it is about the characters, rather than about context or abstractions, and the interpersonal complications just keep multiplying.

Of course, here too I can’t help but read knowing how it ends, and so the foreshadowing at every train station is a bit obvious (“She felt that there had been something in it relating personally to her that there should not have been”). But the other thing that’s obvious is that Anna is not Emma, and so I’m caught up in wondering how this very different woman will live out a plot that is in some ways so similar and yet that already feels so different. Keeping in mind that I don’t know Anna very well yet (we’ve only just had a few scenes told from her point of view, for instance), it’s striking that she enters the novel with a warmth and vitality that is totally missing from Emma – no nasty snaky tongue here! It’s true that she seems less benign and charming when she steals Vronsky’s attention away from Kitty (who then uses the unexpectedly harsh term “satanic” for her)–though it isn’t exactly her fault, she enjoys it all a bit too much. Still, the first active thing Anna does in the novel is to effect a reconciliation between Stiva and Dolly: she advocates forgiveness and love, and that seems like a good thing.

The other detail that stood out for me is that while we hear endlessly in Madame Bovary about Emma’s dangerous penchant for reading novels, Anna finds it “unpleasant to read, that is to say, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.” As a devoted reader myself, I can hardly endorse or sympathize with her position … and yet, again, this seems like a sign of her vitality. When she does settle in to her reading, it prompts her to reflections on her own life: “‘What am I ashamed of?’ she asked herself with indignant surprise.” Imagine the doctor’s wife (actually, either doctors’ wife!) asking herself this question. Self-reflection — another good thing. Whether it will lead to self-understanding, or, more important, to moral understanding, remains to be seen.

6 thoughts on “Getting Started with Anna Karenina

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 7, 2012 / 2:23 am

    Opening my Maude almost at random (staying within the first 100 pages) I immediately find:

    ‘Great heavens! What has happened to his ears?’ she thought, gazing at his cold and commanding figure, and especially at the gristly ears which now so struck her, pressing as they did against the rim of his hat.

    And the paragraph continues in interesting ways, too. I gotta read this book again.


  2. Rohan December 7, 2012 / 10:19 am

    Tom – I flagged that in my copy for further comment too! Of course, nothing “has happened” to his ears, only to Anna’s perception of them. I liked the way Tolstoy shows us both Anna and Vronsky feeling estranged from their ‘normal’ lives when they return to them. There’s a humorous note in those ears too that I found encouraging. Who wants 800 pages without any chuckles, after all?


  3. steve donoghue December 7, 2012 / 1:44 pm

    ALL of my blog posts are pronouncements. Hell, even this comment is a pronouncement.


  4. Stefanie December 7, 2012 / 1:53 pm

    I just read Anna K for the first time two months ago and it was such a good book, completely different than how I imagined it would be. It keeps up that brisk pace pretty much throughout and the interpersonal complications just keep getting more complicated. Enjoy!


  5. Himadri December 7, 2012 / 2:40 pm

    I re-read Anna Karenina for the umpteenth time a few months ago, and, as various posts scattered through my blog testifies, I can’t stop thinking about it. This novel (like Tolstoy’s earlier War and Peace) really does take over your life. My life, at least.

    Although it is often bracketed with Madame Bovary (because they both have an adulterous woman as protagonist) they are very different novels, presentng very different outlooks on life. Tolstoyan figures are extremely complex – by which I mean they have many different aspects to their characters, some of them apparently contradictiory, and yet give the impression of being a unity rather than merely a mosaic of various different characteristics. Anna, as she enters the novel, seems a warm and sympathetic character, especially as she helps patch up Stiva’s & Dolly’s marriage. But not only does she, quite deliberately, take Vronsky from Kitty – she does it deliberately, knowing what she is doing; and she enjoys doing it; and the next morning, she says to herself – exactly as her irresponsible brother had done when his infidelity had been discovered – “it’s not my fault”.

    I won’t go on, otherwise I’d be here for ever! I hope you enjoy the novel.

    Cheers, Himadri


  6. Rohan December 7, 2012 / 3:57 pm

    @Steve, if only we all had your confidence! Actually, it’s just as well we don’t, or we might not be so willing to believe your pronouncements, and then where would we be? 🙂

    @Stefanie, I know you posted on it, but I’m going to put off rereading your posts until I’ve finished the novel. When you first put them up, I just skimmed them, as I knew I’d be getting to it before too long. Knowing you’d enjoyed the novel, though, was one more incentive for me to give it a try.

    @Himadri – take over your life, eh? Well, here’s hoping! I am already very aware of the differences, so I look forward to following the complexities. You have a good point about Anna’s parallel to Stiva. I will be alert to family resemblances as I read on. I like your description of the characters being “a unity rather than merely a mosaic of various different characteristics.”


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