Friday, October 26, 2012

The train! The train!

After more than a week of reading, I finally finished Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina on this fine Friday night. (Thank goodness for holidays and long weekends, no?) Yes, it's everything that I thought this novel would be.

There are a few points that surprised me though. Much as the main character of the novel is the eponymous heroine, Anna Karenina is also the story of lots of other characters. It is this myriad of voices and streams of consciousness that lets the reader feel fully satisfied by the novel's end.

There's Levin, the unbeliever and spurned lover at the beginning of the novel, who manages to get the girl and come to grips with his faith and belief in the goodness of people. There's Kitty, a noble-born girl, who eventually accepts Levin's love despite her initial rejection of him and becomes a good companion to him as his wife. Of course, this doorstop wouldn't be complete without the rest of their families, countless members of the Russian upperclass, peasants, house help, and artists, among other personas.

Another thing that I found surprising was how the Russian upperclass appear to be "inbred," as they all seem to be related with one another. It's a vicious society, one full of gossip, malice, and an endless parade of balls and dinners. It is this close-knit nature of these people that caused Anna and Vronsky to be shunned when they embark on their relationship.

In whatever angle you look at it, Anna Karenina is still about the scandalous affair of Anna and Vronsky. And it's one of those love stories that seem to be doomed from the start. Anna is married to a man who refuses to grant her a divorce. Vronsky, a man with huge potential in the Russian government, throws everything away just for the chance to love Anna. Two passionate and beautiful creatures amid the unforgiving elite, wherein they used to belong.

Tolstoy did love his parallel story lines. In the novel, running along the love affair is the story of Levin. If Anna were the novel's heart, one can think of Levin as the novel's mind, the thinking character whom Tolstoy uses to communicate his ideas about politics, commerce, and faith. If this novel were titled Levin, it could still work, I believe.

Despite the subplots in Anna Karenina, there's a certain structure to Tolstoy's narrative, with the stories of the main characters complementing one another. When Anna officially leaves her husband to escape with Vronsky to Italy, it is when Levin and Kitty become engaged. Anna's apparent apathy to her love child coincides with Kitty's pregnancy. Vronsky's deterioration goes hand in hand with Levin's enlightenment.

One does feel a sense of accomplishment after reading the last page of this doorstop. It takes stamina to go through Tolstoy's numerous name-switching instances (or maybe this is a common feature in classic Russian novels), his depictions of agricultural life in the country, and the drastic shifts in perspective, to name a few. It's quite a reading experience, if I may tell you, dear readers. And it's one experience that I highly recommend that you go through as well.

Read this book if:

  1. You've never been satisfied with any of the "Anna Karenina" movies. (Believe me, these movies barely scratch the surface of the novel.)
  2. You love Russian doorstops.
  3. You've always been curious about this "greatest love affair ever written."


Anonymous said...

The parts that I really struggle with this novel are the parts that talk about farming. Hence, I cannot appreciate Levin's character yet. I've just finished Part 4. Slow reading is slow, I know. :D

Peter S. said...

Oh yes. Argh! Those farming practices! What is ennui? LOL!