26 September 2010

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I was going on vacation to Belize with my family, ie was about to spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I decided it was time to tackle the monster. To my surprise, it was a quick, light read - I made it through all 817 pages in 4 days. And for the first 600 pages or so, I thought it was one of the most fantastic books I'd ever read. But as it started to wind down, I found myself a little less taken with it, and started thinking over the whole thing and being a little more dubious. My friend Ruchama put it very well - she said that in general, reading the great Russians, she finds that the agony and angst are very compelling and well described, but the resolutions are invariably unsatisfying. I think I agree, kind of, but that's not really what my problem was. It was more that, thinking back on it, the changes in the characters are actually pretty extreme, and not sufficiently motivated, or rather, kind of skimmed over. I know it seems strange to want more development in an 800+ page novel, but seriously, what happened to Karenin? You know?

What's odd about this feeling is that it's exactly the opposite of my initial sense of the work, where I was enthralled by the way the characters were drawn. It's absolutely incredible, the way Tolstoy seems to know exactly what it's like to be all these different people, and how skillfully he manages to convey it, sometimes with just a few small details. The plot sort of progresses through vignettes, and each of them is worthy of being a short story of its own; they're so vivid, and seem to index so much more than what they concretely describe.

Another thing I appreciated was how un-melodramatic it was, in contrast to what I was expecting. While it's ultimately a novel about passions, it allows the characters some margin of self-awareness, such that they're never on a complete tailspin - even when their actions are. I really, really valued that - the moments when they questioned their thoughts and feelings, even though their behavior was totally hostage to them. Thus, for instance, Levin finds himself jealous, and knows that he's being unreasonable, but just can't really help himself - which is EXACTLY what it's like to be jealous, unlike the usual portrayals where the person seems completely irrational and unaware of it.

The historico-political aspect of the novel was also fascinating, and really well drawn. It was the spiritual side I found rather less compelling, and it's kind of hard to say why. Unfortunately, that's what the culmination of the novel really hitched its wagon to, so the book ended on more of a whimper than I would have liked.

Still though, it's a great, great book.

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