Anna Karenina, a mixed reception

We discussed Anna Karenina last evening. Tolstoy apparently described his book as sentimental, ‘serving no purpose’ and ‘bad’. Writerly modesty? Nerves? Depressive reaction?

At a simple level I would agree that there is sentimentality in Anna Karenina, but I can see no reason why a book should have to ‘serve a purpose’ and something that has stood the test of time and criticism so well is surely not ‘bad’.

That said, several of our group were not impressed, at least two had given up at an early stage, some were barely half way. Others felt (as I did) that Anna was not the main character, though the consequences of her actions created fallout for most of the other characters. The characters, as depicted by Tolstoy, would have survived and behaved as they did if Anna had not even existed. This, for me, was the most potent effect of the book. Each of the main characters whirled on his or her own axis, internally consistent, baffled, enraged, delighted by the other characters, but not changed. This does not mean that they did not develop, only that their development was internally driven.

All the major characters went in for thought, and boy did they think a lot. Large tracts of the book are taken up with internal monologues. But this is how we are – at least this is how I am. Life is an endless guessing game, through which we each have to navigate solo, but some of us are luckier in our companions than others. Anna is unlucky; Kitty and Levin lucky. Others, such as Vronsky, Alexei, Sergei, Stiva, and Dolly have mixed luck in their companions, but vary a great deal in the uses they make of it. There is some inconsistency in the characters and their behaviour, but I buy that too. I think that is real, though a modern writer would struggle to get away with this.

We were an elderly bunch discussing the book and there was short shrift given to ‘the passions of youth’ and little sympathy for Anna, who was seen as choosing sex (though no one spelled it out) over her love for her son. For me there was something timeless and classical, about Anna’s situation. In a marriage in which passion played no part, she was as much a victim of passion when is hit her as Phèdre (c’est Venus as sa proie toute entiere attaché), consumed by Venus before she had understood the danger. From then on, there were no right choices for her and tragedy was inevitable.

Levin, like Anna, came in for some stick. His prickly behaviour, mood changes and endless existential angst made some want to strangle him, for others he was a loveable innocent – and the main character. On reflection, I can’t think of many characters I felt fond of (Agafya springs to mind), though I had no trouble feeling sympathetic.

As we were an all-female discussion group, it’s no surprise that Vronsky was dismissed as, not so much the villain more, the standard badly-behaved man. Stepan – Stiva, in the same grouping, was barely mentioned. Personally, I thought Stiva’s mixture of self-absorption and charm was interesting, and the dinner party where he mixed tricky personalities and managed to smooth social discomfort, was one of (or the?) book’s highlights. But would such a selfish man have had the empathy to behave like this? If he had empathy, would he really have treated Dolly as he did? I guess empathy and selfishness are not mutually exclusive, a successful con-man would possess both. Alexei, got less attention than expected. An essentially unlovable character, Tolstoy works hard to give him his due without, at any stage hiding his cruel and vulnerable self-justifying behaviour.

On the whole Tolstoy avoided authorial generalisations – but sometimes as here… ‘This playing with words, this concealment of the secret, held great charm for Anna, as for all women.'[my italics] he succumbs to a personal belief. Tolstoy also tackled such a vast number of existential worries, that you could take home any number of ‘messages’ from the book and adapt them your own belief system, perhaps that is one reason for it’s enduring popularity. Towards the end, talking of Levin, he says. ‘He lived (without being aware of it) by those spiritual truths that he had drunk in with his mother’s milk…’ (culture). Yet Levin goes on to worry that if he did not know that he should live for God, not for his needs: ‘I would rob, lie, kill.’ Yet again he also recognises the essential fallacy of this statement as he realises that other religions, other outlooks don’t make people more or less likely to rob, lie or kill.

This has now become a ramble on the experience of reading Anna Karenina, so I shall stop. I am glad to have read something that both daughters have so consistently praised. I may post again after discussing the book with them.

2 thoughts on “Anna Karenina, a mixed reception

  1. I like this book.
    With respect to characters’ thoughts it is surely the case that Tolstoy uses Levin to give us his views on the running of estates and the resistance of the peasants to change.

    • You are absolutely right. I knew too little about Russia of that period to give the sociological/political dimension proper attention. Also, though I am antipathetic to the notion that fiction is autobiographical, I did sense that I was hearing Tolstoy’s views of the world, particularly through Lenin.

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