Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, via
Reviewed by Christina 
(Pssst! Ingrid reviewed this waaaaaay back in the early days of tBB!  Check it out!)

Published: 1877

It's about: At surface level, this classic is the tragic tale of Anna Karenina's life and death.  Swept off her feet by dashing Alexei Vronsky, she abandons her dutiful family life and her place in society.  The world wasn't set up for a lasting relationship between them, though, and Anna struggles long and painfully to find a place for herself in it.  Her opposite, Konstantin Levin, is a fair-minded, moody, philosophical type.  He's trying to navigate his own more conventional relationships while also working out his ideas about government, agriculture, and religion.  Given that this is a masterpiece, we have plenty of subtle themes and brilliant metaphors to discover, as well as commentary about then-current Russian law, government, societal norms.  All the things you look for in Literature are here in spades.

Alas, my poor attempt at summary is falling short of this wonderful, beautiful novel.  So here's a much more snappy synopsis from the back cover of my movie tie-in edition:  "In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky's consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna's increasing isolation.  The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colorful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together.  Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life."

I thought:  First a little background info, just for fun.  Remember how we had that Anna Karenina swag giveaway back in November?  Well, right around that time I was just the teensiest bit obsessed with the Anna Karenina trailer.  And I REALLY wanted to win that giveaway but I thought it probably wouldn't be ok to rig it in my behalf, seeing as the merch was really intended for the Blue Bookcase readers, not the writers.  So what did I do?  I found a bunch of other blogs that were doing the same giveaway and I entered them.  Kinda pathetic, right?  Only NOT PATHETIC AT ALL BECAUSE I WON ONE OF THEM.  Thank you, Evil Beet!

SO.  That is the reason I read the edition I did, and I have a lot to say about it.  Namely: I wouldn't recommend it.  It's the Maude translation (not a particularly well respected one) and it has no introduction, no character list, no historical context, no author biographical information or timeline.  The footnotes are scanty, providing translations for all the in-text French but not the Latin, Russian, or German.  The Maudes over-anglicize Anna Karenina, changing all the characters' names to their English equivalents: just to name a few, Ekaterina becomes Catherine, Fyodor becomes Theodore, and (most absurdly) Alexei becomes Alexis.  Why retain the patronymics, then?  It's like they couldn't decide what level of Russianness they wanted to maintain.  All this Englishness is especially ironic given that a major theme explored by Tolstoy and his characters is the push-pull between European and Slavic tendencies in Russian culture.  (I guess I should admit that I personally am a bit of a purist here.  It took some willpower for me to not pretentiously put Lev rather than Leo in the title of this post.)

The Maudes continually use "tipsy" where all native English speakers would use "drunk," and translate "Congratulations" literally into "I congratulate you."  There were a bunch of silly, distracting little things like that.  Some of this might be in keeping with quaint 1910's translation fashions, but it's definitely not what I would have chosen if I were going out of my way to choose the best edition of Anna Karenina.  And, since I plan to read it again and again, I'm going to be looking for a better one.  (Recommendations?)

I hardly ever reread anything, but I will definitely read this book again, probably multiple times over the course of my  life.  I love it.  I love everything about it.  I love the fully-developed characters and their detailed inner monologues and their complex relationships with one another.  I love the setting (1870's Petersburg is so hot right now!) and Tolstoy/Levin's political/moral/legal philosophizing.  I love that this book highlights the societal double standards (still existing!) toward male and female adulterers.  So much of Anna Karenina still feels fresh and modern- philosophically, psychologically, politically, thematically, theologically.  Tolstoy's metaphors are subtle, svelte, original.  I can't help but compare Tolstoy with Victor Hugo since I read Les Misérables so recently, and I can firmly state now that I overwhelmingly prefer Russian Realism over French Romanticism.  (Assuming that both novels are representatives of their periods which, from what I understand, they are.)

Verdict: STICK IT ON THE SHELF.  But not this edition.

Reading Recommendations:  It's long.  Let yourself sink in.
About the movie:  I saw it before reading this.  Could I wait, after watching the trailer approximately eighty times in less than a month?  Of course not.  Anyway, I really liked it: it's visually stunning, has a great score, and Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna, Pride and Prejudice) is one of my favorite directors.  But it doesn't hold a candle to the book.  Anna's actions make sooooo much more sense and her relationship with Vronsky is infinitely more complex and passionate in writing than on screen.  And Levin and Kitty are, like, a cutesy little side note in the movie- nothing like the book.  So yeah, definitely read it even if you've already seen the movie.  And read it first if you haven't seen it yet.
See?  Gorgeous.
Warnings:  I guess I can't write "I love everything about it" without a few disclaimers:  near the end of the book, there is some passing, casual antisemitism and one horribly racist line of dialogue.  Shoot, Tolstoy, why you gotta try and spoil a beautiful book?  :(  I'm just going to attribute those things to the flawed characters and not to the author himself.

Favorite excerpts:  "She was not only disturbed, but was beginning to be afraid of a new mental condition such as she had never before experienced.  She felt as if everything was being doubled in her soul, just as objects appear doubled to weary eyes.  Sometimes she could not tell what she feared and what she desired.  Whether she feared and desired what had been, or what would be, and what it was she desired she did not know."

"All that day she felt as if she were acting in a theatre with better actors than herself, and that her bad performance was spoiling the whole affair."

(And LOTS more.)

What I'm reading next:  True Medical Detective Stories by Clifton K. Meador