Review: Anna Karenina
By Leo Tolstoy
As promised, I’m starting to share my thoughts and learnings from some of the greatest writers of all times. I started with Leo Tolstoy and one of his major books, Anna Karenina.
It was my first time reading Russian literature, so it was very different from what I read on a day to day basis. It started easy, but eventually, my reading started turning more into a crawl.
There were parts I went through relatively fast, in others it was like walking on slush. I felt the changes of speed had more to do with the topic he was covering than anything else.
I loved Anna’s plot, while Levin’s plot was harder to follow due to the rhythm of the story and some extensive descriptions. It reminds me of Tolkien in some aspects. The Ent forest did come to my mind a couple of times.
Another reason it took me so long was that I read every page twice. Some of the literary artifacts he employs were so profound and meaningful; I wanted to capture them in full. So I read it once, and then backtracked and did a second scan to savor the rich metaphors, dialogs, and meaning.
At every step, he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating; and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.
A defining element of Tolstoy’s writing is the constant use of conjunctions, to stack idea after idea after idea. This makes his phrases pretty long. Some of his phrases are some of the longest sentences in the history of literature.
“It is true that Alexei Alexandrovich vaguely sensed the levity and erroneousness of this notion of his faith, and he knew that when, without any thought that his forgiveness was the effect of a higher power, he had given himself to his spontaneous feeling, he had experienced greater happiness than when he thought every minute, as he did now, that Christ lived in his soul, and that by signing papers he was fulfilling His will, but it was necessary for him to think that way, it was so necessary for him in his humiliation to possess at least an invented loftiness from which he, despised by everyone, could despise others, that he clung to his imaginary salvation as if it were salvation indeed.” — 123 words
The prose is beautiful, but the one thing that stood out for me was the multilayered structure of the story. Tolstoy’s writing stacks layer after layer of knowledge without sounding pedantic. It’s remarkable.
Within the book you can find, not only historical references but political, religious, scientific or philosophical ones. He sprinkles each paragraph with a little of each, building up a multidimensional view of reality that’s envious.
“And don’t all the theories of philosophy do the same, trying by the path of thought, which is strange and not natural to man, to bring him to a knowledge of what he has known long ago, and knows so certainly that he could not live at all without it? Isn’t it distinctly to be seen in the development of each philosopher’s theory , that he knows what is the chief significance of life beforehand, just as positively as the peasant Fyodor, and not a bit more clearly than he, and is simply trying by a dubious intellectual path to come back to what everyone knows?”
All this, on top of an incredible depth of understanding of human psychology. This, more than anything, was what struck me as amazing.
He always attributed to his critics a more profound comprehension than he had himself, and always expected from them something he did not himself see in the picture. And often in their criticisms, he fancied that he had found this.
His capacity to describe the inner world of women, men, upper class, lower class, peasants, artists or writers, is uncanny. He does it by digging deep into each protagonist’s physique.
The dialogs with others and the omniscient voice that narrates each character’s fears, feelings and thoughts, give a 360 vision of each soul. The back and forth between external dialogs and internal thoughts adds one more layer to the complex structure of the book.
“This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith — or not faith — I don’t know what it is — but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.”
All these resources manage to pull you into Tolstoy’s world, into Anna’s reality, into Russian society. The vivid descriptions, human-like characters, and deep metaphors make the story as real as it gets. I could feel myself nodding more than once. Amazed at Tolstoy’s genius for transporting me into such society but still making it feel contemporary.
Anna Karenina is, by far, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Its depth and complexity are astounding. It all seems to come together effortlessly, without being rough or unnecessary. As with any great story, the artifacts are there, but like breathing, you don’t see them except if you’re looking for them.
“Tell your wife that I love her as before and that if she cannot pardon me my position, then my wish for her is that she may never pardon it. To pardon it, one must go through what I have gone through, and may God spare her that .”