Guide to the Classics: Anna Karenina

“For a book to be good,” Leo Tolstoy told his wife Sonya on March 2 1877, “one must love its original idea. So, in Anna Karenina, I love the idea of the family. These words were copied by Sonya in her diary on March 3.

This “idea” is played out through the plot of Anna Karenina, published between 1874 and 1876, and often hailed as the best story ever written. It begins with one of the most famous first lines in fiction.

Happy families are alike; every happy family is happy in its own way.

Anna Karenina (2003 edition).
Penguin Books/Good Reads

The first of the two main lines of the novel is about Anna who cannot “know family life”, raised by an aunt and married to Alexei Karenin.

The second shows the landowner Konstantin Levin (a predecessor of the real estate writer of the novel) who fell in love, lost but married Kitty Shcherbatsky, the youngest daughter whose parents devoted to their children and others.

The two threads are connected by the beloved Stiva Oblonsky, who is Anna’s brother, Levin’s best friend, and Kitty’s brother-in-law. Anna travels from St Petersburg to Moscow to prevent a hiccup in Stiva’s wedding to Dolly (Kitty’s sister).

At the station, he immediately finds himself and meets the military officer Alexei Vronsky, who is picking up his mother from the same train. The gripping story follows three couples who end up in one happy marriage (Levin and Kitty), one that runs away (Stiva and Dolly), and one romantic relationship that ends in the killing of the titular character (Anna and Vronsky).

Tolstoy, the youngest of four brothers, was always going to be a writer, but having inherited a large family estate, he became a landowner. He was against love and he fought for sex. Only after a delay, at the age of 34, would he marry 18-year-old Sonya Behrs and see her raise eight children – despite enduring 16 pregnancies.

Her sometimes tortured personal views – the 1889 novella The Kreuzer Sonata is little more than a polemic against women, love and marriage – provide the complementary context for Anna Karenina.

The big picture

However, “family” is far from the only subject of the novel. Tolstoy and his writings are important because they are concerned with the most important problems that affect humanity, then and now: nationalism (Tolstoy foregrounded in War and Peace), spirituality, pacifism, brotherhood, agriculture and modernization (read: technology).

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s spirituality is at the heart of Levin’s struggle with the church’s demands for confession before marriage. Levin, like Tolstoy himself, opposed the Russian Orthodox Church in principle (its hypocrisy, wealth, authoritarianism, nationalism) and in practice.

Nikolai Ge, ‘Portrait of Leo Tolstoy’, painting (circa 1870).
Wikimedia Commons

The author’s opposition to technology is also evident in the novel. The fact that Anna meets her lover Vronsky on a railway platform, and dies under the wheels of a train, shows this contradiction.

Tolstoy wrestled with these themes every day and explored them in his long and short writings, putting their end into images that we all know well – certainly enough to love or loathe. to them.

It’s because of Tolstoy’s deep understanding of human nature and its ability to draw us into one of the most irrational emotions. He admits that when he “wrote” a character, without contradicting himself, he felt for those moments that he was that person. Then the ending reads as if he actually lived each of their desires, thoughts and sins before laying them before us.

A controversial moralist

However, because it is a true and important aspect of Tolstoy’s own worldview, there is always a need for correction in his writing. Although not explained, this decision appears to be due to the unavoidable nature of human activities.

In Anna’s case, her love for Vronsky results in an affair with a woman that leads to the breakup of her marriage, separation from her son, and near isolation from society. . Connecting her (unlicensed) relationship with Vronsky, who does not try to fix these losses by becoming everything to her, she moves from emotional dependence to basic jealousy no final thought.

At the beginning, the reader, along with Anna, thinks that what she does is wonderful and loving, but it turns out to be contradictory and, ultimately, tragic. This is Tolstoy in his two ways: the romantic writer and the moralist, who decided to show that family values ​​prevail over personal interests.

A timeless story

Anna Karenina has spawned four ballets, six plays, ten operas and 16 films. English-language versions include a 1935 black-and-white film with Greta Garbo – widely praised despite the contrast between Garbo’s signature languor and Tolstoy’s emphasis on the title character’s “suppressed animation”.

Recently, a British film starring Keira Knightley in 2012 was ridiculed by Russian film critics, due to Knightley’s performance. Seven television adaptations, including two by the BBC. In Australia we have a television version based on the novel, The Beautiful Lie (2015), which premiered today.

New translations of the book are constantly being published, but no final agreement on the “best” can be reached. Opinions differ as to how far a translation should be from the literal meaning of the text in order to accurately reflect the “spirit” or “thought” of the author.

Some critics have championed Constance Garnett’s skeptical translation of 1901, despite the errors made in the text (many of which have been corrected in a new edition by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova in year 1965). Others like Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) who live in Russia, can go every line with the author.

Both translations are available, but today’s reviewers prefer more businesses that aim for a word “with it” or a new meaning. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s abandonment of his translation needs ensures a constant stream of new versions that will always reflect the inevitable changes in language use and social experiences.

This excellent story will never collect in the dust because, despite new things and styles – such as translations – change with time, always like its different shows with us, like good judgment to decide whether any of them should be recorded.

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