May 9, 2015

Anna Karenina

As you might have noticed from my profile, I’m a big fan of 19th century literature. (I know, science fiction and the 1800s? Doesn’t really gel. Maybe I should go into steampunk?) I’m currently working on a novel that takes place in Victorian London, and I’m reading even more books from or about that period than usual.

Henry Mayhew’s London Characters and Crooks is wonderful, by the way. If you’ve ever wanted to time travel to the Victorian era, grab a slice of seed cake and some punch and dive on in. Did you think Dickens was exaggerating about how awful the living conditions of the poor were? Spoiler: he really wasn’t.

Okay, okay, getting to the point now.

For something a bit different, I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina before I dived into my next “research” book. It’s funny how different it is to read purely for enjoyment, and then suddenly start to read like a writer. It’s like dissecting the book as you go, trying to see what the writer is trying to accomplish. It’s different, but just as fun, and maybe even more rewarding at times than just immersing yourself in the narrative.

So here are some of the things I noticed. Right or wrong, I dunno. You can make up your own mind. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the book.

Tolstoy explores different kinds of families and romantic relationships in the book. There’s Anna Karenina, who is married to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin and falls for Count Vronsky (first name also Alexei, just to make it more confusing), Anna’s brother Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky, who is married and cheats on his wife Dolly, and the young couple Kitty (Dolly’s sister) and Kostya Levin, a landowner.

I thought that Stiva was used as a mirror for Anna; both cheat, but Stiva’s wife forgives him and everything is fine again. Anna, however, is a social outcast after her affair with Vronsky is revealed. This points out the double standard: when a man cheats, it’s almost expected, but when a woman cheats, she’s forever stained and cast out of society.

There’s also a nice variation of relationships in different stages and how they contrast with each other.  The first love and honeymoon stage, a loveless marriage etc.

Another technique i.e. “writer trick” I noticed was the foreshadowing of Anna’s death. Right at the beginning, a man is crushed by a train. Then there’s a scene about Vronsky at the races, where he loses his favorite horse and she dies. Right before Anna throws herself under the train, we’re reminded of the man from the beginning.

Some of the metaphors were also intriguing. They evolved as the scene moved on, taking different forms, saying different things.

One thing I also liked was the contrast of Levin witnessing the death of his brother and the birth of his child: powerful stuff. And talking about contrasts, there was also the juxtaposition of city life and country life.

I found it interesting that some of the characters have very English nicknames, like Kitty and Dolly, and most of the nobility spoke French at home. There are French phrases sprinkled into the book, and also some English ones. I started reading this in English, but the translation was so poor that I switched to Finnish about halfway through. Another lesson learned: you cannot trust English translations, you need to do your research, even with the classics.

As with many books from this period, there was also some exploration of society and religion, here it was mostly presented through Levin, who tries to make his farming endeavors successful and had a crisis of fate, but I feel that’s not really the point of the book. This wasn’t too bad, actually, not compared to Victor Hugo’s ode to the Parisian sewers in Les Misérables.

The ending I didn’t really like that much. It’s great until the death of Anna, but then it’s fifty pages of rambling about inconsequential things, and just a brief glimpse of Vronsky. I’d have liked to see more of Vronsky; after all, his relationship with Anna is the heart of the book. Well, you can’t have everything.

So, that’s my thoughts on the novel. Have something to add? Feel free to comment.

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