Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky

With an occasional break, it took me five months to finish the 800 pages of “Anna Karenina”, which more accurately might have been called “Anna Karenina and a Guy Named Levin”. Anna leaves her husband and son for the love of the dashing Count Vronsky. She comes to a very bad end. Levin is a philosophical, unsophisticated landowner who marries Kitty. She turned down Levin’s first proposal because she was in love with Vronsky. 

At the end of the novel, without any relation to Anna’s suicide, Levin decides that he has found some meaning in life after one of his workers tells him that some people remember God and live for the soul, while others are self-centered and greedy. He concludes that the good cannot be discovered through reason, because it is unreasonable. We learn what is good as little children and, in order to be happy, we need to accept what we were taught, without thinking too much, since “the good is outside the chain of cause and effect”. The church teaches “the main thing – faith in God, and the good, as the sole purpose of man”.

In the final two pages, Levin asks himself how to resolve the fact that millions of non-Christians have different religious beliefs than he does. He quickly decides that he doesn’t have the right or even the ability to resolve such a question. He concludes by observing that his life “has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it”.

Tolstoy writes some very interesting passages of internal monologue, presenting what the different characters are thinking about their current situations or the conversations they’re having.  Overall, however, the novel is plodding. In addition, Anna’s and Levin’s stories might as well be in two different novels (they only meet in one chapter).

One reason the novel moves so slowly is that Tolstoy often goes off on uninteresting tangents, during which he presents some aspect of Russian society or culture, which must have been of more interest to his contemporaries. Anna, for example, disappears for long stretches, while Levin muses about such topics as Russian farming practices.

I probably should have expected not to enjoy “Anna Karenina” very much, because when I read “War and Peace”, I enjoyed the war and was often bored by the peace. There is no war in “Anna Karenina”, except in Anna’s and Levin’s souls. That may be one justification for telling their stories in the same novel, and makes some of the novel worth reading, but not enough of it.  (9/6/10)

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