Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Leo Tolstoy’s famous (and ridiculously long) novel Anna Karenina, which has been translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Set in 19th century Russia, the novel tracks the lives and loves of a whole cast of characters. At the centre of the story is the eponymous Anna, a married woman who begins an affair with the charismatic Count Vronsky. Their relationship ultimately becomes the catalyst for her downfall. There is also Constantine Levin, a landowner who is in love with Princess Kitty, who in turn has her eye on Vronsky.
This is a stunning, sweeping story of epic proportions. Tolstoy manages to cram so much plot and character development into the narrative that it seems impossible for me to write about them fully. So instead I have decided to focus on the characters of Anna and Levin in my review, as they are the two main players and I feel best exemplify Tolstoy’s writing prowess.
The characters are incredibly well-developed. Both Anna and Levin at first appear likeable, interesting people. You cannot help but sympathise with them at the beginning, especially Levin during his early scenes with Kitty. His love for her is evident, but so is her attraction to Vronsky and as a reader you cannot but help pity him and his inevitable heartache. Yet as the novel progresses, we begin to see their flaws. Anna and Levin seem to have the same insecurity, namely jealousy which threatens to destroy their respective relationships. In these moments I felt frustrated at them, and began to even dislike them. By the end I wasn’t sure how I felt about either, the complexities in their characters making them simultaneously admirable and flawed, but ultimately human.
The language as well is beautiful. With translated work I’m never sure how much credit goes to the author or translators, but regardless here it was stunning. The descriptions of the natural world in particular were very evocative, and I liked how the seasons were used as a device to reflect characters’ moods at various points. The scything scenes with Levin are perhaps my favourite passages. They showed how difficult the work could be but also how fulfilling. It felt almost calming reading about it, Tolstoy describing the surroundings and the men working in the fields. There was something languid that recalls sunny days in the countryside.
Tolstoy also discusses Russian society during this period. There is notably the hypocrisy of an elite group avoiding being seen with Anna, when they themselves had affairs with apparently no consequence. He also talks about the changes in farming, mainly due to technology. This is often debated between Levin and his fellow landowners. Yet these conversations are not dry and dull, but are rather fascinating and show a snippet of life from that period. It is interesting to reflect on the developments described in the novel, and our own technological advancements.
I could probably write a 10,000 review on Anna Karenina and still be unable to do it justice. Initially I was apprehensive about picking it up, mainly due to its size. However it is a classic for a reason. The characters are so well fleshed-out and believable that I didn’t want to leave them by the end. I became so invested in their journeys that I could’ve read more. The prose is amazing, and how Tolstoy weaves the story of a nation into a story of one group of people is incredible. There was never a dull moment and I highly recommend it.
Anna Karenina is published by Vintage and you can find more information here.