Book: Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was always on my bucket list, so my husband bought me the new translation by husband/wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They are translators of many Russian novels, and their work is critically acclaimed. This translation of Anna Karenina was published in 2000 and was the winner of the Pen/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. According to the Paris Review, “Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky.”

I had never read the previous translation, and this was my first Russian novel. (Well, I tried to read Gogol’s Dead Souls, but I just couldn’t finish it. Maybe I didn’t have the right translation.)

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book yet, and you think you’d like to, stop reading now.)

I loved Anna Karenina. Before I read the book, I knew it was about a woman who cheated on her husband, but I didn’t know it was also about the character of Konstantin Levin. His story is juxtaposed against Anna’s story. He is struggling to find himself as he tries to prioritize work while also nursing a broken heart. He is young and anguished, and at times, annoying, but slowly, his circumstances change, and he becomes a better man because of all his experiences.

Anna is in a loveless marriage, though she seems content enough at the beginning of the book, and she adores her son. It’s not until she meets Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, that everything goes wrong. Unfortunately, she lives in a society that is not kind to anyone who decides that they want to leave their marriage. It was very interesting to learn about 19th century high class Russian society, which reminded me a great deal of Victorian England. I spent most of the book wondering who to blame — Anna, Vronsky, Anna’s husband, or the society they lived in — and my sympathies changed constantly. I thought Tolstoy’s brilliance was being able to show how complicated people and life are. There are no clear cut lines.

Despite being enthralled with the story, I can’t come away from Anna Karenina saying it’s one of my favorite books. At times the book was boring — Tolstoy adds a lot of social commentary on Russian society that was lost on me — and Levin’s long, drawn-out religious conversion at the end was a let down when I wanted to spend more time with Vronsky and those mourning Anna’s death. I understood that this, too, was a sign of the times and commentary from Tolstoy, but that didn’t make me like it better.

Having not the advantage of reading this in a Russian literature class, or discussing it with others, I still enjoyed it, and I’m so glad I read it. Have you read it? What did you think of it?

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