Anna Karenina equals life

Doug over at the Bandarlog is having trouble explaining his love of Anna Karenina:

Anna Karenina is the best book there is. Strangely, though, I find it hard to say anything about it. It’s easier to talk about bad or idiosyncratic novels — you discuss the interesting ways they deviate from the Platonic Form of the Novel — but with Anna Karenina you’re pretty much holding the Form itself. Not that it is austere or unapproachable like a Joyce tome. Tolstoy is warm and welcoming like few other authors. What I mean is …well, there’s an ad campaign underway in New York City, and probably elsewhere, featuring seasoned barhoppers who say “I just had my first beer”, the implication being that until you’ve had Pilsner Urquell you haven’t really had beer. This is false, of course; all the world’s beer comes from the same vast Duff Brewery vat, only leaving via different tubes. But this pretty well captures my experience of reading Anna Karenina at the age of 29 or 30. It blew me away. Some novels had given me as much raw pleasure (the Hitchhiker’s trilogy), and some had given as strong an impression of relevance to my life (Notes From Underground), but the effect of sweeping unvarnished all-encompassing effortless wisdom is achieved nowhere else but here. The problem (for me as a would-be critic) is that I can find nothing to say about how Tolstoy achieves this effect. I look in vain for whatever it is that enraptures me in the book. I have an okay ability to spot the tricks and schticks that authors use to achieve their minor successes, but Anna Karenina’s success is total and seems to involve no tricks or schticks. Any excerpt I pick to inspect gives me the same impression: “Yes, this is exactly how life is, and it is perfectly vivid, and yet I can’t say what it’s doing that a hundred authors couldn’t also do.”

I will admit that I am a bit intimidated by the sheer length of Tolstoy what with Anna Karenina weighing in at 838 pages and War and Peace tipping the scales at 1472! The same goes for Dickens. I was thinking of reading Nicholas Nickleby as part of a focus on Dickens (see here and here) but I am not sure I am up for 800 page plus books these days. Wimpy I know but realistic. Still I hope one day to take up Anna Karenina and Nicholas Nickleby but I ll be honest War and Peace is way down the list.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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5 Comments

  • I read it in college and had to break it into pieces, reading it one-third at a time. What I found most amazing about the book was even after months away from it I found myself engrossed in the story again, almost instantaneously. Further, the fact that Tolstoy manages to draw a teenager in 20th Century America into a story about 19th Century Russia was pretty remarkable.

  • I read it in college and had to break it into pieces, reading it one-third at a time. What I found most amazing about the book was even after months away from it I found myself engrossed in the story again, almost instantaneously. Further, the fact that Tolstoy manages to draw a teenager in 20th Century America into a story about 19th Century Russia was pretty remarkable.

  • FWIW–I highly recommend Galdos and his “Fortunata and Jacinta” if you can find a used copy (all English translations are out of print, I believe). Known as the Iberian Dickens, I much prefer Galdos over his nick’s namesake.

  • War and Peace and Anna K are the two greatest novels of all time. Dickens doesn’t come close. Tolstoy is the Shakespeare of novelists. No prosodist captures life, personalities, interactions as perfectly, effortlessly as Leo (or Lev in Russian). High persons, low persons, and bourgeois are all delineated just so

    The only caveat is the psuedo-philosophical digressions in War and Peace which get tedius and tendentious. Otherwise, that book is awesome, too.

    Funny, though, if Tolstoy tried to learn or practice to write in an academic setting, he would be completely scorned for his style (or lack of it), and his willingness to tell and not show.

  • War and Peace and Anna K are the two greatest novels of all time. Dickens doesn’t come close. Tolstoy is the Shakespeare of novelists. No prosodist captures life, personalities, interactions as perfectly, effortlessly as Leo (or Lev in Russian). High persons, low persons, and bourgeois are all delineated just so

    The only caveat is the psuedo-philosophical digressions in War and Peace which get tedius and tendentious. Otherwise, that book is awesome, too.

    Funny, though, if Tolstoy tried to learn or practice to write in an academic setting, he would be completely scorned for his style (or lack of it), and his willingness to tell and not show.