Thanks to Joe Wright’s upcoming film adaptation, I’m motivated to go past that famous first line to embark on this read of over 800 pages. Also thanks to you who are willing to come along with me, and those who are cheering us on, I have more fun than doing this alone.
Reading Anna Karenina for the first time, my immediate impression is that it is lighter than I’ve expected, melodramatic and even comical at times. Last month I just finished listening to an audiobook version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, so I can feel the difference in tone as soon as I begin. Despite its being a more relaxed read, it strikes me with how sharp Tolstoy’s observations of human nature are, and how masterful he is in piercing through the human psyche, no less than Dostoevsky’s heavy dealing of crime or punishment…. ummm, this may well be Tolstoy’s take on the subjects as well.
In reading this first part of the book, I’m particularly amused by Tolstoy’s sensitive and spot-on descriptions of his characters. Here’s an early example. Levin, insecure in front of Kitty and his formidable rival Vronsky, responds to Kitty’s mother Countess Nordston as she sarcastically mentions him to Vronsky:
‘Konstantin Dmitrich (Levin) despises and hates the city and us city-dwellers,’ said Countess Nordston.
‘My words must have a strong effect on you, since you remember them so well,’ said Levin, and, realizing that he had already said that earlier, he turned red. (p. 51)
People turn colour a lot in the book, and I’m most curious to see that on screen.
Tolstoy’s observation of love, or maybe, his understanding of men, oddly, is articulated by Anna:
I think,’ said Anna, toying with the glove she had taken off, ‘I think… if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. (p. 138)
Anna’s words here remind me of a modern cinematic version of Anna Karenina: The English Patient. In response to Almasy’s (Ralph Fiennes) statement that “A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it”, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) responds: “Love? Romantic love, platonic love, filial love…? Quite different things, surely.” Is it merely coincidental that such a similar observation is pointed out in both cases by the female protagonist while the male character seems oblivious… just wondering.
But it is with the theme of forgiveness Tolstoy toys with that I’m most intrigued. No pun intended here, but I find some major twists and turns are based on this very notion of forgiveness in an ironic way. At the start Anna is the one urging Dolly to forgive her husband Stiva Oblonsky’s extramarital affair. No sooner has she succeeded as a mediator she becomes deeply entwined in one herself, one that apparently she cannot find a way out.
‘Be careful what you pray for,’ as if Tolstoy is saying. Anna desires forgiveness from her husband Alexi Alexandrovich. And he, upon seeing her suffer the near-death illness, throws away his wrath and grudges and forgives her unreservedly. Having read up to this point of the story, it appears that his spiritual epiphany is genuine.
Alas, Anna doesn’t realize that the whole package of forgiveness offered by her husband requires a mending of ways and a renewal of the marriage relationship. She has pleaded for magnanimity, now she gets it, and it sure doesn’t taste like what she’d wanted. Her brother Oblonsky tells Alexi Alexandrovich:
She’s crushed, precisely crushed by your magnanimity.” (p. 430)
What she wants isn’t forgiveness, but release.
It’s interesting to see how Tolstoy intersects and contrasts the three storylines of marriage relationship. Levin and Kitty at this point are only at the planning stage of their marriage, but look to be the couple that is bound for most bliss among the three. And if forgiveness does harvest its desirable crop, it can be found here in Levin discarding his grudge on Kitty’s rejection of his first proposal and the insult he has felt. He could well sympathize with Kitty, herself being a victim of her own delusional crush on Vronsky.
Levin’s agrarian idealism makes an interesting contrast to the high society of Petersburg and Moscow. I don’t know what will happen next with Levin and Kitty, will he move to the city or she to the country, will their love last? But that’s exactly the fun of reading, it lures you on. Why, Anna Karenina the novel used to be published as serial installments in a periodical from 1873 – 1877. The master storyteller must have known where to stop at the end of every episode.
Having seen the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, I get an inkling of how screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998) stylizes the classic. So as I read, I look out for scenes and mentions of the stage, opera, and other spectacles. There are lots.
All the great world was in the theatre.” (P. 128)
Alexi Alexandrovich goes to the opera and concerts frequently, and Vronsky prefers the comical Opera Bouffe to the more serious ones. The horse race is watched by all, while Anna’s reaction to Vronsky’s fall is watched most carefully by her husband. They are all watching each other, being the audience and the actors at the same time. And we the readers are all observers of this whole spectacle of a literary extravaganza.
Oh the joy of reading together. If only we could watch together as well…
Here are the links to other Read-Along participants (if you’ve written a post on Anna Karenina, do leave a comment so I can link to it):
In my original plan, the date for our second and final post to wrap up this Read-Along is November 11. I just realized that is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada. You may have a special post in mind to mark the occasion. So let’s change our wrap up post to November 15, which will also coincide with the U.S. release of the film the next day:
Anna Karenina Read-Along Parts 5 – 8 Concluding Post to come out NOVEMBER 15.
CLICK HERE to view the trailer of the film Anna Karenina (2012), directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, 2007; Pride & Prejudice, 2005), screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998, and the brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967)