There are some novels whose titles you know long before you know their characters, narrative or ending. They fill you with intrigue, but also a sense of dread and a teeny, tiny bit of fear of the unknown; titles such as Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Yes I am aware I have named all Russian novels, perhaps it is something to do with studying and teaching English Literature, or BBC adaptations, who knows! Having conquered two of these massive Russian tomes (I read Crime and Punishment last year) it is safe to say they still fill me with a little bit of fear, mainly because I don’t think I understand or appreciate them as much as I should do.
Anna Karenina follows our eponymous heroine’s fall from grace after her not-so-secret affair with a cavalry officer, Alexei Vronsky. Anna, consumed by her all encompassing passion, abandons her husband, who is a senior statesman, her young son and her prestigious position in Russian society. Shockingly enough, adultery was frowned upon in late nineteenth century Russia, so Anna becomes our tragic fallen woman, overcome with jealousy and fear that Vronsky will eventually leave her for another woman. In her desperation she turns to opium abuse, and needless to say does not fulfil her ‘happily ever after.’
One of my best friends read Russian Studies at University and as soon as I saw the trailer for the upcoming film version of Anna Karenina I just knew I needed to read it before we ventured to the cinema, so I borrowed her copy of the novel, and spent a good fortnight lazing in our brief British summer sunshine wrapped up in 1870s Russia. Having finished it last night, and being keen to write my blog before I become enthralled in my next read, I sit here now with mixed feelings towards the novel, unsure quite how to sum up my own thoughts and feelings, so I am going to ask and answer a few questions to help this all make sense.
Did I enjoy Anna Karenina?
Overall I did enjoy this novel, however my enjoyment came in waves. When I first began reading I quickly became engrossed in the narrative and the characters; I enjoy a romantic style saga in the ‘ X loves Y, who in turn loves Z’ variety, and this what I got in the love triangle of Kitty, Levin and Vronsky, which led the way for the Vronsky/Anna love affair. I enjoyed Tolstoy’s use of foreshadowing in the love affair, and how he leaves little clues as to the fate of the two lovers. Anna evoked my sympathy as she slowly became eaten up with jealousy and regret at having to abandon her son. Yes, you can argue she deserved this because she was the one who committed adultery, but the double standards of affairs are explored in the form of Anna’s brother, and as is clear with most literature of the period, it is always the women who suffer the most for giving in to their passions.
So why do I have mixed feelings for Anna Karenina?
And this is the crucial question. I admit that I enjoyed the novel, I loved reading about Anna’s fate and the narrative that focused on her brother, Stiva, however I constantly felt myself drifting away in the sections involving Levin, and unfortunately for me, this was a large portion of the novel. I don’t care if this next statement makes me seem like a philistine, or that I need a trashy plot to cope with novel, but i do NOT care for farming or politics in rural 1870s Russia. I understand that Levin is essentially a narrative device for Tolstoy to promote his own political views, but for me the novel would have been far more enjoyable if it had solely focused on Anna, and did not go off on these farming tangents. Luckily this has not put me off seeing the film, I just hope the tragedy of Anna and her passionate love affair gets the majority of the screen time, I think I will be falling asleep in the cinema if I have to watch any of Levin’s farming dilemmas.