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.