Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina

A famous legend surrounding the creation of Anna Karenina tells us that Tolstoy began writing a cautionary tale about adultery and ended up by falling in love with his magnificent heroine. It is rare to find a reader of the book who doesn't experience the same kind of emotional upheaval: Anna Karenina is filled with major and minor characters who exist in their own right and fully embody their mid-nineteenth-century Russian milieu, but it still belongs entirely to the woman whose name it bears, whose portrait is one of the truest ever made by a writer.

Comment: I was given this book as a birthday gift last year and I was quite surprised. I obviously had this book to read in the pile but I was leaving it for a later date. I feel quite glad I managed to read it now but I confess I couldn't dissociate my personal opinions from what I was reading in order to be impartial.

This is the story of Anna Karenina and those around her in the journey from being attracted to a man not her husband and an end that no one would expect. In between, there are many other characters contributing to /interacting with a situation that isn't pleasant to live in. The book also shows us a portrait of a Russian society that is hypocritical and not always easy on those who think different, being it in a  good or bad way.
We also have some philosophical issues and political ones, things quite pertinent in a time (19th century) when Russia was still seen as the land of czars and princes. 

As I said above, my personal opinions truly colored my impression and my reading of this book and, obviously, of what I was thinking about the character's actions and attitudes.
I think I need to distinguish between the two aspects that sort of divide the book: the fictional romantic liaisons and its web of situations and also the political/philosophical/cultural aspects related to Russia and the author's thoughts.

Something I particularly liked was the introduction included in my edition's copy. The professor who wrote it pinpointed some interesting details which I'll try to mention here as well because it did help me to organize my thoughts.
Like I said, some of the elements in the book work as explanations of what was the current thought at the time and how Russia was seen through others, how society was and which was the behavior considered the norm. The author clearly used what he saw around him as an inspiration to write this novel about Russia. I really think, in one way, this book is heavily centered on what it meant to be a Russian citizen at the time, what was expected of men and women there.
There is quite a content which includes political views and also cultural references that allow us, the reader, often too distant from that reality to fully understand it, to imagine how things worked. I actually liked the content and the ideas but I have to admit it was a struggle sometimes for two reasons: because things were always connected to the characters opinions/behavior and also because the writing wasn't always fluid. Some ideas are difficult to grasp but I think it offers a great vision about how the author really felt about certain things.

All reflections aside, of course that what matters the most here is the fictional tale of Anna Karenina and her life, her connections, her choices. This book has been published in many countries, has had many adaptations which means the story has conquered many readers out there. I was curious but to be honest, I disliked some characters and their choices enough to the point that it made me angry and wanting to hit some of them at times.
I think many characters were annoying, silly and selfish, often immoral and I almost got the feeling all of them had too much free time and didn't care about serious things and acted without any conscious drive or interests. It irritated me to no end how most of them mocked good people. I know this was simply an example of what certainly happened in real life but it truly bothered me how people just didn't care about others and most people in a good enough position in the social ladder would act in such a disrespectful way.

Anna herself started well, I wasn't fond of her but didn't dislike her. She was seduced and she still gave in, despite having a commitment with her husband, despite knowing no good would come out of it and while still having had talked to her husband and he having spoke about what would happen, were she to disregard her position. I mean... she is aware, she knows, she thinks of not giving in but she dismisses her doubts!
Sure, this is fiction but it makes me angry when people act like this on purpose. She was not an innocent, she wasn't a naive girl deceived by others. I feel sorry for her, but deep down, what would one expect? One can always mention the way Society sees women and men and how their actions were perceived but...what about all the other female characters who everyone knew behaved badly, were seen with men other than their husbands but didn't have/feel the same scorn as Anna? How unfair and illogical.
Her husband is described badly (in terms of behavior and weak personality) but what would he do if she did something fully aware? I think the dramatic scenes and situations were a bit singled out for plot purposes but I can't fault him completely. It's just sad that this couple is an example of how so many marriages certainly happened, when two people don't respect nor love each other. That is bad, I can understand the despair and hopelessness but...

Then comes Vronsky. I really disliked him, no matter what happened after his relationship with Anna got known, I would always dislike him deeply for this sentence alone: 
"He knew very well that in their eyes the role of the disappointed lover of a maiden or of any single woman might be ridiculous; but the role of a man who was pursuing a married woman, and who made it the purpose of his life at all cost to draw her into adultery, was one which had in it something beautiful and dignified and could never be ridiculous..."
I know it's a sign of times and way of behaving but it truly, madly, bothers me!!

Perhaps love is not meant to be seen as the romantic love of most novels, and here it feels like a fake something, only a segment of the games that people played to hurt others, but this aspect, even though I recognize its presence and utility for plot purposes, still made me feel sad and disappointed with people. Was everyone an example of idleness and lack of morals? Was everyone to blame?
Maybe not, but it sure looked like it.

Levin, for instance, is a character that is present to counterbalance everyone, I think. But he too had problems and trust issues, he wasn't always confident. I still liked him overall because he allowed me to savor a character and portrayed the goodness of those who certainly were naturally good people.
But how sad such a society existed and everyone acted the same way but only Anna was singled out. I still can't understand why was she such a scandal when others did so much worse and were proud of it. Anyway, the book had to focus on something.

In terms of content, this story had several aspects that were well done, meaningful to the reader and great examples of society rules, expectations, the always present double standard for men and women, the ideas...all this has a role that makes the book come alive. 
But the repetitiveness of the prose, the idea that Anna and Vronsky's affair was doomed makes me angry because, deep down, all was avoidable. Many consider this a tragedy but to me it is simply an exaggeration of a situation that didn't have to occur.
Grade: 5/10

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