Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

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

These are among the most famous lines in literature, and the opening lines to Anna Karenina. This is essentially a story about three marriages:

Levin and Kitty are truly in love, but they still need to work through their misunderstandings and miscommunications.   At a deep level they connect, and they have the stability and stamina to survive any assault on their marriage. Levin is Tolstoy's autobiographical projection in this novel (not surprisingly he is heroic).

Stiva and Dolly are in a staid, lifeless marriage of conventiality.  In the beginning of the novel, Stiva is caught in an affair with the household's French governess.  Dolly is unhappy and she is essentially a single parent (Russian elite-style), raising their children without Stiva's help. She is a "mother hen" with her chicks, married to a husband who is draining their fortune, but she cannot leave. 

Anna Karenina is married to the cold and disciplined Alexey Karenin.  Recoiling from this, she falls into a passionate affair with the young, rich and handsome Alexey Vronsky.  Although initially a rational character, Anna loses self-control and abandons reason for her new love.  This affair ultimately leads to her destruction - as well as ruining the lives of her husband and Vronsky. 

Before I dive into a review of Anna Karenina, let me tell you something about the book.

First, there are A LOT of characters.  I would guess close to a hundred.  Tolstoy gets inside everyone's head - even Levin's dog has an internal monologue!  In addition, each character has up to four names.  There is the first and last name, the patronymic (which varies if they are female or male) and there is also each character's sobriquet.  It intially made it quite difficult to keep track of all the characters.

The major characters (click to enlarge)

Anna Karenina is like War and Peace - it is a very long book.  There are many sequences where Tolstoy introduces his own political and spiritual philosophy, which reminds me of reading Ayn Rand (another Russian author I've reviewed).  However, I did enjoy reading about what life was like for the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century.  It does not seem at all surprisingly that the Communist Revolution took place seven years after Tolstoy's death. I do not understand all the political problems of that time period, however, Tolstoy hints that socialism would be a preferable form of government for the masses of newly freed serfs (i.e. peasants).  I think Tolstoy was either quite prescient or his novels helped usher in the revolution he foretold.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), one of the great Russian novelists, is most well-known for his two epic stories War and Peace and Anna Karenina.   While War and Peace deals with history and national conflict, Anna Karenina focuses on conflict of a more personal nature - marriage. 

Leo Tolstoy continues the long tradition of authors writing stories from their own personal experience.  Tolstoy was born into the elite of Tsarist Russia on his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Field).  He studied French, English, Greek and read philosophy from Voltaire, Rousseau and Hegel.  In both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes in intimate detail the lives and daily minutia of wealthy Russians and frequently uses French, the language of the elite, in his works.  Although he was a land-holding member of the Russian aristocracy, he felt an affinity for the peasants who worked his land.  He tried to engineer a program where his peasants would take responsibility for the land and collect their own profits.  It failed - largely because the peasants distrusted anyone from the aristocracy.  This same scheme is reproduced in Anna Karenina by the character, Levin - and also fails.  However, Levin's courting and marriage to Kitty, an autobiographical reproduction of Tolstoy's own marriage, is quite successful. 

During his lifetime, Tolstoy became one of the Russia's most celebrated writers.  Rather than embrace this phenomenon, Tolstoy eschewed the spotlight and in his later life turned toward spiritualism, self-discovery and helping improve the plight of the poor, oppressed and unfortunate.