Book Review, more or less, of ‘Anna Karenina’

This is why Chekhov happened.

He was raised on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and he said no. The loquacious masters had taken epoch-length self-examination and the quest for meaning as far as it could go, so he went with no definite meaning and definitely no endings. Fair enough.

Like Dostoevsky before him and Grossman after, Tolstoy understood a novel to be primarily a journey where a terminus exists for some characters but not for others. All three of them allow as much room as the various characters wish, for introspection, philosophising and crises of conscience. With Dostoevsky these go on so long I want to throw the book at most of the characters and make them eat it. Tolstoy doesn’t give them nearly as much space as that, but there’s still enough going round in circles that you wish he’d found an editor with more time on his hands to do the macro-editing this book needed. Because in truth, you could take 200 pages out, easily, without lessening the impact of the work.

But Tolstoy is worthy of greater distance from Dostoevsky, because he also created characters who change. How could they not, over the course of 800 pages? Well, easily, if you don’t allow events to impact them. But he does, and they do. So although I’m not a big fan of any of the characters, I was still invested in them because they lived in the pages, rather than jumping through their narrative portions.

If Tolstoy was a vain man, the book would be called Konstantin Levin, because the book is mostly about him – the author’s alter ego. His is the relentless introspection, his the development of character, and his the emotional, philosophical and theological conclusion that forms the 20-page coda to the narrative.

But I also think he wrote the character of Anna as a variation of himself. Both characters are hopelessly insecure, very aware of feeling trapped in their milieu, and destructively obsessed with the need to be shown love on their own terms. Even as they both strive to show it to their significant other. Neither can properly be reasoned with, and neither seems able to hold on to mental stability for long. Indeed, Levin is described – by the narrator, not himself – as accomplishing a measure of stability only through living on auto-pilot much of the time.

The end of Anna is unbearable. I don’t like her. The self-absorption, self-conscious pushing away of her daughter, insufferable paranoia about Vronsky’s behaviour, making everything about herself. But she IS also a victim. Partly of society, partly of her personality, and partly of her emotional inadequacy, and her too-late change of mind is superbly executed.

Next time I read it, I’ll keep an eye out for the parallel tracks of the Anna-Levin lives theme. I didn’t notice it until near the end, but realised it was happening just before Tolstoy imbued Levin with the exact same nihilistic thoughts that had just destroyed Anna. And what should concern Levin’s wife after the novel is over, is that her husband’s new-found purpose-through-faith may be a fragile thing. When farming gets harder, and their kids are unresponsive, what is the gap between Levin starting to struggle, and Levin feeling so overwhelmed with life that he wants out?

(This, by the way – the speculating in depth about what happens to the characters afterwards, is part of why this book has to have five stars, no matter how much I might beg for a heavier editorial hand.)

Levin understands, as the book ends, that his newfound sense of purpose, meaning, and a wife whom he centres, is primarily a gift to be clung onto. His suicidality of just a few pages before seems to have been less the bottom of the pit than the running to safety through a curtain of fire.

The other key character is the insufferably self-absorbed, entitled, misogynistic, irresponsible, hypocritical, inadequate Stepan Arkadyich. We read at the end that he is very keen to let people know about his meaningless new job that helped to stave off bankruptcy for the time being. We read nothing, meanwhile, about the impact of his sister’s suicide on him and assume that he cares less about her than the extra bit of money coming his way. Maybe Vronsky wasn’t so bad after all. Culpable as he was in Anna’s demise, his character seems at least partially redeemed by self-immolation, paying for and taking a regiment into a vicious Balkan conflict as a means of ultimate penance.

I look forward to my next expedition into Tolstoy’s canon, and am happy to add my name to the long list of people who regard this novel as a timeless masterpiece that must be re-read.

For the moment though, I need a little Chekhov.

View all my reviews

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