Book Review: Anna Karenina

I had no interest in reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for years. I knew it was about a woman who committed adultery, and I figured it would be pretty soap-opera-ish and probably a bit racy.

But Tolstoy did not seem given to raciness in any of his other books that I’d read. Then Carol’s review made me think perhaps there might be more to the story than I’d thought. So I decided to give it a try for my Classic in Translation choice for the Back to the Classics challenge.

The novel has one of literature’s most famous opening lines: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna doesn’t actually show up until several chapters in. The book opens with her brother, Stepan (also called by his nickname, Stiva, or his last name, Oblonsky, or his full name. All the characters have three polysyllabic Russian names plus nicknames, so it’s a little hard to sort them out at first. But once we get to know them, it’s easier.) Stiva has cheated on his wife, Dolly, who has found out. Stiva doesn’t think adultery is wrong and doesn’t see himself at fault, but he’s sorry he has hurt Dolly. His sister, Anna, is on her way to try to reconcile her brother and his wife.

Anna is described as beautiful, bright, charming, and eager. She doesn’t gloss over Stiva’s behavior, but she asks Dolly is she loves him enough to forgive him. Dolly had been contemplating leaving, but decides to forgive Stiva and stay.

Dolly’s sister, Kitty, has two suitors. Levin is the better man, but he’s socially awkward and lives in the country (and the society people can’t fathom what on earth one does in the country. Later, visitors seem to view time in the country as a holiday, while Levin works almost nonstop.) Count Vronsky is handsome, dashing, well-off, and in the highest society, so Kitty is swept away with him and refuses Levin’s proposal.

But Vronsky has no desire to marry, ever. He has enjoyed Kitty’s affections, but he’s had a string of romantic attachments, thinks marriage and husbands are stupid, and has no plans to settle down—until he meets Anna.

They meet at the train when Vronsky’s mother is coming in on the same train with Anna when she comes to see Stiva and Dolly. Anna and Vronsky are instantly attracted to each other, so much so that at a ball when they dance, Kitty knows Vronsky is lost to her.

Anna resists the attraction at first. Her situation is almost an anatomy of falling into temptation. She was not truly happy in her marriage, but as far as we know, she wasn’t entertaining thoughts of adultery until she met Vronsky. She’s disturbed by the strange attraction and knows it’s not right. When she gets home, some of the sheen is rubbed of the joy she had anticipated in getting back to her son, and all her husband’s faults stand out. Vronsky follows her. She has three groups of friends, and instead of avoiding Vronsky (“making no provision for the flesh“), she hangs out with the group he’s likely to be part of. Eventually, she succumbs. Though she’s ashamed and guilty, she continues to the point of leaving her family to be with Vronsky. Gradually her heart and conscience harden, but her thinking and personality become unstable.

Despite the lack of morals in her set of friends (almost everyone in the society group has an affair going or someone knowingly kept on the side), Anna is an outcast. One source said it was because her affair was out in the open while others kept theirs hidden. There’s also some inequity in that Vronsky can go out in society, but Anna is snubbed.

There are several major characters, but Levin’s story takes up as much of the novel as Anna’s—maybe more. His story runs in the opposite trajectory. He’s said to be based on some extent on Tolstoy. He had faith as a child, but lost it in college and now does not acknowledge himself to be a believer. He’s a landowner and tries to do his best by the people who work for him and who are dependent on him. But he gets frustrated when the peasants won’t agree to new methods or equipment. Though he thinks deeply, he gets lost in the intellectual arguments of his brothers and others. He eventually marries, but doesn’t find home life the bliss he thought it would be. He and his wife argue a lot. But they talk things out and work through them. His lack of faith begins to bother him after his brother dies, and his spiritual journey is a major part of the book. As Anna moves away from stability and happiness, Levin moves toward them.

There are so many layers in this book, it’s hard to sort through what to share. There are multiple discussions about marriage and family, society and city life vs. rural life, affected, hypocritical religion vs. true change of heart, the politics of the day.

