Saturday, May 9, 2015

Book review – Anna Karenina

I finished reading the book day before yesterday and yesterday, I had nothing to read! It takes a little getting-used-to to appreciate the language and style but once you get the hang of it, you cannot put it down.

As you might glean, the novel is about the love and life of Madam Anna Karenina who at the time of her introduction is married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a Russian Government official and a devout Catholic. The novel, however, is also about the lives and loves of Anna’s friends and relatives, who play an important role in the novel itself if not in the life of Anna.

Leo Tolstoy in his life as royalty and landowner has had many passions and inadequacies. Although during the time frame this novel has been written and published in installments, he was a man happily married to Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was sixteen years his junior, he went on to look at his work as an act of spirituality and his wealth a means of uplifting the poor. The various characters in the novel closely resemble stages of his life being a compulsive gambler (Yashvin), an officer in the Russian army (Vronsky), a member of Russian royalty (Vronsky, Stiva, the Shcherbatskys), and a budding revolutionist (Levin).

The novel set in the seventeenth century Russia, the moral, religious and financial conditions of which I am completely ignorant not being a history enthusiast, is sure to have been revolutionary and today, it sure is thought provoking.

Anna is portrayed as an intelligent and conservative woman married to an autocrat who is nine years her senior and a very eloquent statesman. Karenin however proves deficient in expression of love and tenderness although it is later known that there certainly is no deficiency in his possession of these emotions and others like devotion to both his family and religion, and compassion arising from the very devotion and love Anna fails to observe and understand. Anna is perfectly content as his wife and the mistress of his household managing their private and social affairs in an economical yet impressive manner even though she is subconsciously under the illusion of being in a loveless marriage. Her love for her son, Sheryozha, is seen as tender and precious even, both at the beginning and towards the end of the novel. She is also seen as a devout catholic and a mother figure when she convinces her brother’s wife Dolly (Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya) to forgive Stiva(Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky) his unfaithful acts and reconciles them saving their marriage.

Levin is the turned down suitor, but later the husband of Kitty (Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya) who is initially courted by Vronsky before he gets distracted by Anna. He is a landowner, a compassionate and an ethical master but is frustrated with the emancipation of peasants from serfdom because he believes that peasants left unsupervised and unrestricted would only work towards their own ruin. He is however averse to the idea of formal education advocating it as a waste of time. Education according to Levin is for the intelligent, the cream of the society, and peasants would only bumble through the formal process and go back to being ignorant. Tolstoy must have written Levin as an abstraction of himself with maybe a few minor differences. Another similarity between the life of Tolstoy and the character Levin is his giving of his journal to his future wife, which is the cause of temporary but profound unhappiness for the bride to be. There is no other mention of this journal or its contents in the rest of the novel.

Levin believes his own self to be an atheist and is greatly pained at having to receive the “Benediction and blessed Sacrament” which is compulsory for the purpose of getting wedded, but when in helpless situations, he is seen to call upon God to help and protect his wife and child. Towards the end of the novel, Levin is seen to understand and contemplate God as a spiritual phenomenon and although he struggles to achieve the oneness of his spirit and mind, he is content to have had a glimpse of the light as he calls it.

The book ends abruptly with Anna committing suicide in a vengeful attempt to hurt Vronsky, Karenin legitimizing the daughter of Anna and Vronsky, Levin contemplating his spirituality, and Vronsky volunteering for, what I can only guess, the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78).

Had Tolstoy written this novel 30 years later, we might have seen Vronsky’s character evolve from being a soldier, lover, activist and a society man into a mature politician and maybe a loving father. Anna might have given up her idea of suicide and tamed her passions and Karenin might have divorced her if only after an intense emotional turmoil. Levin might have evolved too into Tolstoy himself and the marital bliss with Kitty which is the highlight of Levin’s character may have been disturbed. Anna, herself tiring of Vronsky’s passions and his assertion of independence might have left him and lived independently teaching, writing, travelling and doing great things for which you will see a great potential through out the characterization. Sheryozah may have grown up to either pity or hate his mother or play an important role in her life. There is no end to imagination after the fact, is there?

I personally neither anticipated nor appreciated the death of Anna Karenina. The existence of a woman of Anna’s composition and caliber in a society as in the nineteenth century, I felt was quite trivialized by her sudden, misguided and tragically successful attempt at death. Having said that, the probability of Annas of the world doing away with themselves is higher than them turning around and giving greater meaning to their lives. In that Tolstoy indeed did justice to the plot.

I, particularly, liked and respected Karenin. Dolly is a perfect representation. Stiva, I hated like I hate all Stivas of this world. What I found interesting is my indifference to Vronsky. He was always insignificant, meant to fade away somehow or the other. I would have liked that. Yes, I would have liked for Anna to leave Vronsky but of course!

I cannot read and write Russian but I would like to believe the translator Constance Garnett did complete justice to the Russian masterpiece.

Background image sourced from Spellbook 03 HD Pictures