Thursday, 22 October 1998
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenin (1876)
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 142
This novel is one of those which is pointed out as the greatest novel every written. It is the quintessence of the Russian psychological novel, stripped of the melodrama of Dostoyevsky and having more to say than Turgenev (and not being heavy on extraneous military history like Tolstoy's other great novel, War and Peace.
It is essentially the story of the psychological development of two characters, Anna herself and Constantine Levin, in many ways a self-portrait of Tolstoy. They are connected through their various relationships with the Scherbatsky family. Levin's best friend, Oblinsky, is married to the middle of the three Scherbatsky sisters, Dolly, and he himself is in love with the youngest, Kitty. But Kitty prefers a younger, more dashing suitor, the soldier Vronsky.
Anna is also a friend of the Oblonskys, and she undertakes to reconcile the two of them following an estrangement which occurs when Dolly discovers that her husband is unfaithful. In the process of doing so, the encounters Vronsky, and the violence of their attraction to each other provides the focus of the novel. Anna abandons her husband and son to live with Vronsky and carry on a fatal affair, which ruins both of them in society and brings great unhappiness as well as a measure of fulfilment.
As has been mentioned, Tolstoy is principally interested in the psychological development of his characters, as he chronicles Anna's disintegration and Levin's parallel growth in maturity following his eventual marriage to the jilted Kitty. The structure of the novel highlights the parallel events in their development, even though they are headed in opposite directions. Levin's story also shares many episodes with Tolstoy's own, and we share something of his increasing understanding of the Russian character as Tolstoy saw it at this period of his life. The chapters dealing with Levin's attempts to modernise his estate are just as important in this as his relationship with his wife.
Tolstoy's genius is such that he keeps your interest for almost three hundred chapters; you are left with an intimate knowledge of a small group of people and the relationships between them.