Tolstoy does a masterful job painting his characters and helping us understand them. There are so many interesting little insights into people’s motivations and actions. For instance, Anna’s husband, Karenin, is a public official known for Christian values. Yet he fails to do the most Christian thing required of a husband: love his wife as Christ loved the church. His first notice that something is wrong is when Anna is not as attentive to him as she used to be. He only asks that she not bring Vronsky to the house and that she maintain decorum. He may think that he’s being magnanimous by yielding to her desires, but he shows he only cares about appearances. Early on, Anna says things like, “If only he’d fight for me.” His most profound religious moment comes at a crisis when he realizes he needs to forgive her. Yet even then he struggles between what he feels led to do and the “force” that drives him, the opinion of society.

One source I consulted said Anna is a pioneer feminist fulfilling her self-determination. But I don’t think Tolstoy writes her that way. He’s not saying, “Poor girl, society is being so mean to you for making your own choices.” Though he points out the foibles and hypocrisies of society, he portrays Anna as genuinely wrong and self-destructing because of it.

For all the free-thinking society talk of immorality, thankfully there are no sex scenes, and nothing explicit is said or shown.

I’ll warn you that if you look for information about this book, Anna’s end is spoiled rather ruthlessly. That was frustrating to me because I had no idea how she ended and hated finding out when I had barely started the book. After that I tried to steer clear of looking at other sources until I finished reading the book.

I primarily listened to the audiobook nicely read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I also read parts of the Kindle version. I wish I had known earlier that the Kindle version translated the frequent French phrases. I lost a bit in the audio by not knowing what was said in those moments. But Maggie brought a lot of emotion and thoughtfulness to the narrative, so I am glad I experienced that.

I’ve seen in several places that Anna Karenina is a major contender for best novel ever written. I don’t think I’d put it on that level. But it’s a rich book that gives one much to ponder.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I’ve been wanting to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy ever since I saw it referred to in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

It begins with Ivan’s colleagues receiving news of his death. While some of express regret, most of them are glad that they weren’t the ones who died and concentrate on the opening of position to replace him and the “very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.” Even at the funeral, they are more concerned with the propriety of what to say and do and escaping to a bridge game afterward than with expressing genuine sorrow to the widow. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems primarily concerned with how Ivan’s last sufferings affected her and how she can get more money from the government. Only Ivan’s son seems genuinely sorrowful.

The next chapters detail Ivan’s life. He was the middle son, “neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man.” He attended law school and rose up the ranks of a law career. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

He had not planned to marry, but when he met Praskovya Fedorovna, she was reasonably attractive and had a little property, and a good marriage was part of a respectable lifestyle, so he married. He strove for a life that was “easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous.” That word decorous comes up often.

Things went well until his wife became pregnant and, evidently hormonal, she began demanding more of his time and became very jealous, introducing “something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape.” He handled it by ignoring it, spending more time with his friends or at work.

At one point, during a particularly happy phase of life, he had a fall and injured his side. It seemed minor at the time, but it did not heal. The pain increased, became more constant, he developed a bad taste in his mouth. He sought various doctors, but they all had different diagnoses.

As he gradually grew worse, he began to think he might die. At first he refused to believe it. But as his condition worsened, he cried out to God wondering why this was happening to him. Eventually he began to wonder if this was all because he had not lived a good life…but of course he had lived a good life, he thought, so that must not be it.

As he realizes that he is in fact dying, he simmers with rage over the reactions of everyone else.

[The doctor] comes in fresh, hearty, plump, and cheerful, with that look on his face that seems to say: “There now, you’re in a panic about something, but we’ll arrange it all for you directly!” The doctor knows this expression is out of place here, but he has put it on once for all and can’t take it off.

Just as the doctor had adopted a certain relation to his patient which he could not abandon, so had [his wife] formed one towards him—that he was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame, and that she reproached him lovingly for this—and she could not now change that attitude.

His daughter was “impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan just wants someone to be honest, to be real, to admit that he’s dying, and to empathize with him.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

The only person who seems comfortable with Ivan and his condition is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, “clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright.” It was Gerasim’s job to take care of Ivan’s “excretions,” which terribly embarrassed Ivan, but Gerasim did his work in such a cheerful way that it comforted Ivan, and, when Ivan apologized, Gerasim continually said, “What’s a little trouble?”

Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:”We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” —expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Ivan began relying on Gerasim more and more. His pain was most alleviated when Gerasim held Ivan’s legs on Gerasim’s shoulders, and he uncomplainingly supported him like that through the night.

As Ivan’s continues to deteriorate, he begins to question if perhaps he had not really lived a good life at all. The things which used to bring him happiness now seemed shallow and unimportant.

