‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
I am a firm believer that Russian literature should be read at regular intervals. In my opinion no writers are better able to put into words that torment and inner demon which inhabits everyone’s soul.
Anna Karenina is often referred to as the greatest novel of all times, Count Tolstoy arguably the most important writer of the so called Russian ‘Golden Generation’ and Anna Arkadyevna Karenina the most famous and controversial female character to have been created.
These superlatives may seem excessive and perhaps they are, yet when you are reading Tolstoy I find it hard to imagine that anything can even exist beyond the realms of those words and pages. Faulkner and Nabokov are amongst those who have described this book as the greatest work of realist fiction ever and it is easy to see why.
The detailed descriptions of society and everything that entails: people’s mentality, habits, the do’s and don’ts, way of dressing, cultural interests and so much more are brought to life by Tolstoy like nobody else can. Although the novel can at times feel like a sophisticated soap opera, it is an indispensable guide to what life was like in Russia in the mid-19th century.
Themes including love, morality, fidelity, honesty, etc are all explored effortlessly. As with his other stalwart novel, War and Peace, it is the autobiographical character that really caputres the reader’s imagination and portrays what arguably lies at the heart of Tolstoy’s philosophy: the troubled relationship between nobility and the peasants, the admiration and value he placed on the latter and his desire to effectively integrate them into a reformed agricultural society that had just managed to shed the long shadow cast by serfdom. In Anna Karenina that character is Levin and the last chapters are almost entirely dedicated to his struggle with mortality, the purpose of life and the beauty that is to be found in love (and God).
Anna Karenina is very rarely dull although it is nearly 1,000 pages long. It is often moving, funny and inspirational. It is the kind of book that makes you wish you could go back in time as you lose yourself in the world of Tolstoy’s Russia. I don’t think anybody’s library, both physical and mental, would be complete without it.
Check out Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog
More to come.