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Amber Paulen

Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina, so far

13 August 2009


Many books are alike; each great book is great in its own way.

Ha! I couldn’t help myself. Tolstoy’s famous first line runs like a chorus through my mind: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. To read Anna Karenina is like wading through a a delectably temperate pool because, at certain moments one can’t but help diving, full-body in. Immersion. As I read, all of this book’s places and characters and plots and undercurrents, wrap me around in a cozy (and not so cozy) womb: when I read, I am as much there as I am here.

The stature of the book is immediately apparent; even apart from its bulk and weight, no one can doubt that this book is great. I am in love. I am swooning. I am about half-way through, reading hungrily when time allows. It is the kind of book whose end is unthinkable, but of its tragedy I am already thinking, for Richard Pevear in his fine Introduction has already stirred its circumstances up.

Anna Karenina.

She did not want him to say what was not true now. All she had left was his love, and she wanted to love him. “You understand that from the day I loved you everything was changed for me. For me there is one thing only—your love. If it is mine, I feel myself so high, so firm, that nothing can be humiliating for me.”

A love story, certainly, multi-layered, and so far no scenes of love except those similar to the quote above. Anna Karenina is drastic and proud, a woman of high society with curly black hair and white skin. The secrets of herself she holds tremulous as if afraid that at any moment they may break. Her immorality, her depravity (Tolstoy’s words) have now unto forever set her apart. Vronsky seems detached and without strength when compared to her, bearing the weight of their love.

Anna must have been written by a stormy, sensual man: Leo Tolstoy, full of contradictions. Semi-autobiographically he is Levin, also full of contradictions. I like Levin as a character; I like the contrasts he allows between the country and the city, high society and the life of the peasants (though he is no peasant), between someone with high regard for family (his greatest dream) and someone who is watching hers fall apart.

Levin gave Tolstoy the grounds onto which he could develop his own ideas of marriage and love. Levin’s love for Kitty seems so clear and relatively uncomplicated—despite its troubles—when brought next to Anna’s love for Vronsky, which implies great sacrifices and hardships. For Levin, it is love’s consummation he awaits, as Anna awaits its total destruction. Vronsky has become everything to Anna, a completely different everything than what Kitty has become for Levin.

It is through Levin that I try to glimpse at the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife, Sonya (or Sophia or Sofya.) Here Tolstoy’s ideas about women, their place and purpose, show their very deluded face.

About a quarter way through I remembered that Simone de Beauvoir had written bits and pieces about the writer and his wife in her own massive book, The Second Sex. It seems Simone did not think so highly of Tolstoy outside of his great books. Sonya married Leo when she was young, bore him twelve kids and while nursing or child-rearing or pregnant or all three at once, rewrote her husband’s large manuscripts by hand. She was his “echo,” his “shadow” as Simone de Beauvoir points out, the ideal kind of wife according to Tolstoy.1

Of course such beliefs will lead to folly, one can only suppress one’s self for so long. The Tolstoy’s marriage was shaky and ended in tragedy ; a very different kind of tragedy than that between Anna and her husband, Alexei.

In the Introduction, Richard Pevear compares the first drafts of Anna Karenina to the published book. How when Tolstoy began writing he was intent on analyzing Anna’s situation, he gave her a past and used words like “diabolical impulses” to describe her infidelity. Of such explanations and detail “only a few traces remain.” Despite all of Leo’s hang-ups about women we are given a woman who has been left to speak for herself.

From the Introduction:

As Tolstoy worked, he removed virtually all the details of her past, all explanations, all discussions of her motives, replacing them by hints, suggestions, half-tones, blurred outlines.

It is exactly this about Anna’s character, all that we don’t know and all we are left to determine for ourselves—leaving the heaviest questions, those of love and morality, up to the reader to decide—that makes her so powerful as the glowing center of this book. Everything comes back to her and it is against her that we must measure Anna herself and the others.

Sometimes I must wonder about Russian literature, for it has another weight and depth that no American nor European has ever been able to achieve. There is a thicker air to Russia’s books, maybe that’s the air of tumultuous Russia herself, I don’t know, I’ve never been, but would love to go. Whatever it is, whatever quality that this book exudes among others, it is a quality that shouldn’t be questioned too much, shouldn’t be given a name. To tear something apart is a disservice. This book is great.

Despite all of Leo’s shortcomings as a man Anna Karenina is one of those books rarely questioned in its position as one of the lodestones of literature. I am so happy I have four hundred pages to go! As disappointed in that it must end. I hope summer keeps up for those pages: Anna Karenina reads best on a beach.

1 Despite all this, Sonya kept a journal and was one of the first photographers. Pieces of her writing and her photography have been collected in the book: Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina finished thoughts can be found here.



Commentary for Anna Karenina, so far


1 On Monday 14 December 2009 Ellie wrote:

could you please tell me where this quote came from in the book?

“You understand that from the day I loved you everything was changed for me. For me there is one thing only—your love. If it is mine, I feel myself so high, so firm, that nothing can be humiliating for me.”

thank you!!!

2 On Tuesday 15 December 2009 Amber wrote:


I’m sorry but all my books are packed up and this was a quote I pulled out of the book, without keeping track of the page number. If my memory serves me, and I’m not sure if it does, perhaps you can find it when Vronsky shows up at Anna’s before the horse races.


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