This might sound like a terribly depressing story. It’s sad, but it’s enlightening and moving at the same time. One of Atul Gawande’s points in his book was that we’ve become far removed from death. In former times, life spans were shorter, an agricultural society dealt with death of animals frequently, plagues happened more frequently, and people died at home rather than in hospitals. While we have much to be grateful for in the strides in health care that have been made throughout history, Gawande is right in that we have become so distanced from death that we don’t know how to handle it, are often surprised to face it, avoid dealing with it, and don’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tolstoy’s book illustrates this abundantly.

I think Ivan’s progression of spirit was well told. I’m thankful to Sparknotes for pointing out that the time progression of the book slowed down from covering several years of Ivan’s life, then a few weeks, then days, then his final moments, and his world shrunk progressively as well from a “man about town” to the confines of his room and then his sofa.

I think in some cases God allows a slow progression of death like this because that’s the only time some people would stop long enough to consider their ways and think about death and whether they’re ready for it. Tolstoy wrote this after a crisis of faith in which he wrestled with what the meaning of life was, and that is reflected in Ivan’s wrestlings as well. From what I understand, Tolstoy ended up with kind of an amalgam of beliefs, but Christian principles undergird the narrative here.

In some ways Ivan reaped what he sowed. He didn’t take time to understand his wife’s concerns in their early marriage, and she responded in the same way when he was dying – not on purpose or for vengeance, but she was just as out of touch as he had been earlier. There are almost parallel sections in how he treated people ion his career and how doctors treated him. But he does come to realize and acknowledge this over time.

Gersasim is a breath of fresh air in the novel. His empathy, balance between cheerfulness and sympathy, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to help, all make the reader hope for a friend like him when our own time comes.

I appreciated Schmoop‘s conclusions in their “Why should I care?” section. They can be pretty irreverent at times, but I thought they were spot on here:

The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan’s doctors, but we haven’t gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they’re dying.

Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.

I listened to the audiobook marvelously read by Oliver Ford Davies. Not only was the narration done well, but particularly Ivan’s voice and the changes over the course of his illness were masterfully portrayed. The text of the novella is here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)


Book Review: War and Peace

I did not grow up reading many classics. Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Charles Dickens were my most-read classic authors. I don’t remember coming into contact with many classics even in school, though I must have and probably just can’t remember most of them. But because of this, over the last few years I’ve determined to read more classics.

War and PeaceWhenever I’ve perused lists of classics or “books everyone should read,” War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is almost always mentioned. Whenever I read a short description of it, I never could get a clear idea of what it was about. After reading my first Dostoyevsky last year and finding him not as difficult as I’d thought, I determined one day to read War and Peace. Over the last few months I’ve listened to the audiobook version with occasional forays into the library’s paper and ink version.

And now I know why the descriptions of the book didn’t really give much substance. It’s such a massive book with so many characters, it’s hard to sum up in a few sentences what it’s all about.

It covers the period from the time Napoleon is first seen as a threat in Russia in 1805 to his invasion of Russia in 1812 during the reign of Tsar Alexander and is basically about the lives and interactions of five aristocratic families and how the war affects them.

Pierre Bezukhov is one of many illegitimate sons of a crusty old count. He is kind-hearted and sincere but socially inept and awkward. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even on controversial issues, but is too naive to realize when it is not socially appropriate to do so. Surprisingly, when his father comes to his death he has Pierre legitimized and leaves the bulk of his fortune to him. But Pierre is ill-prepared for the responsibility and doesn’t realize that everyone’s being nice to him now is because of his new wealth, not because they finally got to know him well enough to like him. He makes a disastrous marriage and spends much of the book searching for the meaning of life.

The Bolkonsky family consists of a cantankerous father and two adult children. Andrei is tolerant of his father, intelligent, ambitious, cynical, married and expecting a child but dissatisfied with his wife and indeed much of life. His sister, Marya, is very religious and tries to show her father love though he takes out the bulk of his eccentricities and bad moods on her.

The Rostov family, with children Nikolai, Natasha, and Petya, are a loving, fairly normal family whose finances are constantly a problem. An orphaned cousin, Sonya, lives with them. Sonya is quiet and dependable, but the three Rostov children are impetuous and immature at the beginning.

Prince Vasili Kuragin is crafty and wily, and his two adult children, Helene and Anatole, are good-looking but immoral.

Anna Drubetskaya has great ambitions for her son, Boris, and doesn’t mind asking for consideration and favors for him. Boris, in turn, has great ambitions for himself and learns quickly how to work the system to move ahead in life.

Tolstoy takes us from the ballroom to home scenes to the battlefield and back again. The lives of these characters intertwine and intersect with each other and historical figures. Some fall in love and marry; some don’t make it to the end of the book.

He also intersperses his story with essays about a number of things: his view of a particular historical event, his disagreement with the general consensus, his low opinion of Napoleon, the belief that great men and great events do not make history but rather there are innumerable small issues that work together to direct the course of history. The last is one of his major themes. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for War and Peace says:

As Tolstoy explains, to presume that grand events make history is like concluding from a view of a distant region where only treetops are visible that the region contains nothing but trees. Therefore Tolstoy’s novel gives its readers countless examples of small incidents that each exert a tiny influence—which is one reason that War and Peace is so long. Tolstoy’s belief in the efficacy of the ordinary and the futility of system-building set him in opposition to the thinkers of his day.

One of the main ways this is shown is on the battlefield. It’s hard to see how anything got done on the battlefield when the information relayed to the commander would have changed by the time he got it, when his orders were disobeyed or not received or when someone acted of their own accord without waiting for orders.

Tolstoy said of this book that it “is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He doesn’t say what he does call it, but it is kind of an amalgam of the three.

I had heard that Tolstoy was a Christian, so I was surprised that at first the religion in the book was mixed up with icons, superstition, and freemasonry. I read in various places that after his religious conversion, he renounced his earlier works. But reading about his conversion was confusing as well: it seemed to center primarily in non-resistance to evil (which led to pacifism) and in trying to divest himself of his property (which his family resisted and resented). There are nuggets of spiritual truth in this book, but it’s not where I’d send someone who was seeking to look for answers.

I wondered why so many Russians were speaking French at the beginning of the book. Wikipedia explains that it was the fashion of the day and for some years before in the upper class. But when Napoleon started attacking Russian territory, speaking French fell out of favor.

There is so much I feel I am leaving out, but with a book of 1,316 pages, it would be hard to include everything. I am indebted to SparkNotes, Wikipedia, the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the introduction and notes of the library copy I had for giving me more insight into the book that I would have gleaned on my own. I enjoyed the audiobook version narrated by Neville Jason in two parts over 60 hours. It did take a while to settle into it and get the characters straight. I do admit that my mind wandered a bit during the essays, especially the last appendix – I have a harder time listening to nonfiction and usually need to reread it parts of it a number of times to truly “get” it.

As with many older classics, there were parts that were a little dry, and due to the different time period and nationality there were ways people acted that didn’t always make sense to me. But I liked following the characters on their journey, especially Pierre, Natasha, and Marya and one minor character, a peasant named Karataev whom Pierre meets while in captivity. I liked where the ones mentioned at the end of the book ended up.  There were moments of great pathos in the book, moments of truly feeling a character’s pain and joy. Though not a “keep you on the edge of your seat” type of book, there were a few of those moments, such as when Andrei is waking up from surgery in a battlefield hospital and in his hazy state sees someone who looks familiar and is trying to figure out who it is. When I realized who it was, I think I gasped out loud. One of my favorite moments was during beloved oldest son Nikolai’s first battlefield experience when he is astonished that people are shooting at him, thinking, “Me, whom everyone loves!”

Years ago I read a couple of Richard Wurmbrand books about persecution behind the Iron Curtain, and he pleaded then that people not be prejudiced against the whole Soviet Union because of the Communists, remarking that the average Russians were big-hearted people. That came back to mind while reading this book, especially in the characters of Pierre and Count Rostov.

There is a 1970s BBC miniseries starring a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre that I’d love to see sometime, but it would be quite an investment of time. I just learned that another BBC miniseries is in the works to be shown in six parts this year. Now I am even more glad I read this now!

I was dismayed when I saw a ballet segment from War and Peace in the opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics that I didn’t know what was going on in it. I was delighted to find that segment on YouTube and watch it again after reading the book. This is Natasha’s first ball and the first time to dance with Andrei. The video quality isn’t great and there is an annoying sound like a rocking chair squeaking, but I was just glad to be able to see it again and understand it this time:

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)